Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne

Hansel and Gretel is one of the best-known fairytales. Almost everybody knows the basic story but, more than that, this tale is the ur-story for many seemingly unrelated modern ones. For example, whenever a character meets a character in a ‘forest’ (whether the forest is symbolic or not), the audience is put in mind of wicked cannibalistic witches.

Let’s face it: The tale itself is basically terrifying. Anthony Browne, with his postmodern approach to its retelling, does not shy away from the terror.

‘Sweetened’ Versions of Hansel and Gretel

Ladybird Hansel and Gretel

The truth is, my daughter does not like the Anthony Browne version of Hansel and Gretel. For her it is too scary. She doesn’t like the dark version illustrated by Lorenzo Mattoti, either, preferring the cheap Ladybird edition with its brighter colours. This might explain why many illustrators of Hansel and Gretel — and there have been many — are not interested in what the story is really about, because the original is just too horrible.

The sweetening of this tale started with the Grimm brothers, who needed to make money to support their collection hobby, so they rewrote some of the horrible tales into versions they considered appropriate for middle class children.

in the dark woods

The Grimm Brothers Made It Worse, As Usual

By that I mean, they made it horribly patriarchal. And we’ve been using their version ever since, sweetening it up a little, but the basic patriarchal message is the same:

The Grimm brothers rewrote and refined their version of the tale before it was published in 1857. It bears little resemblance to the original oral tale told to Wilhelm in 1810. While the mother figure is clearly demonized in this story, the father’s involvement in abandoning his children is carefully downplayed.

— from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The main differences in the oral version:

  • The opponent was originally a mother, not a stepmother. The Grimm brothers obviously thought that having your blood mother turn on you was too scary. They did retain the shortened form of ‘mother’ in some passages though.
  • The mother/stepmother grows harsher.
  • The father grows more introspective and milder.
  • Wilhelm made the tale more dramatic, more literary, and more sentimental. For example, the children’s escape from the sinister woods across a large body of water, one at a time, on the back of a duck. In the original they simply run home.

Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel Anthony Browne book cover

Anthony Browne is one writer/illustrator who does understand what this tale is really about, though he does go with something more like the Grimm modification rather than the original, oral tale.

This is no sweetened version. The fact that this is a modern setting, with a TV and a step-mother who smokes cigarettes, and that they live in a brownstone detached house mean that the child reader can no longer pretend abandonment and famine happen only in ‘fairytale land’.

dining room table
The mother does not consider herself a part of the family, based on her refusal to sit at the dinner table. Instead she gazes into the TV.

walking into the woods

Here’s the thing Browne underscores the most:

The mother and the witch are the same person.

In Hansel and Gretel, the mother figure is split … and clearly has cannibalistic desires.

— from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniels further explains the double/duplicitous/split nature of the (step)mother/witch with the help of some 20th C psychoanalysis:

The witch locks Hansel up in a cage and wakes Gretel up by yelling: “Get up you lazybones! I want you to fetch some water and cook your brother something nice. He’s sitting outside in a pen, and we’ve got to fatten him up. Then, when he’s fat enough, I’m going to eat him.”

This is a portrait of a powerful cannibalistic woman, the bad mother, who is directly juxtaposed with the good mother figure. Two facets of the mother figure are represented in this fairy tale: the evil, threatening, cannibalistic one embodied by the witch/stepmother and the comforting, feeding persona initially presented by the old woman to lure the children. The link between the stepmother and the witch is made explicitly — they both wake the children with the phrase “Get up, you lazybones” and they are both dead by the end of the story: the stepmother is the facet of the bad mother/breast who denies the children nourishment and abandons them; the witch is the mother/breast who threatens to retaliate. The duplicitousness of the bad mother is also emphasized: in her manifestation as the stepmother she pretends to be as pleased when the children find their way home; as the witch she pretends to be a kind, generous, good mother in order to lure the children into her house.

stepmother and shadow
The mother equals the witch. The clue is in the way her shadow is cast, and the way the curtains form a witch’s hat in the perfect position.

