The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman Analysis

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.

Wikipedia

Read the story online here. 

According to Asti Hustvedt in Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, “Hysteria was at least partly an illness of being a woman in an era that strictly limited female roles. It must be understood as a response to stifling social demands and expectations aptly expressed in paralysis, deafness, muteness, and a sense of being strangled.” The psychological trauma of being a Victorian woman could well lead to the symptoms described. Contemporary invalidity in many cases was psychosomatic, owing partly to the Victorian aesthetic ideal of the beautiful, thin, pitiable object of affection that is exemplified in figure of the sick, dying or dead woman (see Poe, Tennyson, Dickens, Soker, etc. etc. etc.) and partly to being sick being one of the few ways to evoke sympathy and attention outside of stifling domestic life.

I hardly have to mention that being an invalid was also an escape from the crushing burden of domestic work and the immense pressure of conforming to the expectations placed on a Victorian woman. Victorian texts are full of long convalescences of women complaining of vague paints, as well as the doubts of those around them of how legitimate these complaints may be. This is not to say that these women were “making it up,” but rather that suggestion, stress, and trauma all had a role in the “culture of invalidity.”

I think this excerpt is from Medical Muses

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.

THE YELLOW WALLPAPER AND FRANKENSTEIN

What has Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1888) got to do with “The Yellow Wallpaper”? Both are examples of feminine gothic texts. Mary Shelley ‘s tentpole novel explored themes such as transgression of gender roles and postpartum depression. Written later the same century, “The Yellow Wallpaper” intertextualises Frankenstein in similar ways.

Both stories:

  • Are about complete isolation
  • Present a typical feminist gothic reversal
  • Create a picture of monsterfied male control (rather than an actual madwoman)

In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator creates another woman in the wallpaper. This woman is both her double and her Other. Gothic texts feature a lot of mirrors and reflections. This wallpaper is basically a gothic mirror. Anyway, this gothic mirror, ahem, wallpaper, reflects the monstrous state of the female main character.

This figure multiplies into the image of the creeping women of the ambiguous ending. Likewise, the narrator herself creeps over her husband’s body.

Frankenstein was the first Gothic text to let the Othered have a voice. Likewise, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is told through the viewpoint of what some commentators have called “the monstrous-feminine”, describing a woman who doesn’t conform to expectations of femininity. (Neo-gothic work explores that a lot more deeply and widely.)

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE YELLOW WALLPAPER?

  • 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.
  • The reader might rread this story as a owman’s escape into madness, or as suicide, suggested by the first encounter with a strangled woman in the wallpaper. However you read it, the author refuses to tidy it up nicely for us, restoring the female main character to the symbolic order.
Fairy Tales and Fables, Gyo Fujikawa, 1970
Fairy Tales and Fables, Gyo Fujikawa, 1970

CHARACTERS

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.

Horace Taylor (1881-1934)
Horace Taylor (1881-1934)

SETTING OF THE YELLOW WALLPAPER

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.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

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.

POLITICS

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

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

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

Neo-gothic stories which centre the Othered woman are popular now, and a standout example is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a much earlier example of a story concerned with how the patriarchy feels the burden of subduing female procreation lies with men. (Pregnancy and unharnessed sexuality has long been conflated.)

Lemon girl young adult novella

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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.

MECHANICAL BEHAVIOUR ON SCREEN

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’.

MECHANICAL BEHAVIOUR AND CHILDREN’S STORIES

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.)

MECHANICAL BEHAVIOUR AND SUSPENSE STORIES

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.

EXPANDING THE CONCEPT OF MECHANICAL BEHAVIOUR

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.

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.

Victor Ambrus

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.
A SHORT LIST OF GOOD WITCHES FOR KIDS WHO ARE SCARED OF WITCHES
  • 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.

Akata Witch transports the reader to a magical place where nothing is quite as it seems. Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Will Sunny be able to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own, or will the future she saw in the flames become reality?

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.

Bustle
Jean Dulieu (Jan van Oort, 1921-2006), Dutch illustrator. The little gnome Paulus de Boskabouter and his enemy the witch Eucalypta, published in Eva 42,1957
Jean Dulieu (Jan van Oort, 1921-2006), Dutch illustrator. The little gnome Paulus de Boskabouter and his enemy the witch Eucalypta, published in Eva 42,1957

1. TRADITIONAL FAIRY TALE: HANSEL AND GRETEL

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.

2. MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: THE WITCHES BY ROALD DAHL

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.

3. PICTUREBOOK: ROOM ON THE BROOM BY JULIA DONALDSON

Room_on_the_Broom

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.

4. ANIMATED FILM: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE

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.

MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: WISE CHILD BY MONICA FURLONG

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.

MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA BY URSULA LE GUIN (1968)

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.

MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: I AM SUSANNAH BY LIBBY GLEESON (1987)

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.

HAMMER OF WITCHES BY SHANA MLAWSKI

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.

