Drawings By Children

childhood house

The above picture was drawn by my eight-year-old. According to Gaston Bachelard, who quotes psychologists of his era, door knobs are a good sign.

The Psychology Behind Drawings By Children

Asking a child to draw his house is asking him to reveal the deepest dream shelter he has found for his happiness. If he is happy, he will succeed in drawing a snug, protected house which is well built on deeply-rooted foundations. It will have the right shape, and nearly always there will be some indication of its inner strength. In certain drawings, quite obviously, to quote Mme. Balif, “it is warm indoors, and there is a fire burning, such a big fire, in fact, that it can be seen coming out of the chimney.” When the house is happy, soft smoke rises in gay rings above the roof.

Now I interrupt the quote to bring you this:

Misery Kathy Bates bbq indoors

Continuing with Bachelard:

If the child is unhappy, however, the house bears traces of his distress. In this connection, I recall that Francoise Minkowska organized an unusually moving exhibition of drawings by Polish and Jewish children who had suffered the cruelties of the German occupation during the last war. One child, who had been hidden in a closet every time there was an alert, continued to draw narrow, cold, closed houses long after those evil times were over. These are what Mme. Minkowska calls “motionless” houses, houses that have become motionless in their rigidity. “This rigidity and motionlessness are present in the smoke as well as in the window curtains. The surrounding trees are quite straight and give the impression of standing guard over the house.. Mm. Minkowska knows that a live house is not really “motionless,” that, particularly it integrates the movements by means of which one acedes to the door. Thus the path that leads to the house is often a climbing one. At times, even, it is inviting. In any case, it always possesses certain kinesthetic features. If we were making a Rorschach test, we should say that the house has “K”. […] In one house, drawn by an eight-year-old child, she notes that there is “a knob on the door; people go in the house, they live there.” It is not merely a constructed house, it is also a house that is “lived-in”. Quite obviously the door-knob has a functional significance. This is the kinesthetic sign, so frequently forgotten in the drawings of “tense” children.

The Poetics of Space

This is called the Nightmare Fuelled Coloring Book over at TV Tropes, since drawings used to analyse children are common in horror movies.

The combination of a disturbing image rendered in a crude, childlike style is a powerfully scary one in and of itself, but just as unsettling is the window onto a child’s view of sex/violence/Cthulhu that it gives us. The idea of innocence being exposed to things it finds frightening, or things it can’t understand, is a classic way to play off Adult Fear and at the same time deliver a bucketload of Nightmare Fuel rendered in red crayon.It gets extra points if the suburban mum decides to hang it on the fridge rather than call a child psychologist or an exorcist.If a Creepy Child draws pictures, they will be this trope. If it’s the Monster of the Week the child has been drawing, expect the Nightmare Fuel Coloring Book to come in handy when the heroes come along – after all, now they’ve got a wall full of pictures of their enemy.

Nightmare Fuelled Coloring Book

The assumption underlying this use is that, since emotionally disturbed children are believed to reflect their problems in their drawings. For more on the various drawing tests issued to children undergoing counselling, see here.

tl;dr: There are no empirical data to support interpretations of children’s drawings. Despite their frequent use in child abuse investigations, drawings are subject to the same criticisms as anatomical dolls (ie. prompting and priming).

The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense

Perhaps it was this kind of psychometric gazing into pictures that inspired Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the opening of The Little Prince?

TheLittlePrince Elephant Hat

It’s Impossible To Fake Children’s Drawings

If you spend time around children, and their drawings, you’ll just know when you see a fake kid’s drawing on a TV show or horror movie. You just know. Writers of The Office understood this when they wrote the following Season 8 scene, in which Pam tries to pacify the office after Jim fakes jury duty to stay at home and help out with their two young children:

Andy: Wow, these are incredible. Cece, did you do these?
Cece: No.
Pam: She says “no” to everything. You know, she thinks my name is “No.” Cece, do you want some broccoli?
Cece: Yes.
Pam: No. It’s crazy.
Ryan: Why am I shorter than the table that I’m standing next to?
Andy: There’s cross-hatching in some of these. That’s kind of advanced for a two-year-old.
Kelly: Cece, this is your big sister Kelly. Did you color this pretty picture?
Cece: No.
Kelly: So then this means nothing to you. [rips picture]Season 8, Episode 13, “Jury Duty”

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a famous psychological horror short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman; July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935) was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” which she wrote after a severe bout of postpartum psychosis.


Read the story online here. 

Also important to know: Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a pioneer in the study of nervous conditions, urged Charlotte Perkins Gilman to treat her ‘hysteria’ by abstaining from her work as a writer, and to “never touch a pen, brush or pencil,” as long as she lived.


  • Else and John rent a colonial mansion — ‘ancestral halls’ for the summer partly because there are repairs going on at home, partly because John figures it will be a good place for his wife to get better.
  • Else can’t fathom how this huge house with its extensive grounds is being let so cheaply — she figures it must be haunted or something. She doesn’t mention this to her logical husband who has no time for such fancies.
  • John won’t let them take the room on the ground floor so she is forced to spend her days in the sunlight-filled top floor.
  • Else spends her days upstairs in this airy attic, or strolling around the gardens trying to get better.
  • All the while, a nanny takes care of her baby and the husband’s sister takes care of the housekeeping.
  • She is not allowed to write, even though she wants to, because her husband thinks it will tip her over the edge. So she writes this diary in secret.
  • Her own side of the family visits briefly.
  • All this time, the yellow wallpaper is driving her balmy. It seems to be an alive thing, half alive, half dead. The husband considers her issues with it part of her psychosis and refuses to change it.
  • After a while she consoles herself by thinking at least the baby doesn’t have this room, with the terrible wallpaper. She wouldn’t inflict this on any child ‘for worlds’.
  • She starts to see the shape of an old woman ‘stooping down and creeping about’.
  • Then she starts creeping about herself at night, ostensibly creeped out by the moonlight coming in. The moon is just as bright as the sun.
  • John makes Else take more and more naps, which she is actually awake during. She doesn’t tell him this.
  • Else starts to become scared of John. She puts this down to the creepy wallpaper.
  • One night she and this imagined spooky woman pull off lengths and lengths of wallpaper.
  • The night-time creepings get worse and worse and she even starts gnawing at the bed. She locks the door so no one can get in.
  • But then when he does come in, he faints. We assume he’s lying there for quite a long time, and he may have seen something more than what has been described to us, the readers, but what is it? That is left to us.


Though Else describes herself as an ordinary person — usually unable to afford to rent such a grand house for three months — this couple are still upper-middle class. The husband is a respected physician who is able to take three months off over summer and with the means to hire a nanny and possibly send his wife to Weir Mitchell, who was a real-life American physician and writer, known for his discovery of causalgia and erythromelalgia

Else and John are presented as opposites: Irrational versus highly rational. It is up to the reader to determine what is truly going on between this couple. I do wonder if a contemporary audience would have necessarily understood the dynamic of control and gaslighting, because in the author’s lifetime, there was a whole lot of sexism concerning mental illness in women.

Else — the first person narrator, suffering from postpartum depression

John — the physician husband who is loved by Else but the reader can see his domination over her.

Mary — the nanny, we assume. We know only her name, but the name Mary gives us the idea of the Virgin Mary. (The same effect is achieved in Downton Abbey.)

Jennie —  Jennie’s main loyalties lie with the husband, since she is his sister, not Else’s. Else is on her own in this state. Her family visit briefly, but it is Jennie who takes over control of the housekeeping. ‘Jennie sees to everything now.’ She is also under the dominance of John, which we can see when she confides to Else that she wouldn’t have minded ripping off all of that wallpaper herself.


The Era

I find it interesting to look at food rituals in stories from an earlier time. In 1892 people were eating the diet now recommended we go back to by the Weston A. Price foundation:

John says I mustn’t lose my strength, and has me take cod liver oil and lots of tonics and things, to say nothing of ale and wine and rare meat.

What else was happening in the world at that time? Well, a couple of Australian states were just starting to give women the vote. It wasn’t until 1893 that New Zealand became the first country in which women achieved sufferage. America came a long time after, but Gilman would have been well-aware of these advances, and keenly aware of the fact that she herself had no right to choose who ran her own country and how it was ran. Women were still very much chattels.

Humanity was about to enter into the first real technological phase. Until this point in history you could go to a big mansion in the countryside and live pretty much like a medieval person for a while. The zipper (for clothing) had only just been patented, allowing women (and men) to finally spend less time mucking around with clothing. But they weren’t widespread as of yet. It was all buttons and buckles.

‘Sky-scrapers’ were becoming a thing in America, with buildings as high as ten storeys high in Boston!

Clement Ader’s flying machine had managed to clear four feet and fly for a full 180 feet. Humans were starting to really consider taking to the air.

The first self-service restaurant opened in America in 1892.

The General Electric Company was formed.

And it wasn’t until 1893 that The American Bell Telephone Company made the first long-distance phone call.

Around the Western world, the Industrial era had given rise to huge disparities in incomes. In England and in America there were hundreds of thousands living in slums, sending their children out to work, all of that Dickensian stuff. The reason this narrator doesn’t consider herself wealthy is because she’s obviously been exposed to the super rich, for example the Vanderbilt family of Rhode Island, whose guests are handed silver trowels and told they may dig for rubies and sapphires, and whose dogs wear diamond studded collars.

Out in the Wild West, the buffalo population has been reduced to just 1000 (whereas just 100 years prior it had been 20 million).

In the medical world, it wasn’t until a couple of years after this story was published that the Pasteur and Jenner versions of vaccinations were a thing.

Some people actually thought there would be people living on Mars — an idea made popular by Percival Lowell, a wealthy astronomer.

Other classic works produced around this time: A Picture of Dorian Grey (Oscar Wilde was going through a productive period), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tess of the d’Urbevilles,

Meanwhile, in Japan, it’s hard to believe it was so recent, but after the fairly recent Meiji Restoration, the samurai class were trying to claw back control of the country and there was a massive bloody riot at the 1892 general election, where citizens were tortured by a ruthless home minister. (They didn’t manage to take the country back over, obviously.)

The House

Else describes a snail under the leaf setting, but the broken glasshouses give us the idea that all is not well.

The most beautiful place! It is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.

There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden – large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.

There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.

The husband decides that they will sleep in the nursery at the top of the house. It is an example of a light-filled room, which you don’t often find in straight-written haunted houses — remember this is an apparent idyll. We have an example of dramatic irony when Else naively assumes that the bars on the windows are for safety rather than imprisonment, and that the rings on the walls are some sort of plaything — as readers we’ve seen enough Bluebeard tales to realise these are probably used in scenes of torture or something. She even thinks of innocent hi-jinks when concocting the reason for the state of the wallpaper. We see dramatic irony again later when we know that it is Else gnawing at her bed, not those hypothetical children.

Sarahs’ Room by Doris Orgel illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The idea that one’s walls somehow come to life is a relatable one, seen for instance in the idiom ‘the walls are closing in on me’.

The description of this room almost personifies the room, but not quite. The phrase ‘with windows looking all ways’ makes use of the fact that in English we mostly make no distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs, and we can ‘look’ at something or a window itself can ‘look out’ over something. (Many other languages don’t have this kind of flexibility/ambiguity.) The wallpaper itself is turned into something with its own moral code when Else says it ‘commits every artistic sin’. We’ve got the Christian symbolism creeping in there, too, which pervades the Western horror tradition.