Oral Aggression?

Bruno Bettelheim [who was a total asshole, by the way — I can’t write about him without slipping that in there] considers “Hansel and Gretel” to be a tale about a child’s inappropriate oral aggression, that “gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and thus destructive desires.” But it is noteworthy that in this tale the children are orally nonaggressive. They do break off pieces of the house and “nibble” them but then they are about to “perish of hunger and exhaustion” (Grimms.) It is the witch who is aggressive and cannibalistic, but Bettelheim does not discuss this.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

the cottage made of sweets

Hansel and Gretel and Child Development

killing the witch
When children defeat a witch in a fairy tale this signifies separation from mother — a necessary stage in psychic development.

 

I’m no Freudian, but here’s some quoted psychoanalysis if you like.

freud's_psychosexual_stages

It is interesting to consider the ending of the tale in terms of psychoanalytic notions of child development. The children’s task is to escape the clutches of the devouring mother and to proceed from the oral phase to the oedipal stage and a meaningful relationship with their father. They live in her house for a month while she feeds Hansel on “the very best food” and waits for him to get fatter. Hansel, then, partakes of the good breast while Gretel, who “got nothing but grab shells” to eat, is denied it. They are clearly in the oral, pre-oedipal phase. By threatening to eat Hansel, the witch/bad mother clearly intends to incorporate and psychically obliterate him. Gretel kills the witch/bad mother by pushing her into the oven so that she is “miserably burned to death”. The threat of incorporation she poses is thus neutralized.

Since the children have now successfully separated from the witch/mother, they are able to reenter her house/domain “since they no longer had anything to fear.” There are children find “chests filled with pearls and jewels all over the place” and they fill pockets and apron with this treasure before leaving the house for good. Tracy Willard contends that while the good mother is not reclaimed literally or explicitly in this tale, she is symbolically reclaimed through the treasure the children find in her house. I suggest that this tale illustrates the process whereby children reconcile themselves to the duality of the mother; her presence and absence, her giving and withholding of food, and the gratification and frustration that result. The children in the tale not only kill off the bad mother but they also leave behind the oral phase. When they arrive at the house in the forest, all they are interested in is food (gratification from a maternal source), but when they leave the house/maternal domain they take treasure (economic wealth associated with the father) with them which enriches their lives, so that they can enter the paternal oedipal domain, and live with their father in “utmost joy”.

Willard […] sees the children’s home (or mother’s body) as a place that becomes hostile to them, expelling them into the forest and denying them food. They try to return but are rejected and thrust out to fend for themselves. The children find a house in the woods that appears to offer them what they desire (a return to the mother’s body) but it turns out to be a trap. Thus “the dangers of returning home are clearly outlined.” The children, Willard argues, must deal with the image of the split mother so that they can attain “a fully integrated image of the mother”. They do this by committing matricide, an act which Kristeva argues is the clearest path to autonomy. By killing the witch/bad mother, the children are free to return to their father, but they take with them the “best parts” of the split mother figure, symbolically represented by the jewels. […] The symbolism of food and the theme of eating (including cannabilism) in the story have profound psychic resonances with infantile anxieties relating to the mother which is arguably why the story continues to be popular.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The Role Of The Father and ‘Mothers In Fridges’?

But what of the role of the father in this tale? The Grimm brothers’ version celebrates the oedipal complex and reinforces patriarchal hegemony. As Zipes argues, this story twice demonizes the omnipotent mother figure but it also, significantly, was rewritten by the Grimms in order to rationalize the abandonment of the children by their father and to bolster phallocentric discourses.Hansel and Gretel must, Zipes argues, “seek solace and security in a father, who becomes their ultimate authority figure” while the mother is conveniently killed off. This situation marries with Jessica Benjamin’s theorization of object relations whereby the child identifies with the mother and maternal power and turns to the father for help in order to overcome the perceived negative aspects of the mother. However, once his help/authority has been accepted the father figure remains in control, continues to dictate the child’s life, and can be “benevolent or sadistic”. Patriarchal hegemony and phallocentric logic are thus reinforced in the Grimms’ narrative and the outcome is rendered natural or rational.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

reunited with dad

water from the well

SYMBOLISM IN “HANSEL AND GRETEL”

The Red Shoes

witch shape in curtains

What do you associate red shoes with? Perhaps you associate them with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, in which the bad witch is squished under the house, her ruby slippers poking out?