FURTHER READING ON WITCHES 

  1. The Education Of A Witch, a short story from Ellen Klages
  2. Lilith is a female demon from Jewish mythology. She has her own opinions, passions and desires. She’s sexually dominant, unafraid to protect her interests and is the mother of all kinds of creatures which are dangerous because they are independent and free-thinking.
  3. Witchcraft Trade, Skin Cancer Pose Serious Threats to Albinos in Tanzania
  4. A New Children’s Book Explains What “Witch” Really Means from Bitch Magazine
  5. Lists of books about witches at Goodreads
  6. A list of books about witches in the Miami University database
  7. And here’s the one with stepmothers, which are a different outworking of the witch trope, afterall.
  8. From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are cast as witches from The Guardian
Weeny Witch Party Book
Weeny Witch Party Book
Arthur Rackham The Entrance to the Witches' Castle
Arthur Rackham The Entrance to the Witches’ Castle
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson witch black cat
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson witch black cat
John Patience - The Little Mermaid sea witch
John Patience – The Little Mermaid sea witch
Lemon girl young adult novella

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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 because it is 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.

THE EXAMPLE OF TOY STORY 

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
Continue reading “The Female Maturity Formula Of Modern Storytelling”

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.

Juno

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 Main Character

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 AD/HD. (“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.

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

Desire

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.

Allies

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.

Opponent

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.

Plan

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.

Drive

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?

Big Struggle

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

Anagnorisis

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.

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Depictions Of School In Children’s Literature

Albert Ludovici - Kept In 1887

SCHOOL AS THE WILD WEST

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

HIGH SCHOOL AS LABYRINTHINE HELLMOUTH

If one is going to construct a Hellmouth, a convergence of beasts, evil, and demons, a high school may be the only logical site. Despite the rose-tinted glasses with which adults tend to view their secondary school years, high school for most teenagers can be a place teeming with horror — a labyrinth of biased and outdated curriculum to negotiate made all the more impossible by the constant barrage of socialization terrors that push one into adulthood. And yet, for a variety of reasons, teachers continue to lack the understanding required to share in the teenage discourse and thus truly connect with their students, and without connection, it seems unlikely that legitimate security can be achieved.

Jennifer Job

HIGH SCHOOL AS HORROR ARENA

[T]he school setting is not incidental to teenage horror. Rather, school is so integral to the fears on which these stories play that its significance goes unnoticed. Schooling constructs much of young people’s social and cultural environment and is intimately connected with many of their fears and anxieties. Schools set the criteria for success and failure, socially as well as academically, and create a world in which individuals are accepted or rejected on an almost daily basis. Part of the horror in the horror genre is based on exaggerated versions of these fears. Conversely, though, in horror, school is also the place where the control that schools should exert breaks down. Schools are orderly places, governed by timetables, bells, regulations, curricula, examinations and right and wrong answers that help to control the dangerous, surging, chaotic energies of adolescence so that young people can pass safely into well-regulated adulthood. The ‘Horror School’ is the realization of the teenager’s fear that these desires may take over, that their inner turmoil will take control.

Christine Jarvis, School is hell: Gendered fears in teenage horror, Educational Studies 2001

My own 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.”

IDEOLOGY OF SCHOOL STORIES FOR BOYS AND GIRLS

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

ON BOARDING SCHOOL STORIES IN PARTICULAR

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

To write a book about a school for wizards which assumes the cruelty of the world is an unchangeable part of it, and anyways being cruel isn’t bad, is to fucking fail at at the whole premise.

@RadFemme74, 8:50 AM · Aug 1, 2021

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.

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.

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.
In The Second Form At Malory Towers by Enid Blyton retro dust cover

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

Mildred Hubble is a trainee witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy, and she’s making an awful mess of it. She’s always getting her spells wrong and she can’t even ride a broomstick without crashing it. Will she ever make a real witch?

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

THE OLDER TYPE OF BOARDING SCHOOL STORIES

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.

An American classic and great bestseller for over thirty years, A Separate Peace is timeless in its description of adolescence during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to the second world war.

Set at a boys boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.

In this stunning and heartrending tale set in a Swaziland boarding school, two girls of different castes bond over a shared copy of Jane Eyre.

Adele Joubert loves being one of the popular girls at Keziah Christian Academy. She knows the upcoming semester at school is going to be great with her best friend Delia at her side. Then Delia dumps her for a new girl with more money, and Adele is forced to share a room with Lottie, the school pariah, who doesn’t pray and defies teachers’ orders. 

But as they share a copy of Jane Eyre, Lottie’s gruff exterior and honesty grow on Adele, and Lottie learns to be a little sweeter. Together, they take on bullies and protect each other from the vindictive and prejudiced teachers. Then a boy goes missing on campus and Adele and Lottie must rely on each other to solve the mystery and maybe learn the true meaning of friendship.

Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Collier's Magazine. January 1904 school
Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Collier’s Magazine. January 1904 school

Following the death of her closest friend in summer 1968, Meryl Lee Kowalski goes off to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls, where she struggles to navigate the venerable boarding school’s traditions and a social structure heavily weighted toward students from wealthy backgrounds. In a parallel story, Matt Coffin has wound up on the Maine coast near St. Elene’s with a pillowcase full of money lifted from the leader of a criminal gang, fearing the gang’s relentless, destructive pursuit. Both young people gradually dispel their loneliness, finding a way to be hopeful and also finding each other.

FURTHER READING

Emmy’s dad disappeared years ago, and with her mother too busy to parent, she’s shipped off to Wellsworth, a prestigious boarding school in England. But right before she leaves, a mysterious box arrives full of medallions and a note reading: These belonged to your father.

Just as she’s settling into life at Wellsworth, Emmy begins to find the strange symbols from the medallions etched into the walls and stumbles upon the school’s super-secret society, The Order of Black Hollow Lane. As Emmy and her friends delve deeper into the mysteries of The Order, she can’t help but wonder—did this secret society have something to do with her dad’s disappearance?

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.

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Header painting: Albert Ludovici – Kept In 1887

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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’.

Examples

  • 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

Examples

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

Georgia Byng’s mind-bending heroine makes a California-bound comeback, this time heading to L.A. to stop a power-hungry businessman from hypnotizing his way into the presidency of the United States.

When Molly learns that Lucy Logan has a dangerous job for her — stop multibillionaire (and ultra-strong hypnotist) Primo Cell in his tracks — the orphan thinks this task might be more than she can handle. Thankfully, she has Rocky and other characters along for the trip, and Molly soon finds herself hobnobbing with Hollywood stars. But Molly learns that Primo has the power of permanent hypnotism that can only be broken by a secret password — how can she reverse his effects? Molly discovers a startling surprise — she has time-stopping powers of her own — and after Primo’s son saves them from near death, she finds out that her problems have only just begun.

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.

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Stereotypes, Tropes and Archetypes

WHAT IS A STEREOTYPE?

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to the narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, non-specific generalities. […] Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel.

Story, Robert McKee

It’s hard if you confirm a stereotype and it’s hard if you violate a stereotype and it’s hard if you think you’re violating the stereotype only because you hate it so much.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
COMEDY TRICK MAKING USE OF STEREOTYPES

Like many comic writers, Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid books, makes use of our stereotypes by giving us just a few details then leaving us to fill in the rest. There’s no getting around it a lot of comic writers rely on stereotypical views of their audience.

Greg’s older brother Rodrick is set up as a fool. Like lots of stereotypes we hold about dimwits, he can’t spell and is a member of a rock band. Of course, being unable to spell and having an interest in rock music has zero correlation to overall intelligence. But we find this combination of traits funny because it reinforces everything we believe (sort of) about someone who can’t spell ‘loaded diaper’, or who thinks they’re going to become famous via their garage band. Every now and then, however, Rodrick does something amazing. His strokes of genius defy our expectations (based on stereotype) and are ironically funny for that reason.

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

WHAT IS A TROPE?

A trope is a pattern which can be seen time and again in various stories. The site TV Tropes is a good place to start for many, many examples of tropes (not just seen on TV). However, the ‘tropes’ on that site get a little too specific. Some of the most specific examples can’t really be considered tropes at all, except to the most discriminating of story consumers. In order to work, the trope has to be recognised by the audience.

WHAT IS AN ARCHETYPE?

Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person. They are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.

e.g.

Archetype is a five-dollar word for ‘pattern’, or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something — a story, let’s call it — comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again and again. You’d think that these components, these archetypes, would wear out with use the way cliche wears out, but they actually work the other way: they take on power with repetition, finding strength in numbers. … When we hear or see or read one of these instances of archetype, we feel a little frisson of recognition and utter a little satisfied ‘aha!’. And we get that chance with fair frequency, because writers keep employing them.

Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

Because they are basic to all human beings, archetypes cross cultural boundaries and have universal appeal.

The idea of an archetype comes from Jung’s psychoanalytical writings. Jung wrote about our heads, but the Canadian critic Northrop Frye took these ideas and applied them to books. Some academics use the word archetype and then make sure to distance themselves from the specifically Jungian definition. This is from a footnote I happened across:

The concept of “archetype” is used here to denote a widely-known story characterised by a repetition in its characteristics (the setting and resolution are predetermined) and a slight variation in its details; the concept of the “archetype” as used in this paper is devoid of the Jungian overtones commonly associated with the concept.

See: Fairytale Archetypes

ALISON HALDERMAN: Don’t people tend to choose an archetype they like and then seek out books that use that theme?

URSULA LE GUIN: Sure. Because people always need new symbols and metaphors.

The Last Interview

RELATED LINKS ABOUT STEREOTYPES

  1. World map of useless stereotypes.
  2. Automotive stereotypes look a bit different in Australia, so this American summary was interesting.
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Princesses In Children’s Stories

WHY ALL THE PRINCESSES?