The writer really makes the most of this wallpaper personification: The wallpaper is basically alive (or rather, half alive, half dead, with its broken, lolling neck). Hard angles, too, are often used in visual imagery when it comes to the horror genre. (See The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen for a picturebook example.)

It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.

The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off – the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One a those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.


There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.

I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere There is one place where two breaths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.

I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store.

When Else describes a view from this big, airy room we get more of a traditionally gothic impression:

Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deepshaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.

This stands in juxtaposition with her view out the other side:

Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house.

And at this point we are encouraged to wonder which part of this story is psychosis and which part is a haunting:

I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous shortcoming like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.


Haunted House Trope

The trope of the suspiciously cheap lodgings which end up being haunted is fairly common in the horror genre. The Scariest Night, an Apple classic from the early 1990s by Betty Ren Wright is an example from children’s book world. TV Tropes call this trope Haunted Headquarters, which covers any kind of haunted primary setting, not just big fancy houses.

There are other horror symbols utilised in this story, such as the moon:

The moon shines in all around just as the sun does. I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another.

The dark is important, as all of the worst things happen during the night. The moon is as bright as the sun in this case, though, because of all the forced rests during the day, which inevitably lead to a disrupted sleep pattern and night-time insomnia.

Epistolary Structure

The reader is constantly reminded that this is a retelling of a story, and the narrator isn’t meant to be all that good at writing, despite being ‘a writer’ in the story. We’re supposed to believe she’s down-to-earth and therefore incapable of fabricating events. After going off topic to write a little about some legal trouble she says:

That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but don’t care – there is something strange about the house – I can feel it.

Another short story writer, Katherine Mansfield, used many hyphens in her personal writings. I suspect hyphens to join grammatically disconnected clauses were in fashion for a while.

Making Use Of The Senses

Describing how things look is something writers find easy; we have to dig a little deeper when engaging the sense of smell:

It gets into my hair.

Even when I go to ride, if I turn my head suddenly and surprise it – there is that smell!

Such a peculiar odor, too! I have spent hours in trying to analyze it, to find what it smelled like.

It is not bad – at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met.

In this damp weather it is awful, I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me.

It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house – to reach the smell.

But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.


We don’t often get such a direct insight into why a short story has been written, but we do in this case. See Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.

  • This is obviously a feminist short story — an ‘hysterical woman’ who has what we today recognise as post-partum depression, not taken seriously by the learned men in her life: ‘He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.’ It’s possible Else is not bonding particularly well with the baby, which is not mentioned until second five. The baby is cared for by someone called Mary.
  • A desire to work but being told she is too feeble of mind
  • Writing in secret, which itself causes stress because of having to keep it hidden: ‘There comes John, and I must put this away – he hates to have me write a word.’
  • A husband who won’t let his wife make any decisions — he even controls which bedroom they sleep in. This is a classic case of a controlling partner dominating their spouse by exerting control in the name of love: ‘He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.’ He infantalises her by callling her his ‘dear little goose’.
  • While most monsters and ghouls in horror stories are gendered male, if gendered at all, the monsters in the wallpaper comprise a group of women. She reasons these women are trying to climb through the patterns in the wallpaper but end up strangled. This, of course, is a comment on how many mentally ill women are cloistered as the crazy ‘woman upstairs’, also known as the Madwoman in the Attic. (The ur-Madwoman is Mr Rochester’s wife from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.)
Unattributed, lithographic poster representing salesmen and customer in a wallpaper showroom _ 1899-1901 J.Morgan & Co. Cleveland, Ohio
Unattributed, lithographic poster representing salesmen and customer in a wallpaper showroom, 1899-1901 J.Morgan & Co. Cleveland, Ohio


The guys at the Overdue podcast compares this story with Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery because both stories are by women and are subversive.


Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

The header photo was taken when Charlotte Perkins Gilman was about 40 years old.

The Mechanical Behaviour Of Fussbudgets In Comedy

Fussbudgets, sticklers, officious types, whatever you want to call them — comedy gold. An essential component of the fussbudget is mechanical behaviour.  We’ve all had run-ins with them, which makes the comedy aspect universal.


This gag plays out especially well visually, so you’ll see it in many films and TV shows.

TV Tropes calls these characters Sticklers For Procedure.

An essential component of the comedic fussbudget is ‘mechanical behaviour’. The scene above is from the film Meet The Parents. Note how both women behave like robots. If they really were robots they’d more appropriately fit into horror or sci-fi, but when the setting is realist, their fixed smiles, lack of emotion and recognisable, stock-standard responses enhance the humanity of the straight-man, our underdog hero, and for some reason we find mechanical behaviour in humans extremely funny. The adult equivalent of putting a hat on a dog.

Perhaps it’s even more funny when the mechanical person is a woman, as it often is (though not always, by any means). Is this perhaps because in real life we’d expect more emotion and empathy out of a woman than we would out of a man? In any case, when a woman behaves in this way there’s a distinctly Stepford Wives vibe to it. (Stepford Wives is horror rather than comedy.)

We have a slight variation in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The audience, as well as Steve Martin’s character, is shown the robot’s human side first before she snaps into robotic mode. This makes the comedy all the sweeter when she slips out of it again at the end of the scene, and turns into a Jerkass who sticks to the rules just because she knows it will inconvenience someone who’s just been rude to her.

The ‘Computer Says No’ series of Little Britain sketches uses the same mechanical behaviour — the more sketches you watch the funnier they become, because you know the line that’s coming.

When Roy in The I.T. Crowd hooks up a machine to do his job for him: “Have you turned it off and on again?” this is a joke based on mechanical behaviour.

These are all examples of extreme mechanical behaviour, but if we widen the definition, it includes any situation in which X occurs and Character does Y. Catherine Tate’s creation Lauren is funny because we know, after any provocation at all, she will embellish the initial slight and eventually she will ask, ‘Am I bovvered?’ and  ‘Are you disrespecting my family?’

If creating a comic character, think of something guaranteed to set them off. Then push that button. The audience will enjoy the completely expected outcome.

Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances is another comedic character with fussbudget tendencies — call her Mrs Bucket and she is guaranteed to roll her eyes and inform us all that it is pronounced ‘bouquet’.


For a children’s book example of mechanical behaviour in a comedic character see Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig. Repetition is the bread and butter of picture books, so mechanical behaviour is an obvious excellent fit in comedy picture books.

On SpongeBob Squarepants, Patrick is susceptible to mechanical behaviour. In “Karate Star”, SpongeBob teaches Patrick karate. Patrick cannot control his own hand, and mechanically chops up the entire town. This is a clever blend of the mechanical behaviour trope mixed with the hand with a mind of its own trope, from horror. (Horror comedy is a great genre blend, even within the same gag.)


Although the examples given above are all from comedy, the villain in a horror story shares the component of ‘mechanical behaviour’. This is why it’s difficult to write horror — the two genres share so much. It’s also why horror comedy can be such a satisfying mix, a la Courage The Cowardly Dog.

Villains with mechanical behaviours are also found in thrillers.


What if the setting itself appears to propel an entire community to act in prescribed (and terrible) ways? I think this form of mechanical behaviour is the most horrific. Outstanding short story examples:

The clip below is a glitch in a game called Heavy Rain. The distraught character yells “Shaun! Shaun!” and is stuck yelling this even when his own life is in danger. “Shaun!” has now become a meme. What appeals? I believe the humour of it derives from the melodrama, the inappropriateness of the response and also, crucially, from the mechanical behaviour. The horror backdrop juxtaposes with the comedy of the situation exemplified by this cross-genre, horror-comedy device.

The Librarian Stereotype

This is an interesting article about librarians and stereotyping, in which the stereotype of librarians being ‘cold’ rather than ‘warm’ puts them at a disadvantage in their post 1970s role as teachers. Because the librarian workforce is overwhelmingly female, the expectation of warmth — and as carers/nurturers is higher.

The librarian from Monsters University, Pixar film


Librarians in Children’s and Teens’ Literature

Librarians in Popular Culture

The Magic Librarian at TV Tropes

The Scary Librarian at TV Tropes

The Hot Librarian at TV Tropes


Witches In Children’s Literature

The Weirdness Of Using Witches In Modern Entertainment

Witches are female equivalent of storybook pirates in that the character is based on something very real and disturbing. I’d like to append ‘in our past’ but very disturbingly, It’s 2013 And They’re Burning Witches (from The Global Mail). See also: Woman Brutally Murdered in Papua New Guinea After Being Accused of Sorcery, from The Friendly Atheist. Then there’s Children Accused of Witchcraft. And why are there no female magicians? MAYBE BECAUSE WE BURNED THEM ALL TO DEATH (from Jezebel). There are also witch hunts in modern Saudi Arabia. Witches have stuff to do with women’s health.

With that, it feels somehow wrong to launch into a blog post about witch stories.

Which I usually love.

So let me first make a distinction between (1) real life hocus pocus which causes real harm to real women in various parts of the world, and (2) the witches of pure fantasy — the Wizard of Oz type characters around whom a good story is inevitable, since magical abilities lend much to a fantasy. There seems to be a third option in there: Some women are embracing Wicca as a lifestyle/religion and are perfectly okay with it. I consider this more like an interest in fortune telling and astrology than like the very serious supernatural fears in other and earlier cultures.

Good vs. Evil

Witch storylines, and that clear delineation between good and evil, are so solid that these storylines are still regularly used even when the thing in question isn’t actually your typical witch. It might be Smurfette, for example:

In the follow-up, we get a new origin story for Smurfette, voiced again by Katy Perry. You see, she’s a got a dark past and it is revealed that within her Smurfness resides some pretty Smurfin’ great power. And she must choose whether to use her Smurf-powers for the purposes of good, as Papa Smurf has taught her, or fall under the dark spell of the evil wizard Gargamel.

from a review of Smurfs 2, which saves me from ever seeing that film.
  • Polly and Buster series
  • The Sweetest Witch Around by Alison McGhee
  • Titchy Witch
  • Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs
  • The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches
  • Meg and Mog
  • Winnie the Witch picture books
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service (anime film)
  • Isadora Moon
  • The Worst Witch
  • The Witch in the Cherry Tree by Margaret Mahy
  • The Boy With Two Shadows by Margaret Mahy
The Teeny, Tiny Witches, written by Jan Wahl, illustrated by Margot Tomers, and published in 1979 as part of Putnam's Weekly Reader series
The Teeny, Tiny Witches, written by Jan Wahl, illustrated by Margot Tomers, and published in 1979 as part of Putnam’s Weekly Reader series

But There Aren’t All That Many Other Roles For Women (Outside Mother, Daughter, Sister)

Here’s a bit about witches, in a chapter about the limited roles of women, from Marjery Hourihan’s book Deconstructing The Hero:

The text book of the witch hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches’), the work of two German divines, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, was first published in 1486. Although there had been witch hunts in the earlier years of the fifteenth century it was this work, endorsed by Pope Innocent VIII, which fuelled the craze and established the definitive concept of the ‘witch’. It proclaimed magisterially that:

It must not be omitted that certain wicked women perverted by Satan and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of devils, believe and profess that they ride in the night hours on certain beasts with Diana, the heathen goddess, or with Herodias, and with a countless number of women, and that in the untimely silence of the night they travel over great distances of land.