Ruby Slippers Oz

The Red Shoes is a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, so not of the Grimm variety, but ‘fairytale’ enough for readers to get the possible meaning in the picture above, in which red shoes sit next to the mirrored wardrobe door.

A peasant girl named Karen is adopted by a rich old lady after her mother’s death and grows up vain and spoiled. Before her adoption, Karen had a rough pair of red shoes; now she has her adoptive mother buy her a pair of red shoes fit for a princess. After Karen repeatedly wears them to church, they begin to move by themselves, but she is able to get them off. One day, when her adoptive mother becomes ill, Karen goes to a party in her red shoes. A mysterious soldier appears and makes strange remarks about what beautiful dancing shoes Karen has. Soon after, Karen’s shoes begin to move by themselves again, but this time they can’t come off. The shoes continue to dance, night and day, rain or shine, through fields and meadows, and through brambles and briers that tear at Karen’s limbs. She can’t even attend her adoptive mother’s funeral. An angel appears to her, bearing a sword, and condemns her to dance even after she dies, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen begs for mercy but the red shoes take her away before she hears the angel’s reply. Karen finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so but the shoes continue to dance, even with Karen’s amputated feet inside them. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches, and teaches her the criminals’ psalm. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church so people can see her. Yet her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking she is at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way. Karen gets a job as a maid in the parsonage, but when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. Instead she sits alone at home and prays to God for help. The angel reappears, now bearing a spray of roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: her heart becomes so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.

— Wikipedia summary

pink fripperies

The pink fripperies spilling out of the dresser drawers suggest several things about this step-mother:

  1. She is not a good housewife (when the implication is that a good housewife is also a good mother, and that being a good housekeeper is the job of the woman.
  2. That women who are over-the-top feminine — look at all the feminine accoutrements, signified by the colour pink — are over-the-top vain. The mirror adds to the impression of vanity, and we will subconsciously conjure up Snow White and the magic mirror in that tale.

Note that the step-mother has not one but two mirrors in her bedroom, which is considered excessively vain, but apart from that, there’s the whole ‘witch/mother’ mirroring going on.

CANNIBALISM

10 Historic Famines That Caused Cannibalism

Repulsive as it sounds in times of plenty, cannibalism in times of famine isn’t all that unusual.

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child.

In modern literature, there is a horrific scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the main characters happen across a baby being roasted on a spit. It seems McCarthy, also, understands that babies are more likely to be eaten than older children in times of famine.

Paternal cannibalism is of a different nature and can be seen in The Juniper Tree (sometimes called The Almond Tree). In cases where the father eats his child in a fairytale, Tatar sees it as an expression of ‘biological ownership through incorporation’. The child can (in a strange sort of way) live on via being made into the father’s own body. The father in the Juniper Tree is not cast as good or evil in the same way fairy tale mothers are.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH HANSEL AND GRETEL

Other fairytales that start in a time of famine:

  • Tom Thumb
  • The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn
  • God’s Food
  • The Sweet Porridge — better known in English speaking countries as The (Magic) Porridge Pot
  • The Children of Famine — exemplifies the plight of families unable to feed their kids. The mother becomes unhinged and desperate when she is unable to feed her own children.
  • Little Red Riding Hood also has cannibalistic elements which are sometimes sanitised. This tale is pretty much the only European tale in which a good — a good girl no less — is involved in cannibalism.