The proliferation of princesses in stories for children is partly explained by Maria Nikolajeva in Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature:

A structural approach to formulaic fiction, presented by John G. Cawelti (1976, 91), singles out four roles in a detective story: the victim, the criminal, the detective, and those threatened by the crime but incapable of solving it. These roles correspond to Propp’s characters of princess, villain, hero and false hero. … Traditional children’s fiction is unmistakably plot oriented. It is commonly believed that young readers are more interested in plot than in characters, as compared with adult readers. Since myths and folktales are conditioned by plot, operating with flat and static characters, early children’s books, imitating folk narratives, also concentrated on the plot, mainly exploring characters to clarify the morals of the story.

So the princess trope is as useful as any other kind of trope.

PRINCESSES AND GIRLHOOD

The princess has become a symbol of naive girlhood. Ian McEwan uses the concept to illustrate a point about Briony, who is 12 or 13, on the point of adolescence when she can slip between childishness and adult precociousness in a moment. McEwan describes a defining moment in her transition to adulthood:

No more princesses! The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel — all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.

Atonement, p113-114.

So ‘princess’ forms the opposite of the elemental, the brutal, the criminal and the dark.

ALTERNATIVE PRINCESSES

There is definitely a princess backlash going on, and in modern books for children, princesses are likely to be the subversive kind: They may well wear a crown and live in a castle, but they’ll be autonomous, “tom-boyish”, cheeky, irreverent. Some of these princess stories have a definite moral of their own: Little girls don’t have to be submissive and like pink. Or more universally: You don’t have to be behave in the way society expects you to behave.

Here is Mighty Girl’s collection of strong, independent fictional princesses.

Other picturebook authors employ the princess trope for reasons which are not entirely clear to me — perhaps based on the idea that little girls are drawn to princess culture and will therefore be drawn to their book.

BOYS AND PRINCESSES

Princess books tend to fall into several categories:

  1. pink and sparkly
  2. fairytale and traditional
  3. subversive and ‘tomboyish’ and ‘feisty’
  4. as flawed and real

These books are purchased for and I daresay read mainly by — in public — by girls. But boys seem to like princesses, too. Or, they get princesses whether they really wanted them or not.

I recommend the article Your Princess Is In Another Castle by Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast, which is tag-lined with:

Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.

We all need to understand this, and the consequences of teaching boys that if they’re good, then their prize is a big-breasted, scantily clad young woman.

Of course, feminists have been saying this for a long time. But it takes a man to write it before it gets published at a mainstream non-feminist site such as The Daily Beast.

NOT ALL PRINCESSES DRESS IN PINK BY JANE YOLEN & HEIDI E.Y. STEMPLE ILLUSTRATED BY ANN-SOPHIE LANGUETIN

This is the first picture book I’ve seen in a while which has been worked on by three people — two authors as well as an illustrator. I guess a lot of women and girls would relate to this story; I do too, as I remember hating pink when I was about six through adolescence. This was nothing to do with pink itself, which did nothing wrong, and everything to do with going against what society thought I should be wearing/playing with/interested in.

There now exists a type of children’s book which is a backlash against the pinkification of girlhood. This book is one such example. Although pink is the symbol of all that it means to be a ‘proper girl’, it goes further than that. Of course I want my daughter to get the message that she doesn’t have to conform to any special to any stereotype of feminine roles. As depicted in this book, girls can get dirty playing football, look badass pitching a baseball, wear practical rather than pretty shoes and fix things with power drills.

In other words, this is a celebration of tomboy-hood. (I have an issue with the word ‘tomboy’.)

I don’t see any shortage of these sorts of stories, important as they are for the tomboys of this world. But girls, at least in this culture, are usually highly rewarded for doing traditionally male things such as science, mathematics and engineering. Girls are also applauded for playing rough-and-tumble games, at least until they become women, because although society is comfortable with watching ‘girls’ play sport, we’re not all that happy about watching ‘women’ play rough. Even in early childhood, few parents would chastise their daughters for playing with ‘boys’ toys’. This reflects the fact that male is still the default and the dominant, and so a girl who acts like a boy isn’t giving away any of her power by playing male roles.

What I do see a shortage of are picture books which celebrate dabbling in the feminine for little boys. That’s not to say that such books don’t exist; they may do. I just haven’t seen any. It’s time more parents accepted gender blurring activities for their little boys as well as for their little girls.

Amazon.com: The Princess Curse eBook: Merrie Haskell: Kindle Store

The cover shows a picture of an ordinary girl (albeit with long blond hair) wearing a riding helmet and petting the mane of a horse. So far so good. She looks ready for some sort of activity, and it looks like she’s going to be doing something useful or fun involving horses and not sitting around preening herself, waiting for her prince.