(Malleus Maleficarum, in Otten 1986:108)

Although the authors insist that the witches’ claims to fly and consort with Diana are ‘altogether false’ (p. 108), illusions perpetrated by Satan, the image persisted in the popular imagination, along with claims that witches had sexual intercourse with devils. One William West of the Inner Temple in a work called Symbolaeographic [1594] said of witches that they:

shake the air with lightning and thunder, to cause Hail and tempests, to remove green corn and trees to an other place, to be carried of her familiar which hath taken upon him the deceitful shape of a goat, swine, or calf etc. into some mountain…And sometimes to fly upon a staff or fork, or some other instrument.

(Quoted in Bradbrook 1951)

Here is the witch of children’s literature, flying on her broomstick, casting spells, and accompanied by her black cat. It is her sexuality, her irrationality, her links with nature and with the powers of evil that make her the binary opposite of the hero in a range of traditional and modern stories. The power of satires and stereotypes is evident in the fact that during the two hundred years from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century in Europe and Britain thousands of women were tortured, burned or hanged as witches, and many thousands more were persecuted and brought to trial though they escaped execution.

The witch is a traditionally monstrous female character featured both in contemporary (adult) horror stories and in children’s fairy tales.

Children During The Witch Craze Were Not Sheltered From Witches In Their Stories

Floating Witch

The illustration above is from an 1831 picture book of “The Three Bears” written by Eleanor Mure as a gift for her nephew. This is the first written version we have of that story. ‘Goldilocks’ was an old woman before she was bowderlised as a little girl.

Though witch burning was no longer happening in England in 1831, children were obviously schooled up on what witches were supposed to do and be. Their grandparents were certainly old enough to remember actual witch burnings, and grandparents have always passed stories down to their children and grandchildren.

How many young contemporary readers could look at that illustration and know that because the old woman floats, that means she’s a witch? Our witch trope has evolved over the 19th and 29th centuries, and continues to do so. Now, fictional witches are far more likely to be empowered.

An archetypal kindly storybook witch, illustrated by Peter De Sève (b.1958), American artist.

Witches = Bad Mothers

  • Joseph Campbell argues that women were first attributed with magical powers because of their mysterious abilities to create life.
  • Barbara Creed argues that woman was perceived as the source of an especially powerful form of magic during pregnancy.
  • A woman’s curse was thought to be far more dangerous than a man’s. A mother’s curse meant certain death.
  • In the 14th century the Catholic church deemed witchcraft heresy. Services performed by witches, including midwifery, were labeled as crimes. Many of their crimes were allegedly sexual in nature. (Copulating with the devil, causing male impotence, stealing men’s penises etc.)
  • Women were thought to be less intelligent, less spiritual, more like children — more intuitive, less cerebral — and therefore more prone to being witches.
  • A witch is antithetical to the symbolic order. She unsettles boundaries between the rational and irrational.
  • Evil witches are associated with abjection, cannibalism, castration — the embodiment of the ‘bad breast’.
  • Whenever woman is represented as monstrous it is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions.
  • The threat she exudes is usually related to consumption. She will threaten to devour her victims, consume or destroy them. (Metaphorical castration.) For example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel has cannibalistic desires. (The Grimms’ version is a much watered down of Wilhelm’s earlier one.) The food the witch gives the children is sweet and rich (standing in for breast milk.)

Lady Monsters Are Always Single

From witches to gorgons, the scary ladies of literature are usually dried up old spinsters. Or they’re single and sexual, but too sexual, and they’re going to use their womanly wiles to devour men whole. Or they’re going to prey on children, because any woman without children of her own is apparently a threat to the entire concept. Even the wicked stepmother only shows her true colors once her husband is out of the picture. What makes these ladies terrifying is not merely that they’re sharp-toothed or half-dead or evil, it’s that they’re living outside the cultural norm. A woman functioning without male supervision is, it seems, the scariest thing of all.

We may think that our fear of the traditional witch archetype is safely in the past, and yet single, older women in possession of cats are still fair game for public derision. Childless women and queer women and gender non-conforming people who have “failed” to “find a man” still face judgment for living outside of the norm. The dried up witch-woman and her sister, the sultry siren, are still alive, lurking around in the back of our minds, where they’ve managed to survive for the last several thousand years.



Like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel is an ur-story upon which many others draw upon in an intertextual way.

Also from Hourihan’s book:

The literary home of the wicked witch is the fairy tale of which the simple story ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is typical. As in most hero tales the opposition between home and the wilderness, or the forest, is central but in this story home is not safe for the young hero and his sister because it is dominated by their wicked stepmother whose alter ego is the witch who lives in the forest. The children are abandoned in the forest because their stepmother insists there is not enough food to feed them, and after wandering for three days, facing death by starvation, they are led by a white bird to the house of the witch. This house is made of bread, cake and clear sugar, so they are able to satisfy their hunger. The witch takes them in, pretending to be loving and benevolent, a representative of the safe domestic world. She provides them with a delicious meal and comfortable beds but then reveals her true aim which is to eat them both. They eventually escape when Gretel is able to push the witch into the oven, and they fill their pockets with the jewels they find in the house. On their homeward journey they are assisted by a white duck who bears them across a river on her back, and they are finally welcomed by their father who had never been a willing participant in their abandonment. The stepmother has died, so father and children are able to live happily and prosperously on the proceeds of the jewels.

Marjery Hourihan
from a 1981 version of Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Anthony Browne

Hourihan points out the way in which Browne depicts the stepmother as a witch, with the dark gap between the curtains forming a witch’s hat for the stepmother’s shadow.

The story itself invites this conflation insofar as the deaths of the witch and the stepmother coincide and both try to bring about the children’s deaths. Like most fairy tales, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ has several layers of signficance, but the witch and her malevolence is crucial to all of them.


When my standard one (year 3) teacher read this book to us I was sitting on the mat with all my classmates and I still remember the mischievous look on Mrs Baker’s face as she described what a witch looks like according to Roald Dahl: blue spit, gloves, square toes, an itchy scalp due to wearing a wig… “Who knows, maybe your teacher might even be a witch,” she read. I’m sure I wasn’t the only child at that moment scrutinising my teacher for signs of witchery. I concluded that she couldn’t be a witch, because our teacher didn’t wear gloves. She should totally have worn gloves that day, and eaten a blue gobstopper beforehand.

I read this book over and over again as a child and it only seemed to improve upon subsequent readings. I grew up before the film version, and when that came out of course it didn’t seem to live up to the story which had been playing in my head. So many people say this about film adaptations of their favourite stories, but I will acknowledge that the film is very well done. It just wasn’t my version of The Witches. In my head, the atmosphere is far more sinister and dark.

Looking back with my feminist-tinted glasses on, I really do wonder how Roald Dahl felt about women. (Edit: then I read Treglown’s biography, which cleared that right up.)

To change the topic entirely, I’m reminded of something said about a far more recent film with witches in it. Oz (2013) is not something I intend on paying good money to sit through — I have read too many negative reviews from people I trust — but one problem feminist reviewers have pointed out with the storyline is that in Oz, nobody knows who the witch is, and so therefore every woman is possibly a witch.

This very same thing could also be said about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The story scared the bejeesus out of me, in the most spine-chilling, delightful kind of way imaginable, but I DID go through several months of my childhood thinking that any slightly odd woman might be a witch, especially if she looked to be wearing a wig. (In the 80s, with all those perms, every woman looked like she could be wearing a wig.)

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I’m still processing it.



This is one of about five picturebooks which my four-year-old requests over and over again, and one of an even smaller select groups which I don’t mind reading. Julia Donaldson really is a master of craft when it comes to rhyme, repetition and cohesive storytelling. The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great.


It’s so wonderful that teams of Japanese men can produce kids’ films starring girl main characters, based on a book about a girl — a book which was in turn written by a woman — without compromising their masculinity… or something. I know, I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but Hollywood really does have a lot it could learn from Studio Ghibli.

Kiki is a thirteen-year-old girl who sets off on her own to spend a year away from her parents learning the art of witchcraft. Like several others of the Studio Ghibli films (Porco Rosso springs to mind) this one is set in a Japanese inspired post-war sort of utopian village with bread shops and steam trains and dirigibles and attics, in which the characters kind of look Japanese but don’t bow to one another. So it’s set in an entirely fantastical alternative reality. Unlike Porco Rosso, Western audiences can enjoy this Japanese film without feeling as if we’re in a completely foreign land. At least, no more than the Japanese themselves would feel.

It must be tricky to convey adolescence in film. That’s my conclusion, because so often it’s done badly. I don’t think it’s helpful to pretend that adolescent kids are always asexual, but Hollywood errs on the side of  hypersexualisation when depicting characters still young enough to be enjoying their childhood. A romantic subplot is not always necessary. In this case, Kiki’s subplot is around the relationship between Kiki and the pregnant owner of the bread shop. (Another feminist triumph: a pregnant woman, pregnant just because people are sometimes pregnant, not because some harrowing birth scene is about to become important to the storyline.)

Even in American children’s films I really enjoy, such as Monster House and the producers feel compelled to include a love interest. This is almost always two boys — one the relatable protagonist, the other a friend who offers comedic lines and slapstick — with a girl arriving on the scene, in which case the comedian friend will fall haplessly in love with the girl, but the girl ends up with the protagonist.

When the girl is the main character, this tired old plot naturally takes a different turn. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, she makes a friend, who happens to be a boy, but his interest isn’t in Kiki per se — he has an existing passion of his own: turning his bicycle into a flying machine, and his interest in Kiki is because she is already able to fly, on her broomstick, and he feels he has something to learn. Boys jeer from the other side of the street, reading more into the relationship than exists, and it would be easy for audiences to do the same. If this were a Hollywood plot, the rather geeky boy would prove himself a man by eventually helping the strong female character out of difficulty. But in this case it’s Kiki who rescues the boy from falling. She is far better on her broomstick than he is in midair, and it’s only fitting that the girl helps the boy. For a non-Hollywoodified audience, this is satisfying, fitting and sufficient. I feel that both Kiki and Tombo (Japanese for ‘dragonfly’) are wonderful characters and that Tombo would make a great friend. That’s all we really need in the way of ‘romantic subplot’ in kids’ films. At the risk of overlapping with the fundamentalist Christian community, I feel that in films we should let kids be kids. Those who are looking for a romantic story will see the potential. Otherwise, we don’t need outward expressions of ‘whoas’ and ‘Ooh, she likes yous’ in a story for adolescent and pre-adolescent children. The resident four-year-old loves this film, and I’m just a little bit in love with it too.


My review on Goodreads

In short, this is one of the best witch stories for children, because the witch is presented as a kind, well-rounded human being. A good antidote to the common trope.


I haven’t read this yet. According to Hourihan this story ‘conforms to the type in that she is dark-haired and deceitful, but she is a more subtle creation than most of her kind. The text hints that, although she has given herself tot he service of evil as a means to power, she has done so only because she can see no other way for a woman to achieve self-realization. All the wizards in Earthsea are men. Le Guin’s imaginary world is similar to mediaeval Europe in many ways including the exclusion of women from access to higher learning and Serret’s situation mirrors that of many actual women in former times who turned to witchcraft as the only source of knowledge accessible to them. Although women are marginalized in this tale, as in most hero stories, simplistic stereotyping is avoided, and the reader is invited to share the pity which the hero, Ged, the focalizing character, feels for Sereet’s lonely exile in her enchanted castle.