Witches In Children’s Literature

The Weirdness Of Using Witches In Modern Entertainment

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

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

Which I usually love.

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

Good vs. Evil

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

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

– from a review of Smurfs 2, which saves me from ever seeing that film.

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 boos
  • 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

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 teh 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 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.

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.

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 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.)

Blue Fairy Book witch

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

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.

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.

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.

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 protagonists, 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 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 protagonist, 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.

See also my lengthy post about ParaNorman, which heavily features witches, linking them to young, intelligent, modern-day feminists.

MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: WISE CHILD BY MONICA FURLONG

My review on Goodreads

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

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

I haven’t read this. 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 tot hem. 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.

My review on Goodreads

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

Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton

I have conflicted views about Enid Blyton, but Thirteen O’Clock story is relatively free of the problems I (and many others) have taken issue with in these slightly more enlightened times. We still have a story in which a young patriarch-in-training helps an older female character out by tending to her minor injury and finding a lost cat, which some may read more generously as an example of feminine caring.

Thirteen O'Clock cover

All that aside, this was one of my most favourite books as a preschooler — that lady sure knew how to tell a tale to children. Mine is the 1974 version illustrated by Tom Barling in very 70s style. The story itself may have been written much earlier, though Enid Blyton was writing right up until 1975, and it’s not easy to find the years in which specific short stories were published.


 

WONDERFULNESS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

Enid Blyton was well-schooled in a kind of superstitious mysticism which she made great use of in her fantasy stories. Fairies, goblins, pixies, brownies, witches, portals into other lands… In this story, she makes use of a very old superstition surrounding the number 13. What’s the basic back story of this unlucky number?

  • Oddly, superstition around the number 13 derives from various unrelated cultures around the world, not just one. This may have something to do with lunar-solar calenders, in which there are 12 point something ‘months’ per solar year. This gives a culture 12 ‘months’ plus a bit of a month (the thirteenth) per year.
  • The number 13 may rather disturbingly be linked to a form of ancient misogyny: In ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The theory is that, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number thirteen became anathema, because (obv!) periods are evil.
  • In modern times, even people who actively avoid the number 13 probably don’t really think of that reason, but superstitious types still manage to find reasons to believe that there is something inherently wrong about the number.

Other authors have taken the number 13 and used it in a plot device for genres such as thriller and horror, but Blyton, in writing for children, pairs this rather sinister tradition with the childlike tradition of blowing dandelion ‘clocks’ in order to tell the time. (Blyton had no significant qualms about refusing to use literature as a conduit to a rounded scientific education.) In Blyton’s story, ‘once in a blue moon’ means that the moon literally turns blue.

photo by Yvonne Gorman
photo by Yvonne Gorman

The thing I loved most about this book was the thing I also loved about the Faraway Tree series, in which Blyton’s wood whispers ‘Wisha wisha’ as the wind blows through the trees. This phrase gave me a deliciously thrilling feeling as a young reader. In Thirteen O’Clock, Blyton not only encourages word play with phrases such as ‘Hoona-looki-allo-pie’ but has created another marvellous phrase of frisson: ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’ This had me hiding under my blankets.


 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

What makes the illustrations in this book seem distinctively 1970s? The 1970s was a decade wedged between a time of great printing advancements, with the widespread introduction of colour printing in the 1960s, and the beginning of digital illustration used (at least for some parts of the process) by many illustrators working today. Illustrators were working in colour, but they were also drawing and painting by hand.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE 1970S

It was in the 1960s that a new type of picture book emerged — those in which illustrations dominated the text. This particular book isn’t one such example — in fact, this book is more accurately a richly illustrated short story, since the story can exist in its own right (and indeed does, inside various anthologies) without these pictures.