The aim of this story is to foster care of others, and especially care of animals, because Princess Poppy ends up taking care of a pony which has been found wild in the hills. Feminine attributes are celebrated, without any overt Tomboyish ironic statement about princesses and how pathetic they are. That said, I find the dialogue saccharine: ‘”Aw, that pony is soooooo sweet!” cried Poppy.’

Except this is a My Little Pony kind of horse obsession, in which the pony is groomed, gently, and although some riding takes place, we have the usual heavy emphasis on what the female characters look like. ‘As the girls entered the stable block, they spotted two sets of beautiful riding clothes that Daisy had grown out of. They changed into jodhpurs, riding jackets with velvet collars, and shiny black boots. “And choose a hat!” said Daisy, pointing to rows of little wooden shelves, each containing hard hats in black, brown and navy blue.’ (Would a horse story for boys list all the different colours of hat?) ‘When they arrived back at the paddock, Mum and Granny Bumble were there too and everyone told Poppy and Honey how smart they looked.’

Note this use of ‘smart’ is in reference to their clothing, not to their riding smarts. This is hardly a story about girl power. ‘David helped Poppy into the saddle.’  On the final page: ‘”You are a perfect little princess — you didn’t give up.” said Mum. This is a good message, giving up. Except I don’t feel as if enough time has passed in the story for it to be a story about perseverance. In order for that one to work, we’d have to see the perfect little princess a year later, diligently grooming and feeding her new pony without being reminded by her mother.

EMILY AND THE EAST OAK TREE BY AMANDA BRIGGS AND JAN WADE

I’m increasingly suspicious of books with glitter stuck to the pages. I’ve yet to meet a good one.

I have no idea when this book was created because it entirely lacks a colophon. I only notice this because I had the task of cataloguing it for preschool over summer. This job alerted me to another big problem with underfunding of preschools: a lot of the books they’ve gathered over the years seem to have been donated by former students, with no curation whatsoever. Our preschool is private (there is no public alternative), and as a non-profit instutition fees are kept as low as possible. There are no decent funds for books. A lot of the books are from the 1970s. The teachers buy their own books if they want modern and enlightened. This isn’t good enough.

The opening sentence alienates me somewhat: ‘It was Christmas Eve and Emily was all alone. She had no brothers or sisters to play with, and her parents had been made to work.’ I’m a parent of an only child (by choice) and the author seems to have an agenda, reinforced overleaf:

‘Haven’t you got any brothers or sisters to play with?’

Emily shook her head miserably.

‘How dreadful,’ said the fairy. ‘Everyone should have someone to play with.’

This reminds me of comments I’ve had such as, ‘Don’t you feel sorry for her?’ and ‘Children need brothers and sisters for playmates’ and ‘What about after you’re dead and gone?’ and ‘But if — god forbid — something happens to your only child you won’t be a mum anymore.’ Yes, people actually say these things.

Likewise, children’s authors should be wary of expressing their personal views on lifestyle choices. Even if it’s purely accidental, it’s still not good enough to get all judgey on parents who have to work Christmas Eve (a class issue) and parents who choose to have fewer than two children.

Moving on, this isn’t a good story in other ways. First, it doesn’t need to be a Christmas story at all. It’s not about Christmas, and there is nothing Christmassy about it. The only reason I can think of for the author to have set the story on a Christmas Eve is to engender more sympathy for Emily All Alone. But the problem with introducing Christmas in the first sentence and then not coming back to it until the very last is that this confuses genres in an ad hoc sort of way. This is a fairy story reminiscent of the Enid Blyton era.

The problem with re-creating 1940s style fairy stories is that it’s all too easy to reproduce outdated gender stereotypes. When Emily first encounters the fairy, the fairy speaks harshly (for no good reason other to drum up some conflict, I suspect — the same thing that annoys me in films and novels ). Emily starts to cry. It is only after Emily starts to cry that the fairy softens and takes Emily under her wing. I’m not sure about all the other parents of preschoolers out there, but teaching children not to burst out crying whenever they don’t get what they want takes some years of concerted effort, so I don’t need this modelled in picturebooks.

As for the plot, the dilemma in the story is that Princess Ruber (the colour red) can’t marry Prince Caeruleus (the colour blue) because if they do, they’ll each lose their colour. I’m not sure if this is meant to be saying something about intermarriage — I’m sure I’d be well advised to stay well clear of reading any subtext into it. In the end, the two do get married and become the colour purple. So children learn, if they haven’t already, that blue plus red equals purple and it turns into a mini art lesson.

Amazon.com: Not Every Princess eBook: Jeffrey Bone, Lisa Bone, Valeria Docampo: Books

A list of positive princesses in picturebooks from No Time For Flashcards

Reminder that the book Princess Academy is actually very good from BloomsburyUS Kids/YAPRINCESS SCIENTISTS” DRAW YOUNG GIRLS INTO SCIENCE, AND PLENTY OF CONTROVERSY from The Mary Sue

What if Disney’s Princesses were horror stories? from io9. (I would argue that some of them already are.)