This book is showing its age, and will probably feel to the modern reader what it felt like reading The Pigman by Paul Zindel in 1992: Retro. This is not a story about a witch; rather it’s a good kicking-off point to start thinking about the witch archetype and how fiction can train us to regard a certain sort of woman (unmarried, grey, untamed hair, untidy clothing). This is an 80s feminist book with the message for adolescent girls that you don’t have to kiss boys at parties to be liked; you don’t have to get married. You can stay single and follow your artistic dreams if you like, and you won’t actually go mad.

My review on Goodreads


Hammer of Witches, by Shana Mlawski. Historical fantasy set during the first journey of Columbus to the Americas.

This story is notable for being not all about white people.


  1. The Education Of A Witch, a short story from Ellen Klages
  2. Are You A Witch? A handy checklist from Jezebel
  3. Oz The Great And Powerful is a film I have no intention of seeing. I keep reading stuff like this.
  4. Lilith is a female demon from Jewish mythology. She has her own opitins, passions and desires. She’s sexually dominant, unafraid to protect her interests and is the mother of all kinds of reatures which are dangerous because they are independent and free-thinking.
  5. Top 10 Most Notable Witch Trials from Smashing Lists
  6. Witchcraft Trade, Skin Cancer Pose Serious Threats to Albinos in Tanzania
  7. A New Children’s Book Explains What “Witch” Really Means from Bitch Magazine
  8. [Guest Post] Five Witches from Children’s Literature from Bad Reputation
  9. Lists of books about witches at Goodreads
  10. A list of books about witches in the Miami University database
  11. And here’s the one with stepmothers, which are a different outworking of the witch trope, afterall.
  12. Top 5 Witchy Moments from HashTagReads
  13. From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are cast as witches from The Guardian
  14. Appalachian Granny Witches brought their superstitions and rituals from Ireland and Scotland and settled in the mountains of USA
Weeny Witch Party Book
Weeny Witch Party Book

The Female Maturity Formula Of Modern Storytelling

Back to school supplies Cover by Robert C. Howe, 1973

When it comes to modern storytelling in Hollywood animated films for children, Pixar is at the top of the field. In fact, The Good Dinosaur, released late 2015, might have been their very first lemon, depending on what you’re looking for in a film for children.

What happened there? Interestingly, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic felt that perhaps The Good Dinosaur hasn’t been well received by adults becauseitis Pixar’s first film to explicitly target children (rather than doing the usual ‘dual audience’ thing), which leads me to my main point, as encapsulated by Roberta Trites (Illinois State University) in her book Literary Conceptualizations of Growth:

Disney has a long tradition of appealing to a dual audience. In Disney’s major releases, the story frequently includes adults who need to grow as much as adolescents do in a clear bid to pull parents into theatres along with their children.

This has lead to another shared feature of almost all of the Pixar films, unintended or otherwise: what Trites calls The Pixar Maturity Formula. It goes like this:

A mature female, who is coded as an adult, accepts responsibility for herself and for others. Even in the beginning of the movie, she can intuit how other people will react by anticipating their feelings and the relationship between cause and effect and […] she has a higher cognitive facility than the male characters around her do because she can accept death and control her sexuality.

Trites explains that Pixar characters can be easily divided into two distinct categories:

  1. Immature, insensitive, conflict-ridden, funny (and therefore very likeable)
  2. Mature characters (like parents/teachers — and therefore distanced from child)

Note that even though some Pixar protagonists are coded to look like adults, they don’t act like adults. So you can’t judge which are the ‘mature’ characters based on their onscreen age.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, characters from group 2 are pretty much always female, whereas characters from group 1 are pretty much always male.


Pixar writers are held up regularly as the top of the field when it comes to modern storytelling.
Pixar writers are held up regularly as the top of the field when it comes to modern storytelling.
  1. Immature characters: Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm the Pig, Mr Potato Head, Rex the Dinosaur, Slinky Dog
  2. Mature character: Bo-Peep

(In Toy Story, other female characters exist but either never have their faces shown — e.g. mother — or only exist in their relationship to Andy — e.g. baby sister. These female characters can’t be classified at all.)

Toy Story is just one example of Pixar’s Maturity Formula.

The protagonists of The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. and Up are actually adult men. […] The Pixar maturity formula is a script that appears in most of [Pixar’s] films.

James Sant - The Schoolmaster's Daughter
James Sant – The Schoolmaster’s Daughter

Is Gendering Maturity Actually A Problem?

This formula doesn’t just describe stories for children. It explains stories in general.

But depending on the commentator, the female maturity formula can be interpreted as either a positive or as a negative for girls. Below,  a Tumblr user interprets the female maturity formula in Star Wars as a sign of general female strength.

Women save the galaxy

Some argue that when boys are consistently shown as inept, or when men in commercials are shown as bumbling, that’s actually evidence of sexism against boys and men.

The truth is, this gendered maturity formula in storytelling is terrible for girls and women. Despite many who conflate ‘girl power’ with equality, gender equality in fiction will only happen when we see just as many flawed and weak female characters as there are flawed and weak male characters. The reason it’s safe to depict male characters as bumbling is because we get to see a good number of boys and men in charge of their own destinies — making plans, existing in their own right, growing (or diminishing, in tragedies) as people.

Equal numbers of female characters must go through their very own character arcs before we can say gender equality has achieved. That is the measure. Not ‘kickass’ but flat girls. Not sassy girls standing up for themselves when boys go about their journeys. Not the girl who turns up to do the off-the-page, boring research. Equality is not girls stepping up to the plate to teach boys a lesson when boy main characters are in trouble, in a form of ‘deus ex little mother’.

In order for main characters to undergo full character arcs, they need to be the stars of the story.  However. In order to grow, you must start out as bumbling or naive or lacking in some way. There needs to be a scope of change. Female characters need their very own Character Arcs. This character arc, this movement from not knowing to knowing, is the main necessary requirement for ‘hero’. Otherwise you’re just a supporting character.

If we’re to take the good parts of gender stereotyping (girls are awesome because they are so mature!), we’re obliged to accept its damaging flip side. As summarised by Trites:

This cultural narrative ties into at least three conceptualisations that are salient to a cognitive study of growth in adolescent literature. First, the cultural narrative that women are more mature than men is predicated on the false assumption that women [are] already mature as a result of their ostensibly maternal nature. That is, since girls will presumably become mothers and care-givers, they are supposed to somehow automatically — almost magically — mature in order to nurture others.

Second, if nurturance provides girls with an automatic route to their maturation, this cultural narrative falsely implies that females really have only one path to maturity: the predetermined path to parenthood.

Third, this cultural narrative insinuates that male growth is more varied and interesting and thus deserves more attention and praise than female growth.

Carolyn Daniel in her book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature notices the same thing I’m talking about here. Daniel puts it as follows, though she’s writing specifically about gross-out books aimed at boys:

It is my belief that the reading pleasures of girls and boys are often polarized along the axes of plaisir and jouissance respectively, just as…adult and child pleasures differ. The girl reader …takes up an ostensibly “adult” and accommodating stance in relation to the social order, while the boy is positioned as the “real” child.

(Plaisir is French for ‘pleasure’; jouissance means ‘enjoyment.)

Girls don't mature faster than boys
Girls don’t mature faster than boys
George Bernard O'Neill - Mother's Help
George Bernard O’Neill – Mother’s Help
William Hemsley - Mother's Out 1870
William Hemsley – Mother’s Out 1870

The idea that women are the morally superior sex can be seen throughout history in the West, from this angle it seems most obvious in America during Prohibition. Susan Faludi sums up 2017 by looking back on recent history:

American women started the “social purity” movement against prostitution and “white slavery” of girls. The most popular women’s mobilization of the 19th century wasn’t for suffrage — it was for Prohibition, a moral crusade against demon men drinking demon rum, blowing their paychecks at the saloon and coming home to beat and rape their wives. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union quickly became the nation’s largest women’s organisation.

Did that war against men behaving badly feed into the larger big struggle for women’s equality? In many ways, yes: Susan B. Anthony herself began as a temperance organizer. But a good number of women who railed against alcohol’s evils shrank from women’s suffrage. Fighting against male drunkenness fell within the time-honored female purview of defending the family and the body; extending women’s rights into a new political realm felt more radical and less immediate. Frances Willard, the temperance union’s formidable second president, eventually brought the organisation around to supporting the female franchise by redefining the women’s vote as a “home protection” issue: “citizen mothers,” as the morally superior sex, would purge social degeneracy from the domestic and public circle.

The New York Times, The Patriarchs Are Falling. The Patriarchs Are Stronger Than Ever.

That was America’s history, but similar stories played out in countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand around the time women were fighting for the vote. “We deserve the vote because look, we’re morally upright people.”

The Female Maturity Formula Is Everywhere

The female maturity formula can be seen all over the place, not just in Pixar films. Here are just a few case studies of standout examples.


The worst example I’ve seen in a film ostensibly for children  is a Dreamworks production starring Dakota Fanning. As a child actor, Fanning often got these ‘old soul in a young body’ type roles. This time we see her in Dreamer (2005), which is about the emotional arc of the father, despite being marketed and ostensibly made for adolescent girls.  Go to the IMDb entry and you’ll be recommended the Flicka franchise and Black Beauty as view-alikes. Make no mistake, this film ends up being about the father. As mentioned in the logline, the girl (Cale) ‘catalyzes’ the father into action, and into his own emotional arc.

Cale Crane catalyzes the rescue and rehabilitation of Sonador, a race horse with a broken leg.

To save you watching it yourself, The Roger Ebert website offers further details of how, exactly, Cale inspires her father:

Ben later admits, “If Cale hadn’t been with me that night, I’d have left that horse on the track.” But Cale is there, and looking at her big sad eyes, her father has the leg splinted and wrapped, and brings the horse back to the stable. This inspires an argument with Palmer, who is forced to regard the results of his own bad judgment. Ben resigns, taking a pay-out — and the horse.

I can’t think of an inverse example of film-making and marketing, in which adolescent boys are expected to sit through a movie length story about how a boy inspires the emotional arc of his mother, in which most of the talking is done by the women, between women.

The Man In The Moon

A film with a similar vibe to Dreamer was Reese Witherspoon’s debut as a young actress in a 1991 coming-of-age film called The Man In The Moon. 14-year-old Dani Trant is the youngest character in years but repeatedly demonstrates better communication skills than the men in her life (namely her father and the attractive young man next door), probably due to evenings talking with her kind older sister, who functions as a mentor. Dani tells the boy next door she loves him and he literally turns away.

There is another massive problem with this film, but it is inextricably linked to the Female Maturity Formula. Since Dani arrives as a fully-formed individual on this Earth, she (and the audience) is unlikely to have any kind of awakening when her own father gives her a hiding with a belt for sneaking out one stormy night. Later, it’s little girl Dani who tells her physically abusive father that she understands why he did it — he didn’t mean to thrash her — he was just scared. The father literally gets out of the car and walks away, without acknowledging the fact (to woke 2017 eyes) that he is grooming his daughter to be abused by men who love her. For girls, even in a coming-of-age story, the girl is all-too-often emotionally articulate and self-aware from the get-go. ‘Coming-of-age’ in this sort of story simply means ‘falling in love for the first time’ (which is why some people profess to hate the ‘coming-of-age story’ even though there are plenty of great ones).