One thing that makes Tom Barling’s illustrations seem specifically 1970s is the strong use of line. Another illustrator working around this time was Pat Hutchins, who published Rosie’s Walk in 1968, just a few years earlier. In Rosie’s Walk, too, the influence of folk art is strong; line exists not only to add form and shadow to objects but also to act as a decoration in its own right. In Thirteen O’Clock, likewise, there is no attempt made at any kind of aerial perspective; leaves on a tree in the distance are depicted in detail, even though the unseen viewer is too far away from that tree to realistically perceive anything more than a green clump.

IMG_5634

To provide some rest for the eyes, Barling was making good use of white space — as modern illustrators are still doing today — the roads and the sky are white, and there is an area of blank reserved for the text on every double spread.

Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.
Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.

ILLUSTRATING CLOTHING

Tom Barling has of course dressed Sandy in 1970s fashion, with tight jeans that flare at the bottom and a wide belt. He wears his hair long (which happens to be in fashion again for adolescent boys, but isn’t always). It’s interesting to look at how various illustrators of children’s books deal with fashions of the day; if we dress our characters in clothing specific to the year or decade, this will place our stories firmly inside that decade even if the story itself is more universal than that. Is there an ‘unmarked’ wardrobe illustrators can use to avoid decade-placement as much as possible? Certainly, some illustrators rely upon stock clothing for their characters. Mercer Mayer is a good example of that. Though he has illustrated the Little Critter books over decades, his Mother Critter still wears a long dress and apron; the main character is still wearing pyjamas with an unbuttonable backside in them. Mayer’s characters are in fact middle class, 1950s, white America, and sometimes even stretch to Amish (for the mum) but for some reason a disproportionate number of illustrators hold onto lesser versions of this same milieu when illustrating modern books for children. I think it’s because we tend to idolise the era. (Hence Mad Men, which cleverly subverted our expectations.)

Just Shopping With Mom cover
The mother is dressed in a prairie dress, the main character wears overalls, and little sister has a big bow on her head. It is still very common to designate female children as ‘other’ by plonking a big bow on their heads.

Is there a normcore fashion for picture books? Even Shirley Hughes, who places no value in creating Pinterest-worthy interiors or youthful faces (even in children) or dressing her characters up in high-fashion places her characters in a specific era: as Frances Spufford said of her Alfie series, the mother ‘is a frizzy-haired CND-supporting social worker from about 1985’. Though Spufford also points out that child readers won’t assume this about her. In fact, non-British readers — and readers who were ourselves children in the 1980s — probably won’t know this about her — I had to look up CND — fyi, it stands for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which picked up in the 1980s as a backlash to the Thatcher years.)

alfie's mother reading

ILLUSTRATING WITCHES

The historical view of witches is that they are not quite women.

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so. (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3)

In art history, many witches are genuinely unattractive in a reproductive sense, either because they’re very old or because they make no effort to present themselves as alluring, and probably both.

Francisco Goya's depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick
Francisco Goya’s depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick, 1798.

By the 1970s, the nature of folkloric witches in the West had evolved to the point where witches were often depicted as feminine women, but the grotesque mismatch between unattractive essential witchiness is made more stark by their feminine style choices. Barling’s witches might also grace the pages of Dahl’s chapter book, The Witches, published about a decade later; their faces are asymmetrical and their noses and chins are masculine (transgressing gender expectations), but Barling’s witches wear lipstick and earrings, and have their hair styled into layered bobs.

Barling's witches
Barling’s witches

Though these witches are standard in any illustration of witches in picture books, I recently happen to have read Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, in which the author points out the extent to which femininity (and here, feminine accoutrements) is seen as an untrustworthy artifice, which is problematic for anyone presenting as feminine, but is especially problematic for transgender women. (I’m sure someone has done a study on witches and femininity in picture books. I’m guessing the witches of picture books are more feminine than scary due to the age of the target readership.)

Extratextual musings aside, Blyton’s imaginary world has no layers; everyone is exactly how they appear.

“I’m going to be nice to her. Besides she’s got a friendly face, rather like my granny’s — I’m sure she isn’t a bad witch.”