Is a Disney Free Daughter Really A More Empowered One? from Jezebel

Someone takes photos of women dressed as Disney princesses and posts them to Flickr. In fact 2012 was a big year for princess memes and Internet trends. Can We Please Stop With The Hipster Disney Princesses came from Mommyish.

Turns out there’s a rule. Nothing surprising. Turns out Princesses kinda have to be white, even Latina ones.

Meanwhile, Movieline wonders if the Anti-Princess movement has finally arrived? And by anti-princess, they mean all those princesses who don’t behave like traditional princesses but who are still princesses.

What would you do if your son wanted to dress up as a princess? I’D LET HIM.

Six Princess Books For Parents Who Really, Really Hate Princesses from Good Men Project

WHAT DISNEY PRINCESSES WOULD LOOK LIKE IF THEY WERE ACTUALLY HUMAN from The Mary Sue

Stop Telling Girls They Are Princesses from Daily Life

Grace Kelly Dies: Books about princesses from YA Reading List

It’s time we all grew up and ditched the Princess Fantasy thing from The Guardian

The Psychosocial Implications of Disney Movies has plenty of information about Disney Princesses through the ages.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

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Why So Many Animals In Picture Books?

why so many animals in picture books
There’s a growing number of non-human characters in children’s programming. This cannot be minimized. Here’s the full report. (The Landscape of Children’s Television in the US & Canada.)

Before talking about the various categories of animals in picture books for children, let’s take a brief look at how people from antiquity have divided the animal kingdom.

According to from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge by Jorge Luis Borges, animals divide into:

  • those that belong to the Emperor
  • embalmed ones
  • those that are trained
  • suckling pigs
  • mermaids
  • fabulous ones
  • stray dogs
  • those included in the present classification
  • those that tremble as if they were mad
  • innumerable ones
  • those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
  • others
  • those that have just broken a flower vase
  • those that from a long way off look like flies. 

The Evolution Of Animals In Stories Over Time

1. Animals are magical. See folklore and fairy tales. They can take human identities with their magic, and sometimes heroes take on animal identities to carry out their plans.

2. Animals are amusing. Animals are no longer objects but characters in their own right. Now they are being used to show up human foibles. (Mrs Gatty, Charles Kingsley)

3. Guilt. Animals in stories are there to show us all our human shortcoming, and also how animals should properly be treated. (Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Sarah Trimmer’s religious stories (1782-1819). Other writers such as George Orwell use them as pawns in satire (Animal Farm). Other writers  allow animals to retaliate against humans who have treated them badly (Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds, The Chronicles of Narnia).

Animal stories rose as religious stories declined in popularity.

Firsts

Fables go way back, of course. But when it comes to published work, the advent of animals in literature, it all started happening from the mid 1700s. Black Beauty started a trend.

The first dog book was The History of Pompey the Little (1751)

Black Beauty is the first real animal novel (1877)

The Jungle Book (1893) is the first attempt to enter an animal world

The Story of Dr Dolittle (1922) is the first to consider animal rights

Mary Plain (1930) is the first animal (a bear) to share the human one

An astonishing number of the characters depicted in picture books are not people at all, but animals—or rather, humans who look like animals, for Horton the elephant of Horton Hatches the Egg and Pearl the pig heroine of The Amazing Bone are certainly more human than animal in their interests and motivations. In many picture books, indeed, only the pictures inform us that the characters are animals; to give just one example, Russell Hoban’s Frances is a badger only in Lillian Hoban’s illustrations of her; in the text, she talks and acts like an ordinary human child.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Comic strip by Guy Kopsombut

1. EFFICIENCY

Certain animals come with prepackaged character traits: wolves are evil, foxes are cunning, bears like honey.  These animals are character archetypes. Cats and dogs don’t get on, pigs are messy and baby chickens are cute and vulnerable. When an author wants to use (or subvert) one of these tropes, it’s efficient to make use of an animal archetype. Also, one specific character trait can be emphasised in this way, and readers expect flat rather than rounded characterisation.

Related to animals as archetypes, animals have long been seen as ‘plain speakers’. While humans don’t say things as they are, animals in storybooks do, like sages. The reader then has the choice to either appreciate what’s been said at face value, or to look for some deeper meaning.

2. MORE EMPATHY WITH ANIMALS

In some books, the animals don’t have the power of speech. Children identify with animals because young children cannot express themselves verbally either. On the other hand, it’s difficult to identify too closely with an animal character, which is just as well when we have small, cute birdies chased down by big, bad wolves. Animal characters can provide just the right balance of empathy and distance.

Young readers seldom have problems identifying with anthropomorphic animal or toy characters as long as these hold the disempowered subject positions similar to their own (therefore, mice, bunnies, and kittens are more popular in children’s fiction than tigers and other aggressive carnivores.)

Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

3. VISUAL HUMOUR

An animal dressed up on clothes will never lose its appeal, although I’d love to go back to the day Beatrix Potter’s first book came out and see the look of true delight that must have crossed the faces of readers who saw animals dressed as, and acting like, people for the first time.

Salvador Rojo, Mexican artist

4. PRACTICALITY

In a cast of many characters, making the characters animals saves the need for an author to assign names and likewise, saves children from having to memorise them. ‘Miss Fox’ obviously refers to the character who looks like a fox; ‘Squirrel’ would be the squirrel. Also, animal characters can be more easily accepted as flat and static. Curious George can have his ‘monkeyness’ amplified. A non-human friend has no social obligations (no parents of their own), and can do things like sleep in the same bed as the human child.

Again I’m talking about making use of archetypes, and as Perry Nodelman explains, much of this practicality is owed to Aesop:

There are historical reasons for this concentration of animals who act like humans, among them the fact that some of the first stories considered suitable for children were the fables of Aesop, in which supposedly characteristic animal attributes are identified with human behaviour. These identifications still operate in picture books today. The image of a fox in The Amazing Bone immediately evokes the idea of craftiness, and in picture book after picture book, we are meant to understand immediately that the lions depicted are arrogant, the peacocks proud, the pigs gluttonous, the mice timid, the rats nasty. As Leonard Marcus says in “Picture Book Animals,” “animals as images in our everyday thought and expression are among the most association-rich classes of symbols. Just under the surface of picture book fantasies, cultural meanings may well be at work.”

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Nodelman also points out that traditional (Aesopian) ideas about which personalities belong to which animals can be subverted, inverted, used ironically. He gives the example of Pearl the pig in The Amazing Bone. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance. These stories contain the message that we shouldn’t judge others based on preconceived ideas.

I’d suggest that picture books with animal characters are a great way to avoid all those visual mis-match problems whilst getting to the emotional heart of the matter.

Pippa Goodhart

So now, after a long tradition of storytelling, we are used to stories about animals which are really about humans. Why did Aesop tell stories about animals instead of humans in the first place?

Legend has it that Aesop was an African slave born in 620 B.C. and a hunchback with a quick wit and tongue. If you understanding that these stories were created in a situation where free speech was dangerous for the lowly, you will grasp the special flavour of the fables. Take the story of the “Lion and the Mouse” where a lion frees a mouse he has captured because of the little creature’s laughable promise to perhaps someday help the larger one; later that promise is fulfilled when the mouse gnaws through ropes after the lion is captured in a net. Here we can imagine a slave trying to subtly suggest to his master that sometimes the lowly should be listened to and can assist their betters; but we should note that this point is being made in a completely inoffensive and oblique way, by means of animals.

Jerry Griswold

However, problems of the dominant culture don’t suddenly become absent as soon as illustrators/authors turn people into animals. On the contrary: the pettiness of current social practices can be universalised, as described by John Berger.

5. DELIBERATE AVOIDANCE OF HARD HUMAN TRUTHS

The Humans Are Dead

It’s impossible to create a picture book — or any work of art — without covertly commenting on social and economic status, ethnic identity and gender roles (for starters). When characters are animals, some of this extraneous stuff can be avoided, at least if they’re moles living in a hole. Not so much if they’re middle-class white rats living in a suburban house. (Pinocchio can endure more than a human child would. Horrible stuff happens in that book but the animals — as well as the fairies — soften it up a bit.) There’s a school of thought that children don’t see gender, for instance, so therefore it’s okay to code all animal characters as masculine. I don’t buy into this idea, but I believe it’s an influential idea which has influenced the number of animals in picture books.

However, animal characters can still be coded as white dudes.

Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.

animal white dude default from Bojack Horseman

The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:

In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.

My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”

I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.

The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.

Boring Old Raphael, Tumblr

Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere. He also says this:

White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories

It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.

The LEGO Movie was my favourite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.

That’s why Jon Klassen’s characters are male. That’s why Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug characters are male. The main guy in Pig The Pug is even called ‘Trevor’ — the most non-descript, white, male Australian name possible. That’s probably why Oliver Jeffers writes a story about a boy called Wilfred and not a girl called Wilhelmina.

Bojack Horseman isn’t entirely problem free. It’s still about the problems of a white dude, as clearly explained by Eleanor Robertson at The Guardian.

But I have heard interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we have not settled upon a gender free pronoun in English as it’s widely used.)

It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.

double spread from This Moose Belongs To Me

That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis. (And in case I need to clarify, I do not subscribe to this rule. But I have heard it. I have heard it round the traps, and I know that writers subscribe to it.)

"The King of Ireland's Son" written by Padraig Colum, by Willy Pogany, 1916
Bojack Horseman isn’t the first horse head on a man’s body. This illustration from the book “The King of Ireland’s Son” written by Padraig Colum, with illustrations by Willy Pogany, 1916. There are also many horse headed men in the Indian folktale tradition.
'The King of Beasts and Other Creatures' by Ron Searle (1979), book cover lion
‘The King of Beasts and Other Creatures’ by Ron Searle (1979).