Stephen King’s IT

Guess which of the child characters below takes the maternal lead at the point where decisions must be made, bravery must be mustered?

It Child Characters

What do you suppose goes through the minds of people creating these stories? If anything?

We might have a bit of a gender diversity problem here fellas, given how it’s, you know, 2017 and certain reviewers are harping on about wanting more ‘strong female characters’ and all that. Yeah but no, there’s no gender problem in this particular film. It’s still totally relevant and totally needs another remake. I mean, step away from the metrics and look at what the girl does. She’s the most sensible and brave of them all! If anything, the boys are misrepresented!

A Brief History Of The Female Maturity Formula

The Female Maturity Formula of storytelling all started long long ago, with The Odyssey, and the loyal sidekick-wife of Odysseus, Penelope.

In Homer’s The Odyssey … Odysseus’ son Telemachus tells his mother, Penelope, to “Go back up into your quarters. Speech will be the business of men.”

Men Have Been Telling Women to Shut Up for at Least 3,000 Years
Penelope Odyssey

We’re now so used to this trope it’s hardly noticeable anymore. It’s especially prevalent in comedies, probably because male comics need a straight-‘man’, (which really should be renamed ‘straight woman’) and most of the Pixar films are a mixture of ‘adventure + COMEDY’, after all.

Beware The Story With Two Or More Boys And One Girl

Okay, let’s step away from Pixar for a minute. Take Sony Pictures’ Monster House (2006). If you’re familiar with children’s stories you already know this from the promotional image: The boy in the middle is The Every Boy (he’s white and average BMI); his chubby best friend is the comical character who is, developmentally, slightly behind the main character. He wants to go trick-o-treating, for instance — our main boy thinks he’s too old. These two have a problem to solve, but they don’t have any clues how to solve it until the devious, whip-smart, no-nonsense girl comes along to drive their action forward. (Jenny also serves as the love interest.)

Monster House minority feisty

The two-boy, one girl trio is very popular across middle grade stories, but take a close look at who gets to crack the jokes. Who is likeable? Whose eyes do we view the story through? Most importantly in this discussion: Who gets the chance to develop as a person?

The Female Maturity Formula is closely related to The Minority Feisty trope which itself came from The Smurfette Principle. We see it also in ParaNorman, a horribly sexist film produced by Laika. In fact, writers seem afraid to step away from this formula. It has proved a hit with largely uncritical audiences.

Children’s writers learned from comedy for adults, of course.

The Female Maturity Formula In Comedy Series

The main characters of Black Books are Bernard, Manny and Fran. Each of these characters has major flaws — Fran is an alcohol-addicted, self-absorbed shopkeeper who ‘sells a lot of wank’ and is probably on the sociopathic spectrum. But when the boys need to learn a lesson, it’s Fran who sorts them out. Here the three of them stand, just after Bernard has fired Manny on his first day working at Black Books. Fran comes in to give Bernard a dressing down for being mean. The source of the comedy in this scene comes from Bernard’s behaving like a little boy and from Fran behaving like his mother. While Fran is an equally flawed human being, the writers will happily use her if they need a mother figure, and audiences don’t question it.

Black Books Comedy Maturity Principle

Throughout The IT Crowd it is Jen who plays the motherly role to Moss and Roy. Like Fran in Black Books, Jen has her own significant moral and psychological shortcomings, but she too comes in handy as the mother figure when the male characters need to work something out. This is the overriding humorous dynamic that runs throughout the entirety of the series. Because there is such a strong history of the Female Maturity Formula in 3000 years of storytelling, writers assume it wouldn’t work if the genders were swapped.  And yet…The IT Crowd often switches gender stereotypes around for laughs (as they do in this very scene, in fact, with Roy calling Moss his wife). The problem is, comedy needs the audience to have a shared understanding of gender roles in order for the comedy to work.

It is therefore very difficult for comedy writers to lead the charge when it comes to forging ahead with brand new tropes.

The IT Crowd Maturity Principle

The tentpole example of the Female Maturity Formula in terrible sit-coms would have to be the wife from Everybody Loves Raymond, whose long-suffering, eye-rolling wife plays the straight-man to Raymond’s antics.

Everybody Loves Raymond characters

This gender dynamic in American sit-coms is so common that comedian Louis C.K. satirised it in the first scene of season 2, episode 7 of Louie: Oh Louie!/Tickets. (It’s such a shame Louie C.K. is such a predatory asshole in real life, showing that an understanding of a sexist culture doesn’t necessarily help one to rise above it. Ditto for Jay Asher.)

Wife: "Louie! I love you." Louie (coming out of character): "Why would you say that? I was just being an asshole.
Wife: “Louie! I love you.”
Louie (coming out of character): “Why would you say that? I was just being an asshole.

In Futurama we have Turanga Leela:

Futurama Poster
[Leela] is one of the few characters in the cast to routinely display competence and the ability to command, and routinely saves the rest of the cast from disaster, but suffers extreme self-doubt because she has only one eye and grew up as a bullied orphan.


By the time Futurama came along, its audience was used to this dynamic in The Simpsons, with Marge and Lisa being the sensible characters of the show.

All this comes to a natural head with the belief that women just aren’t funny.

Women Aren't Funny

The Female Maturity Formula In Picture Books

Old Tom

Books for the youngest readers are not exempt. This is cultural conditioning that happens from birth. Sadly, sexism sells. Stories which conform best to long-held storytelling rules are those most likely to be made into children’s television shows.

Old Tom's Holiday

Old Tom is not the most congenial or mannerly cat, but his owner Angela Throgmorton loves him dearly. Even she will admit, however, that he’s been a bit of a pill lately. When she wins a vacation for one, Angela is pleased to inform Tom that he must stay home. She suggests he clean his room.

from the Kirkus review

The Girl Swot As Variation On The Formula

There is so much to say on this particular topic that it deserves its own post.

The 'Everybody Loves Raymond' character web is everywhere, including in Calvin and Hobbes, in which the girl and the mother get to play the straight 'guys'.
The ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ character web is everywhere, including in Calvin and Hobbes, in which the girl and the mother get to play the straight ‘guys’.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. In Seinfeld we saw equal opportunity Assholery with Elaine Benes. We need that in children’s stories, too.


Junot Diaz and the Problem of the Male Self-Pardon from Slate is inextricably linked to everything above.

I mention Penelope above as the O.G. Mature Female in storytelling. Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novel The Penelopiad parodies the foundation myth by giving Penelope a voice. This is radical because Penelope remains mostly silent in the other versions of The Odyssey.

Header illustration: Cover by Robert C. Howe, 1973. The girl seems to exist to show the viewer how full of life and adventure the boys are. The girl clutches a school item to her chest and stands with her back turned to them, suggesting she is not part of their boisterous fun. Or, if she is, she knows she’s supposed to act differently.

Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler makes for another interesting case study.

Storytelling Tips From Juno (2007)

I’m no great fan of many traditional rom-coms, but I do love this off-beat romantic comedy drama blend precisely because it takes the regular, conservative storyline of: mother almost loses her baby and then reunites (to live happily ever after), and the usual movie tropes (geek = Bleeker, but he’s also an athlete, stepmother is not wicked) and inverts them at every opportunity. The dialogue of Juno is witty, in keeping with Diablo Cody’s distinctive voice, seen also in The United States of Tara and in her books.

For more stories about kind stepmothers, see this Goodreads list.


Notice the orange and white banding which make up the main colour scheme of the Juno movie poster. See this article which is an interesting insight into colour and movie posters. Rom-coms are generally white whereas the colour orange tells an audience we won’t know quite what to expect.

Since this is a comedy there is a happy ending, and a uniting rather than a separation, but the happy ending is not necessarily what we expect. This is a satisfying story.

Where does Juno fit in the taxonomy of rom-coms?

Juno Taxonomy

Juno follows the structure of a 1960s ‘Preggers Novel’. For more on that, see here.

Juno’s Crisis

At the beginning of the story Juno already knows she’s pregnant. In fact, she’s already been to the convenience store and peed on several sticks, leading to comedy about ‘etch a sketches’ and how pee sticks can’t be erased. We see her walking about with a huge container of juice. We soon find out why she’s been drinking so much juice — she needs to make pee for the pregnancy tests.

Shortcoming & Need Of The Hero

Juno’s moral shortcoming is that she is sardonic — this is part of her sense of humour, but it needs to be tamed a bit, because she is going through life connecting with no one in particular. She apparently had sex with Beeker because she was ‘bored’. If she had any feelings for him she refuses to admit it. Bleeker is just the sort of boyfriend she needs to grow emotionally, because for all his vagueness, Bleeker comes from a loving family and is himself quite emotionally mature.

Juno’s psychological shortcoming is that she doesn’t know who she is yet. In fact, when her father tells her he thought she was the sort of girl who knows when to say when, she replies, ‘I don’t know what sort of girl I am.’

i don't really know what kind of girl i am

She’s drifting through life trying things on. She’s not quite as mature as she seems. In some ways she has an acidic wit and precocious insight. On the other hand, she can’t see what her step-mother sees about Mark Loring — that he is unreliable and flirty and that going around to his house to ‘rock out’ with him is going to cause problems and is inappropriate. In short, Juno is immature, and this is her coming-of-age story.

In order to have a better life, Juno needs to grow up (preferably without the noose of a baby to care for), find a boyfriend who fully accepts her for who she is (as her father explains in his fatherly advice) and take time to explore her passions (singing and song-writing). This being a comedy, there is a happy ending, and she indeed has achieved these things as the credits roll.

Ghosts and Backstory

Juno’s ghost is that her mother abandoned her, sending her a cactus every year as the only point of contact, and she seems to be on medication, probably for ADHD. (“I can sell you some of my Adderall.”)

Characters around Juno have ghosts: Her father doesn’t have a good track record with relationships (though he’s in an excellent relationship now, and has been for the last 10 years.) The most significant ghost plot wise is that of the Lorings — an adoption arrangement has fallen through for Vanessa in the past, which explains her nervousness, and Mark has a history of being flaky, and perhaps of getting with other young women (implied), which would explain why Vanessa is uncomfortable with Juno and Mark rocking out together in private. Sure enough, details of the ‘ghost’ are withheld from the audience. It’s not until the second half of the movie that we learn the Lorings have been let down before, and that we get a glimpse of Mark coming on to Juno.

Juno herself is no stranger to all things sexual — her best friend has been having sex and her peers have been having abortions. This film takes the usual high school girl story and inverts everything possible. Instead of this story being about the moral outrage of teenage sex (or ’sexual intercourse’ — a phrase that is repeatedly mocked by Juno and Leah), this is puts all the outrage into the background and shifts the story beyond the drama of procuring an abortion, confessing to parents, being scorned by the community.

juno confession to parents

The scorn is depicted by one interaction between Juno and the office lady, who is giving her a late pass or something. The parental outrage we expect is not there — Juno’s stepmother (another inversion — the step mother is as loving as a mother) immediately jumps into practical caregiver mode (we later see her up late sewing new waistbands on jeans). The story leads us to believe Juno is going to keep her baby when she gets back together with Bleaker and when Vanessa breaks up with Mark, but that would be too trite: Vanessa gets the baby anyhow.