Indeed, the witches of this story are not nasty at all:

“You’re the cleverest, kindest boy I’ve ever met!” said the witch. “Most people are afraid of witches because they think we will change them into blackbeetles or something–but that’s an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays we witches are gentle folk, making magic spells that will do no one any harm.”

So there you have it: an anti-bigotry moral from an author who was quite well-known for her xenophobia.

THAT PESKY GUTTER

It’s clear reading this book in 2015 that publishers of picture books sometimes had a few lessons to learn in this new era of double-page colour spreads. It’s hard to find a professionally produced book these days in which the illustrator has been schooled in avoiding placing characters’ faces right where the gutter goes.

IMG_5629

IMG_5631

IMG_5632
This is probably the worst example of gutter problem I’ve seen…

 

STORY SPECS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

Thirteen O’Clock appeared in a number of different Enid Blyton anthologies, and is the title story of this one, which demonstrates its popularity:

Thirteen O'Clock and other stories

Illustrator Tom Barling was born in 1936, and illustrated a few of Enid Blyton’s stories over his career. He had a varied creative life as author of eleven crime novels about gangsters. Tom Barling is also well-known as a comic illustrator and an animator on the 1973 TV series of The Addams Family. If you look for books hoping to find more of his illustrations, though, you’ll find most of them seem to be out of print.

However, did you know that Bananas in Pyjamas is not just an irritating but super popular Australian children’s show but was originally a book written by Enid’s nephew, Carey? That was also illustrated by Tom Barling.

Bananas In Pyjamas Tom Barling who also illustrated Thirteen O'Clock

Barling also illustrated in an art noir style when required:

Frankenstein Tom Barling

Comic book illustrators are required to draw from a variety of different, extreme perspectives. We see this skill a little bit in Thirteen O’Clock with a low-angle view of Sandy:

IMG_5633


COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

There are many fantasy picture books (and chapter books) in which the child character goes off for an adventure, finds him or herself in a magical world, then goes back to the main parent (usually the mother) and is told that whatever happened is nonsense. But the reader is let in on the secret. Blyton’s authorial voice comes through clearly in the final paragraph:

“Eat up your lunch and don’t talk nonsense!”

But it wasn’t nonsense, was it? Sandy always puffs the time on all the dandelion clocks he sees now — perhaps one day it will be thirteen o’clock again!

The message here: Children, cling on to childhood, because the world of adults is devoid of magic.

This sort of plot might be contrasted with a book for children written by Richard Dawkins, presumably as an antidote to stories such as these.

TheMagicofReality_Dawkins_Bantam2011

The Magic of Reality is a fantastic book and I wish every child in the world would read it as they embark upon the study of high school science. But I think there is room for fantasy; clearly, some forms of fantasy are simply better done than others — fantasy which tells readers something about the real-world is the most valuable, and fantasy which urges children to believe in fairies even after the story is over is perhaps the laziest way of ending a story. However, Blyton was nothing if not prolific, and her stories were written in the oral tradition. It is therefore up to the adult co-reader to read this story with a nudge and a wink.


 

WRITE YOUR OWN

If fantasy stories for children are to do anything other than entertain — and pure entertainment is a satisfactory goal, no mistake — we must aim to pull readers out of a fantasy world with something to ponder. An io9 article outlines how reading Harry Potter has been shown to make readers better people.

…because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups. The “muggles” get no respect in the wizarding world as they lack any magical ability. The “half-bloods,” or “mud-bloods” – wizards and witches descended from only one magical parent – don’t fare much better, while the Lord Voldemort character believes that power should only be held by “pure-blood” wizards. He’s Hitler in a cloak.

— Robbie Gonzalez

Is this partly what makes the Potter books so popular, even though scholars of children’s literature struggle to put their finger on exactly why H.P. took off while many recent ancestors of the series which seem just as adeptly written muddle along with middling sales?

How to leave the preschool reader a better person by making use of fantasy in a picture book? That’s your ultimate challenge.