White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction

Alongside comedy,  the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because if the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy they must work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:

a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world

b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.

That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works.  We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.

(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)

This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.

For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default in storytelling is with picture books. Writers: don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.

6. AN OLD FASHIONED VIEW OF CHILDREN

To represent characters as animals or toys is a way to create distance, to adjust the plot to what the author believes is familiar for child readers. This reflect a stereotypical and obsolete attitude to children as not fully human, at least not fully developed as human beings… Fables, which represent human faults in animal figures, were considered suitable for children during certain periods. Animals are seldom portrayed as protagonists in books for teenagers or in mainstream literature, outside allegory, such as Watership Down, or satire, such as Animal Farm.

The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, Nikolajeva

7. ANIMAL UTOPIA

A countryside populated by small, indigenous animals is many people’s wish, hope, and memory; but such a place, if it is to give imaginative satisfaction, has to be happy and romanticised. Animal life is not happy in the human sense; it is merely neutral. Human life can be, might be, more often is not, but always has, the possibility. Giving these small animals human qualities is to put them out of reach of inevitable fear, pain and death which is their natural lot. But the device also waves a magic wand and makes humans small, giving them animal qualities and cutting them off from human miseries and frustrations, sexual pangs, jealousy, bitterness and revenge, so that these minute societies have the best of both worlds.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount
  • The Wind In The Willows — this story does not entirely succeed at keeping real-world miseries out of the talking animal utopia. This is deliberate, as Kenneth Grahame has important things to say about real life.
  • The Little Grey Men — written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the nom de plume “BB”.  The story follows the adventures of four gnomes who may be the last of their kind. It also features the countryside during three seasons of the year.
  • Tales of Sam Pig and Brock the Badger — by Alison Uttley, a British writer who wrote lots of animal stories for children. Sam Pig lives in a thatched cottage with Tom, Bill and Ann Pig, and also Brock the Badger. The Derbyshire countryside setting shines through as an animal utopia.
  • The Butterfly’s Ball by William Roscoe — a poem from 1807 , so different from the moral stories that had come before that it forms the first of a new type. Animals are now dressed/humanised for ‘gaiety and charm’ rather than for ‘amusement and strangeness’. It was enormously popular at the time.

These sorts of stories don’t work nearly so well without illustration.

8. ANIMALS MAKE FOR GOOD COMEDY

Ayano Imai – Japanese artist

Due to the efficiency of animals mentioned above, with animals as characters the writer has an inbuilt set of jokes. Animals have their own characteristics (some common only within fiction) and writers can use these characteristics to launch character humour. Puns are also abundant when you have an animal as a character, e.g. in BoJack Horseman you have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is a maggot.

I do think animals evoke a tone within a story automatically, simply by their presence. Each species has its own characterisations based on what we know about their behaviour. If a character is walking in the woods, for example, the presence of a deer evokes something different than say, a wolf, or bald eagle, or something totally unexpected like . . . an elephant. At a reading of Jasper Fforde’s he once said that crabs are funnier than lobsters, and that he wasn’t sure why, but he felt strongly that they were. We all have generalized associations with animals, and writers use those associations to drive an emotional reaction in their scenes. In the novel The Sisters Brothers, both protagonists have different relationships with their horses, treat and speak to them differently, and it reflects a great deal about who these characters are, what they value, how much empathy they have, and how relatable they are. In myriad ways, the presence of animals in stories enhances what we know about a character, foreshadows an event to come, or gives the scene mood and texture.

We have automatic, instinctual associations with certain animals, and I also really enjoy it when an author plays against them. Children’s stories often use animals as their main characters, very blatantly, but not in the ways that you would expect. My favourite book growing up was Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte, the spider, is the book’s real heroine and when she died it was the first time I ever thought about mortality, as grim as that sounds. Now, I love the work of writers like Laura van den Berg, Abby Geni, and Karen Russell, who use animals and other elements of the natural world in their stories. A lot of their work plays with the tension between the strange and the familiar, and I think this says a lot about the way we relate to animals: we want to understand them, but they will always be a little bit unknowable to us. Animals play so many different roles in stories it would be impossible to discuss them all here, but one interesting trend we’ve touched on in this discussion is how the line between the “human” and the “animal” is often blurred in fiction, with animals taking on human roles and humans, literally, assuming animal form.

The Masters Review
Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why can't animals talk
Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why can’t animals talk

Perhaps of Interest

A new study by University of Toronto researchers has found that kids’ books that feature animals with human characteristics not only inhibit factual learning, they may also hinder children’s thinking and reasoning about real-life animals.

Children’s books that feature animals with human traits create confusion in young minds about nature and biology: University of Toronto study, National Post
Lemon girl young adult novella

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