Setting of Juno

The setting is suburban Minnesota: two different kinds of suburbs — Juno lives in a more chaotic, non-traditional household whereas the Lorings live in a new development, St. Cloud.

St. Cloud is more of a “small town grown into a large town”, with a friendly Midwestern feel but an expanding role as a commercial and educational center and commuter suburb to the northwestern reaches of Minneapolis-St Paul.

In a series of cuts we see that all of the houses around the Lorings are new, well-maintained and manicured, but we also see that everyone who lives here is basically the same. We expect (and soon have it confirmed) that Vanessa is the sort of woman who takes her life advice from What To Expect When You’re Expecting (the white middle class mother’s bible)and her main problem seems to be what shade of cheesecake to paint the baby’s room. She is pretty much the opposite of who we expect Juno will turn out to be. Juno, at this point, looks more likely to live in a converted office block decorated with industrial waste. Juno lives an hour’s drive away from St Cloud, which is just far enough to be in a separate world, but which allows her to see the Lorings. Minneapolis is a typical American mid-western town with generally conservative attitudes, though abortion is indeed possible in this part of America. It would be a different sort of story again if this were set in, say, Texas, where an abortion wouldn’t necessarily have been an option for Juno.

Juno’s world revolves around school, home and the odd outing to necessary places such as the pharmacy.

Juno looks here, in her red hoodie, a bit like a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, a reference which was used in another movie — horror — that Ellen Page starred in.
Juno looks here, in her red hoodie, a bit like a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, a reference which was used in another movie — horror — that Ellen Page starred in.

Stories set in American schools almost always have a number of locker/hall scenes. I guess that’s because where the school’s true hierarchy is seen best, with the corridor functioning like a forest. Juno is shown several times battling against the flow of students walking from the opposite direction, symbolising her alternative personality.

juno school hall

We also see Juno and Bleeker interacting as science lab partners, and this couple is contrasted against the annoyingly immature couple they share a table with. By comparison, Juno and Bleeker look like a great couple, and this is probably the point where we start to root for them working out, and is why we’re disappointed — as Juno is — when we learn that Bleeker is going to the prom with someone else.

juno physics lab

The story follows the seasons, which is a ‘feminine’ way of storytelling — stories for girls, for example, tend to be cyclical in nature.

The seasons can be seen in a graphic of the film’s colours.

Juno film colours
Juno film colours

Since this story is about a pregnancy, breaking scenes down by seasons in which they occur is a convenient way of signalling to the audience how close we are to the climax: Will Juno give the baby to the Lorings or not? And when is the baby due?

juno seasons

Some details of the setting: We see the track and field boys running in their gold and maroon uniform no matter what the season. This adds some humour, especially when we see a close up on their shorts, with Juno’s comments about their penises jumping around, accompanied by a slo-mo close up — an inversion on the usual objectification of female characters in coming-of-age movies. The athletes’ training is almost a metaphor: things keep happening. Seasons don’t stop for anyone. The baby is definitely happening, and it’s as sure as the track and field athletes keep on truckin no matter the weather.

Juno and her friend Leah are often seen together in unusual places, signalling their ‘weird’ status and general confidence. They eat lunch in the ‘prize nook’, where you’d expect them to be told off by a teacher in a different kind of high school movie.

juno huge lunch

Juno’s bedroom is introduced (like most teenagers’ bedrooms are) with a slow pan and zoom — we see she has decorated her room with some very unusual objects, and the point of comedy is that she’s calling up for an abortion on a hamburger phone, leading to the juxtaposition between pregnancy and eating, which seems to be inherently funny.

juno bedroom

The food/pregnancy is an extended gag throughout: “I don’t know, it’s not seasoned yet”, the huge big gulp type drinks she’s carrying around to emphasise how big her belly is compared to her usual stature, the ‘food baby’ response she gets when she tells Leah she’s up the duff…. She even has to shake the hamburger phone mid-call in order to get it to work — shaking is another gag. (She has also been seen shaking the pee stick — another riff on the etch-a-sketch joke made by the Rainn Wilson character who works in the pharmacy.)

hamburger phone

Juno is surrounded by props which add humour and convey her eccentricity.

juno chair pipe

Inciting Incident

This would have been a very simple story if Juno had simply called up for an abortion and got one. But Juno has a bit of a moral crisis when she is told by Su-Chin that her baby already has fingernails. This leads to subsequent problems: if she’s not going to have an abortion, what is she going to do? This is an excellent crisis because Juno thinks she has just overcome the crisis incited at the very beginning of the film. In quirky Cody style, this moral crisis is camouflaged a bit by witty dialogue:

juno moral crisis


Juno’s new desire is to find the perfect loving family for her baby. Not just a ‘loving’ family, though. She wants to find a ‘cool’ family, by her teenage definition of cool. 

She tells Leah that she basically wants parents just like her idealised version of her older self, but in the end, she will realise that a woman quite different from her original idea of cool will do just as nicely, if not better. This is a perfect example of a desire line, because the desire doesn’t change completely (that would lead to a new story), but veers off course a little after a revelation.


Juno’s father, step-mother and friend Leah are all her allies. Each of these characters at some point have a conversation with Juno in which we see Juno’s shortcomings challenged. Leah play the main confidante, in which we learn what Juno is thinking.


Bleeker is both ally and opponent, being the love-interest in a romantic comedy. He doesn’t actively stand in her way, but he does start seeing another girl and Juno gets jealous. Rather than Bleeker being an opponent there is the issue of Bleeker’s mother, who doesn’t want to see them together because she finds Juno too alternative for her own conservative tastes. Bleeker’s mother’s desire: For her son to find a nice, conservative girl, like the one with the ‘permanent stink eye’ (who he plans to go to the dance with.)

This one line of dialogue lets us know that Juno doesn't think all that much of Carol.
This one line of dialogue lets us know that Juno doesn’t think all that much of Carol.

The community itself is an opponent. Though we don’t see the kick-back Juno gets for being pregnant, we do have a few insights: “They call me the cautionary whale.” We see the way the school office lady looks her up and down with disgust, and then there’s the argument with the woman doing the ultrasound, who stands in for every middle class person looking down on teenage mothers. (This scene also allows us to see the extent to which the step-mother is an ally.)

The audience, too, is possibly Juno’s opponent, and in this film we’re being asked to consider what a good family really looks like. The traditional idea of the nuclear family with two parents in the suburbs is challenged at various points. When Juno gives her friends the middle finger, she is really giving us the middle finger in a good-humoured fashion.

juno middle finger

Fake-Ally Opponent

Mark genuinely enjoys Juno’s company but he isn’t admitting to himself or to her that he doesn’t really want her baby, and he isn’t emotionally mature enough to even tell her, let alone his own wife, about his misgivings. Juno’s about to give birth, which functions in the plot like a ticking clock (often used in thrillers) to add a bit of tension. The plot turns at the point when Mark conveys his misgivings after their slow 80s dance: Juno then has a crisis about whether she really does want to give her baby to the Lorings. They’re not as perfect as she imagined.

Revelation and Decision

Juno lies on the hood of her car, obviously thinking about something. She drives back to St Cloud and leaves a note on Vanessa’s doorstep. She doesn’t find out what the note says until the end of the movie, when Vanessa has framed it and put it on the baby’s wall, but Juno has said that she’ll still give Vanessa the baby even if she’s a single mother. Juno has seen Vanessa at the mall interacting with a friend’s child and knows Vanessa will make a good mother no matter what.


Juno realises, after feeling her jealousy, that she really does want to be Bleeker’s girl friend so her plan is to get him back. She buys 100 boxes of his favourite orange tic-tacs and leaves them in his letterbox. Then she apologises to him on the track and tells him she really does love him.

juno declaration of love

Opponent’s Plan and Main Attack

This film doesn’t seem to have this. There is no obvious line of attack against Juno. Unless we count Mark’s plan — he’s going to break up with Vanessa. Perhaps this is the worst thing that could happen for Juno, even worse than Bleeker not accepting her back, because in this story Vanessa and Juno are linked by being ‘mothers’ to the unborn baby.


Juno’s decision to give her baby to Vanessa despite Mark’s abandonment means she has won out against Mark’s immaturity. He’s going to be alone and single and middle-aged and living in a loft.

Attack By Ally

An attack-by-ally scene is the conversation between Juno and her step-mother about Juno going around to Mark’s unannounced. Juno reveals her callous side by dissing her stepmother’s hobby of making collages out of dog pictures when she ‘doesn’t even have a dog’. 

ally confrontation juno
Junos’ massive drinks symbolise the big issues she’s dealing with. Yet the actress is tiny. The juxtaposition is therefore both thematic and humorous.

Juno attacks her back for cutting out pictures of dogs even though she doesn’t have a dog (because of Juno’s allergy). This is probably the conversation which helps Juno to understand who Mark really is, though she doesn’t realise it immediately. Only after he expresses his misgivings about taking her baby, in which case her step-mother’s advice probably was at the back of her mind.

Apparent Defeat

It seems for a while as if Juno giving her baby to a couple breaking up is not going to happen. She’s going to be stuck with this baby because she’s due to give birth very soon. Sure enough, there is only one apparent defeat. Up until now, Juno has been sure that she wants Mark and Vanessa to have her baby.

In the plotline where Juno wants to be with Bleeker (subconsciously at first) she is also defeated when she finds out Bleeker is going to the prom, and then to someone’s log house, with another girl. The argument they have tells the audience that Juno still likes Bleeker, and that Juno herself doesn’t yet realise it. We also realise how great Bleeker is when he tells her the absolute truth  about the other girl (comically using the exact words Leah did).

juno bleeker argument

Obsessive Drive, Changed Drive and Motive

Juno has the obsessive drive to find good parents for her baby. We know that Juno keeping the baby is not the best outcome. She’s very much a young, free spirit who isn’t at the point where she takes life seriously. Although Juno initially wanted a couple, she has decided that a single mother is fine, if that single mother happens to be Vanessa. Until recently Juno has connected far more with Mark (because they’re on the same maturity level) but she has garnered enough human insight now to know that the cool guy isn’t going to make as good of a parent as the anxious woman.

Steps are sometimes used as a metaphor — here Juno sits on the bottom step near the beginning of the movie, signifying her as-yet immature status. Unlike Mark, Juno grows.
Steps are sometimes used as a metaphor — here Juno sits on the bottom step near the beginning of the movie, signifying her as-yet immature status. Unlike Mark, Juno grows.

Audience Revelation

juno born to be a mother
Earlier in the film we see Vanessa *say* she’ll make a great mother but an audience is naturally suspicious of such a perfect-looking suburban couple. What is the rot that lies underneath every single suburban story?

This is the part where the audience learns something Juno does not, but mostly in this story we’re right there alongside Juno for the ride. For example, we realise how good a mother Vanessa will make at the same time Juno does — when we see her in the mall playing with the toddler. But we do realise before Juno does that all is not well in rich-happy-married-couple land. We see Mark and Vanessa at a stalemate over the colour of the paint for the baby’s room. Mark thinks it’s ‘too early’ to be worrying about that, and we learn he hasn’t been reading the baby books Vanessa has been asking him to read.

Juno cheesecake scene

Third Revelation and Decision

This is the bit where Juno realises Mark is a fake-ally opponent: He tells her he isn’t ready to be a father and he’s thinking of breaking up with Vanessa (though doesn’t have the balls to have actually done that yet).

Visit To Death

Shown by Juno lying on her car bonnet late that night, trying to decide what to do. This is a modern story, so the visit to death is psychological. She’s in turmoil: can she bear to give her baby to a single mother?


The audience, along with Juno, is witness to the big explosive argument between Mark and Vanessa. We see how much better Vanessa would be at parenting than Mark. We may have suspected Vanessa of being a fake good person — that in fact she’ll be a terrible mother — over anxious and obsessive. But now we see that whatever her faults are, she’s a hell of a lot better than Mark. Interestingly, Juno is a lot like her main opponent — Mark. They are both not ready for a baby.

We’ve already seen that Vanessa has a lot more maturity than Juno.

juno difference in maturity levels vanessa juno


Juno perhaps realises that, like Mark, she is not ready for a baby, even if she is with the father as a young couple. She realises that Vanessa will still make a great mother, that a typical nuclear family isn’t the be all and end all — that relationships end all the time, but babies come along despite this sad fact. We see her making these revelations in the comical talk with her father, in which the father thinks she’s asking about him, but she’s really thinking about Mark and Vanessa.

juno dad advice

Moral Decision

The two courses of possible action: Give her baby to Vanessa or keep it.

The audience has been expecting Juno to keep her baby, or at least find a new couple at the last minute. The traditional ‘happy ending’ is seeing babies with their natural mothers, loved and adored and brought up beautifully. The revelation is that Juno has decided to give her baby to Vanessa despite her recently broken relationship. The film withholds this information by refusing to show us what’s on the note. The thematic revelation is that babies don’t need a typical happy rich couple in order to thrive. Alternative family set ups can be just as fulfilling, as evidenced by Juno’s own family set up, in which her relationship with her stepmother is as good as any typical relationship between mother and teenaged daughter.

New Situation

This is pretty hokey in any other genre, but we see Juno together with Bleeker playing the guitar outside a picturesque suburban house. Perhaps Juno has left home — her step-mother has got a dog, which Juno is allergic to. There has been a reference earlier in the movie about how the step-mother can’t have a dog until Juno leaves home because of her allergy to dog saliva. Bleeker and Juno are singing a duet, suggesting they are a very happy couple. In fact, they’re becoming the very couple Juno looked for in Vanessa and Mark.

School And Children’s Literature

Albert Ludovici - Kept In 1887

School itself must be so different these days than it was when you were in school. Certainly, having kids helps, but is that ever an issue for you when you’re writing?

I was reading about this phenomenon in television and film writing, which is that the references to school are always at least 20 to 30 years old, because writers are really writing about their own experiences, so these movies are hopelessly outdated. What I’ve been surprised with is that school seems a lot safer and more benign than it was when I was in junior high. You know, for me, junior high was like the Wild West. There must have been one teacher for 35 kids, and we were completely unprotected from the bullies, so the experiences I’m writing about in my book are actually very watered-down from real life experiences.

Jeff Kinney at Mental Floss

My high school English teacher hated Dead Poet’s Society. He never said why, and we never asked. Then I became an English teacher myself. Then the #metoo movement happened, and I really hated it then.

Stories set in schools haven’t been the same for me since my teachers’ college year. Dead Poet’s Society ceased to be a story about an inspirational, enthusiastic English teacher and more a demonstration of an egotistical lover of attention who would have served his students better if he had tried a bit of group work. (Jumping around on desks is also considered uncouth in a country where even sitting on desks is a no-no. This was New Zealand.)

As and aside, Dead Poet’s Society hasn’t aged well, either. There is a sexual assault scene which is not treated as such. For more on that I’d recommend listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast rather than watching the entire movie again.

Dead Poet’s Society is just one example of an unrealistic, annoying but romantically idealised teacher. While teaching high school myself, I had zero patience for stories in which fictional teachers keep individual students behind after class to speak to them about various misdemeanours — mostly, these teachers were young men in fake horn-rims who, had they been of truly innocent intent, as we were meant to believe as the audience, would have made sure never, ever to be in a room alone with any student. Don’t keep students behind after class. If you do, keep them back in a small group. Keep the door open. Teaching 101.

Dead Poet’s Society is a more contemporary teenage take on the Roman Carpe Diem body of narrative, united by the common theme that we must live in the moment and make the most of whatever comes our way. Older examples largely come form poetry: “To His Coy Mistress,” (Marvell), “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (Herrick).

It was the large classes of eerily silent student, in which the actor posing as teacher makes zero use of body language, has no slightly embarrassing strategies for gaining everyone’s attention.

In fictional classrooms, the teacher walks around the classroom and everyone watches in rapt attention, even though the students at the front of the classroom can no longer see, nor hear. The teacher with magical magnetism approaches a single student’s desk to engage more closely with them when, in reality, as soon as the teacher moves from the front of the room, the class is likely to break out into little groups chattering. “Don’t do what actors always do on TV,” our teachers’ college lecturer warned us. “Stay at the front of the classroom until you’ve finished talking to the entire class.” The ‘rules’ of body language, standing position and classroom management are not something that has been picked up by film-makers, who are in love with the ‘camera moves around the classroom’ technique.

Also: “Don’t confiscate passed notes and read them aloud to the class. Crumple them up and throw them into the bin without looking at them” Anything else is a shaming technique, which went out of vogue decades back.

In sum, teachers’ college is a year in which naiive student-teachers’ hopes and dreams about what the Role of Teacher might be like are moulded into something more closely aligned to reality. Still, it amazes me how, even though all of us have known a lot of teachers over our 13-odd years of schooling, we nevertheless accept quite a chasm between the reality of teaching and the fictional portrayals. We accept these fictional teachers partly because narrative has its own rules; likewise, police officers are not usually damaged alcoholics who can’t maintain a healthy family life and eat nothing but donuts, but we see this character all the time in the crime genre.

On movies, the bell rings and everyone gets up to leave. No fictional teacher says, ever, what I said weekly: “The bell is a signal for me, not for you.”


Beverly Lyon Clark defines a specific subset of adolescent literature, the traditional school story, as a story set at a school, that is addressed to children from the point of view of a child. The text is usually middle-class in its perspective. If the canonical boys’ version of these books can be said to have a formula, it is this: they cover a broad range of years, from an ordinary boy’s arrival at the school, through his years of service to older boys until he is himself one of the older boys at the school. Two types of adventures occur: competition at physical activities, such as sports, and some sort of social conflict that allows the text to explore morality. The tale may conclude with an affirmation of the school’s purpose in training young people to take their place in the status quo of the social order. Certainly girls’ school stories serve the same ideological purpose, which is the most important purpose of School Stories; their agenda to indoctrinate children into the social order is thinly veiled.


Since American YA novels are usually Entwicklungsroman, they are far more likely to focus on one set of problems than they are to show a character developing over a period of time as School Stories generally do. But although the time line of the plot may be telescoped, the function of the narrative remains the same: school serves as an institutional setting in which the protagonist can learn to accept her or his role as a member of other institutions.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe


Below, Spufford doesn’t mention the critic who said it, but this is the strongest argument I’ve seen for School Stories as antidote to indoctrination into the social order:

Children’s books can find a town in a boarding school if the author doesn’t play school life entirely for laughs, as in Billy Bunter, or Molesworth, or the Jennings stories. From Angela Brazil and the Chalet School books, through to the unexpected rebirth of the genre at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series — where a new atmosphere, both magical and democratic, still does not displace such key features as a the sneering rich boy, and the contest for the house cup — school stories explore what are essentially autonomous towns of children. As a perceptive critic of Harry Potter pointed out, what makes the school setting liberating is that school rules are always arbitrary rules, externally imposed. You can break them, when you get into scrapes, without feeling any guilt, or without it affecting the loyalty to the institution that even unruly characters feel, right down from Angela Brazil to Joanne Rowling, Harry loves Hogwarts. The rules of conduct that really count are worked out by the children themselves, and exist inside the school rules like a live body inside a suit of armour. School stories are about children judging each other, deciding about each other, getting along with each other. The adults whose decisions would be emotionally decisive — parents — are deliberately absent.

Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

According to John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children, ‘the school story sprang into prominence with the publication in 1857 and 1858 of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays and F.W. Farrar‘s Eric, or Little By Little.’ Before that, there were a few scattered books with schools in them, but these weren’t ‘school stories’ per se.

First Term At Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

Tom Brown’s School Days is an episodic story with no tightly-knit plot. We see Tom first at home then as he starts life at Rugby, initiated into football, bullied, bearing it bravely, getting into scrapes and eventually looks after a timid new boy called Arthur. Tom grows a sense of responsibility and becomes a man.

Tom Brown's Schooldays

Eric: Or, Little By Little concerns the fate of an individual with school in the background. Team spirit is of no great importance. The author became a headmaster and was a very popular preacher and writer. This was written while he was still in his 20s. It’s all about how Eric is constantly fighting temptation and evil. ‘Little by little’ describes the progress of his decline.

Eric or Little By Little

School stories were very popular in England in the Victorian era, though not so much elsewhere.

See: 11 Famous British Schools In Fiction

Enid Blyton was an instigator in the 1960s wave of boarding school stories. This one was first published 1946
Enid Blyton was an instigator in the 1960s wave of boarding school stories. This one was first published 1946.

School stories seemed to make a bit of a comeback in the mid-1960s with the choir-school stories by William Mayne and novels by Antonia Forest and Mary K. Harris but the revival didn’t continue. (Mayne’s books were largely deliberately removed from shelves from 2004 onwards following his conviction and prison sentence for indecent assault on children.)

The originality of Mayne’s writing and his talents for telling original stories, often based on the search for something hidden or elusive, were obvious from A Swarm in May (1955), the first and most outstanding of his quartet of choir-school stories evocatively illustrated by C Walter Hodges. Swiftly followed by Choristers’ Cake (1956), it weaves the revival of an old tradition into a contemporary school story, showing how the past can influence and give strength in the present.

The Guardian Obituary

There are of course some very popular modern children’s books set in boarding school (e.g. Hogwarts) but the nature of them has changed. There was an aura of privilege based on class and money in the classical, high-Victorian and post-Victorian boarding school story and this hasn’t continued to the same extent.

Worst Witch
first published 1974

Most modern books for children are set in a day school rather than in a boarding school. Going to school is now a part of everyday life and school stories do not form their own genre.

boarding school books
boarding school teen books


A boarding school is a self-contained world in which children are full citizens.

The advantage of a boarding school setting is that the children are no longer subordinate members of the family. In some more recent stories, the students are absurdly powerful, and the teachers hardly get a mention at all, even though we’re to believe they’re there.

  • At boarding school, personal politics are always in full swing.
  • In school there is a natural opposition between what the children are supposed to do and what they will do if they get the chance.
  • Familiar problems include: bullying, sneaking, initiation rituals, rule-breaking, and general conflict that comes about with shifting loyalties within the group.
  • Participation in team sports is the ultimate character builder.
  • A lot of these stories had heavily Christian/didactic messages.
Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Collier's Magazine. January 1904 school
Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Collier’s Magazine. January 1904 school


The boarding school stories I grew up with starred white kids from well-off families who had been sent there by the families. Many children from native families have been required to attend boarding schools. See this article about boarding schools for native American children.

Header painting: Albert Ludovici – Kept In 1887

The Blow-in Saviour Trope

Mary Poppins

Blow-in Saviour describes a character who travels from place to place fixing the joint, or spreading joy, then moving on. We assume the cycle will continue.

Blow-in Saviour characters are found mainly in Westerns, detective stories and comedies. They are also found in children’s stories. Sometimes the Blow-in Saviours of children’s stories are children, sometimes they are adults. As I’ve noted before, characters in children’s stories are not always rounded to the point that they are treating others wrongly in some way. This is less true of contemporary adults’ stories.

Blow-in Saviours tend to turn up with a community is in trouble. (But not always.) Mary Poppins turns up when a household is in trouble. (Middle grade fiction is about the household more than about the community). They fix the problems, then move on.

The Blow-in Saviour trope is a benevolent outworking of the walking the Earth’ trope.


  • Into The Wild — Chris McCandless goes from place to place offering (pseudo-) wisdom and seeming to improve other people’s lives, until his philosophies turn in on himself and lead to his own downfall.
  • Tinkerbell of Peter and Wendy
  • Snufkin from The Moomins is similar. He plays a harmonica wherever he goes, distributing the joy of music.
  • Crocodile Dundee (Australian film) — comedy, adventure
  • Red Dog is another Australian film — in a heartwarming story, a red dog goes from place to place spreading joy.
  • True Grit — anti-Western, adventure
  • Amélie (film) — French comedy romance — Blow-in Saviour comedies are popular in France for some reason
  • Chocolat (book and film) — drama, romance
  • Good Morning, Vietnam (film) — biography, comedy, drama
  • Mary Poppins (family musical based on a series of books by P.L. Travers) — children’s book — comedy, fantasy, Nanny Story
  • Shane (classic Western) — about the only non-ironic Western movie made since the world wars — includes drama and romance
  • Anne Of Green Gables — Anne starts off as a scattered character who causes chaos wherever she goes despite her best efforts. But her character arc turns her into a Blow-in Saviour, which starts the night she saves the Barry girl by knowing what to do for her illness. After she grows up, Anne doesn’t leave Avonlea for good, she is back and forth, and tends to win crotchety people over so long as they are basically good in the first place.
  • Wanda from The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes is wise and humble beyond her years. She visits a school temporarily, changes the social structure for the better, teaches kindness then moves on.
  • Jack Reacher goes from town to town solving mysteries.
  • Xena Warrior Princess and her sidekick Gabrielle go from place to place fighting warlords. The backstory is that Xena is atoning for her past as the worst warlord of them all.
  • Superheroes have Blow-in Saviour attributes. They seem drawn to saving everyone and will travel far and wide to do so.
  • Santa — the ultimate Blow-in Saviour!
  • Miss Rumphius is a bit of a Blow-in Saviour character, walking from place to place spreading flower seeds, beautifying the area.
  • Ray Donovan, a Hollywood ‘fixer’ who later moves to New York.

Related: Angelic Tropes at TV Tropes


An inversion of this trope can be found in less optimistic, borderline misanthropic stories. Annie Proulx has upended the Blow-in Dastard trope in several of her stories, notably “Heart Songs” and in “Negatives“, both from the Heart Songs collection. Well-heeled outsiders enter a poor, rural community, wreak havoc then move on, only to do the same to the next town, we deduce.

In children’s literature we have Wolf Comes To Town! by Denis Manton and similar stories in which a villain goes from place to place wreaking havoc. Classic fairytales tend to end with the goodies defeating the baddies, but new re-visionings sometimes eschew the happy ending.

When Nellie Bertram joins The (American) Office cast, inserting herself as boss, she describes herself as their blow-in saviour by comparing herself to Tinkerbell (a genuine Blow-in Saviour). In doing so, she describes the Blow-in Saviour perfectly:

Jim: Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t know if you can even give raises.
Nellie: Jim, have you ever heard of a character named Tinkerbell?
Jim: Yes.
Nellie: I’m Tinkerbell.
Jim: No.
Nellie: Mm-hm. I’m a magical fairy who floated into your office to bring a little bit of magic into your lives, to give you all raises.
Stanley: And we are grateful.
Nellie: But here’s the thing about Tinkerbell, Jim. Everyone has to believe in her or she doesn’t exist.
Jim: She dies.

Office Quotes, Season 8, Episode 19

But Nellie is full of bluff and bluster, a charlatan and a terrible boss. From the outset she is presented as a Blow-in Dastard instead. This works best when the audience understands what she is trying to do, which is why having her explain this is effective.

Paralepsis in Children’s Literature

Paralepsis*: (Faux) Omission.

In rhetoric, paralepsis refers to the device of giving emphasis by professing to say little or nothing about a subject, as in not to mention their unpaid debts of several million, but saying it all the same.

  • I know who farted but I wouldn’t want to embarrass Charles.
  • In the name of anonymity, let’s just call him John. Which is pretty convenient, because his name is actually John.
  • I won’t mention the fact that [THE FACT]

As you have probably guessed, paralepsis is a favourite rhetorical device of assholes.

While @Bette Midler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct.

Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old,” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat?” Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe someday that will happen!

Donald J. Trump

This rhetorical device is also called apophasis.

Paralepsis in Picture Books

In picturebooks, though, a kind of paralepsis can happen when something mentioned in the text is left out of the picture, or vice versa. Negative space might be said to be the picturebook equivalent of paralepsis. For example, a page might be deliberately left blank because the character has disappeared for a time. An empty chair may draw attention to the fact that its usual occupant has died.

Empty Chair In The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Empty Chair In The Heart In The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

Paralepsis In Time-shift Fantasy

A main feature of fantasy is time distortion. Most often this is expressed narratively by primary time standing still (one kind of paralepsis). Obviously, we’re now talking about a different concept altogether from the rhetorical device mentioned above. It helps to know that the word comes from Greek and means ‘disregard’.


  • The Story of the Amulet
  • The House of Arden
  • A Traveller in Time
  • The Green Knowe series
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden
  • Jessamy
  • Charlotte Sometimes
  • Playing Beatie Bow
  • The Root Cellar

Paralepsis As Secondary Narrative

Paralepsis can also occur in a secondary narrative in which time is independent of the primary story. This was an integral part of archaic thought — during rituals, time was thought to stand still.  And so it remains as part of human storytelling today. The archaic division between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ universes can be likened to the separate literary-fantasy universes of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ worlds.

Time freezes (or seems to) for everyone and everything in the entire universe, except for the main cast of the story. The characters find themselves in an eerie, calm, silent world where the people and objects around them have become motionless statues. In some stories, this phenomenon happens by accident; in others, the heroes can stop time by using magic, a super power or Applied Phlebotinum.

Time Stands Still at TV Tropes


E Nesbit Trilogy
The concept was introduced to children’s literature by Edith Nesbit in her time-travel novels.

In Chapter Four of Five Children and It, Nesbit first tells the young reader she is not going to describe the picnic, then goes on to do exactly that. This makes the reader feel as if we are not being lectured at — something the narrator professes not to do, unlike every other children’s book that has come before:

I do not wish to describe the picnic party on the top of the tower. You can imagine well enough what it is like to carve a chicken and a tongue with a knife that has only one blade — and that snapped off short about half-way down. But it was done. Eating with your fingers is greasy and difficult — and paper dishes soon get to look very spotty and horrid. But one thing you can’t imagine, and that is how soda-water behaves when you try to drink it straight out of a syphon — especially a quite full one. But if imagination will not help you, experience will, and you can easily try it for yourself if you can get a grown-up to give you the syphon. If you want to have a really thorough experience, put the tub in your mouth and press the handle very suddenly and very hard. You had better do it when you are alone — and out of doors is best for this experiment.

However you eat them, tongue and chicken and new bread are very good things, and no one minds being sprinkled a little with soda-water on a really fine hot day.

Five Children And It, E. Nesbit

Where The Wild Things Are

There’s paralepsis in Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, when Max travels ‘through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year’. This kind of anachrony is common in picturebooks which describe an imaginary journey. For example, all the happenings of Narnia can’t possibly fit into the time the children would’ve spent at the country house.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

The Narnia Chronicles are an excellent example of paralepsis. While the Pevensie children are in Narnia, time in the real world stands still. This is convenient as a plot device too, because it means adults don’t wonder where they are, and interrupt their adventures to come looking for them.

If [Lucy] had got into another world, I should not at all be surprised that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stayed there it would never take up any of our time.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

The real, primary time is linear, and the story is firmly fixed at a specific chronological moment: “during the war”. In The Magician’s Nephew, which is the flashback of the suite, primary time is switched back, but is still quite definable: “when your grandfather was a child…Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road”. Entering Narnia, the children leave the linear time behind and enter not only another world, but the mythical, cyclical time. In this time, death is reversible: Aslan is killed and resurrected, and he can also bring the enchanted stone figures to life again. One of the evil schemes of the White Witch is to stop the flow of time altogether, imposing the eternal winter (=period of nonbeing, death) in Narnia, Aslan’s death and resurrection—a performance of the ritual of the returning god, with its pagan rather than Christian meaning—restores the cyclical time. Spring comes, as it always has come after winter, as it always will come. The idyllic setting is recovered, Narnia is brought back into its prelapsarian state, as created by Aslan at the dawn of time (described in The Magician’s Nephew).

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

Momo by Michael Ende

The final showdown between the titular heroine of Michael Ende‘s Momo and the Men in Grey happens after the local God stops time in the whole world, leaving only Momo (because she is carrying a certain MacGuffin), the Men in Grey, and a magical turtle (who is a fully-functional MacGuffin of her own right) able to move.

TV Tropes

Molly Moon

In Molly Moon Stops The World, Molly is able to stop time thanks to a Call Back from the first book.

Molly Moon Stops The World

Artemis Fowl

The fairies in Artemis Fowl can stop time within an area by surrounding it with a pentagram (and warlocks, originally, though they developed Magitek generators since there is a limit to how long a warlock can hold up his arms). They often use this in combination with a bio-bomb to contain its effect. Escape from a time-stop is possible, but the method is unusual: the time-stop preserves all beings in the state they were in when time stopped – people who are awake stay awake, while people who are asleep go on with the normal flow of the world. When an awake person uses something like sleeping pills to artificially change their state, the stop shunts them into normal time, making them disappear from inside the stop.

TV Tropes
Artemis Fowl Covers

Paralepsis instead of omniscient narration?

Some critics have said that, technically, paralepsis would be a good word to use for the sort of narration you sometimes get when first person narration morphs into the omniscient, in which a character couldn’t possibly know what’s going on elsewhere in the story. (The reader is to ‘disregard’ this device, I suppose, hence the term.)

*Paralepsis is also spelt paralipsis.

Sometimes, storytellers want to subvert a common trope, but subversion is not easy to do. A common error is to end up reinforcing the exact idea you wished to dismantle. A good example of that can be seen in The Story Of The Kind Wolf.