Dumplin Film Storytelling Techniques

Dumplin movie poster

Dumplin is a 2018 young adult film based on the 2015 novel by Julie Murphy.

Willowdean (‘Dumplin’), the plus-size teenage daughter of a former beauty queen, signs up for her mom’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest that escalates when other contestants follow her footsteps, revolutionizing the pageant and their small Texas town.

IMDb description

At a deep, structural level, Dumplin shares similarities with Pixar’s Brave. I also see similarities in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Whip It! (2009).


Like Whip It!, Dumplin is set in a small Texas town in which the tradition of beauty pageantry, and the attendant ideology, divide women into those who subscribe to Pageantry Values and those who do not. Stories set in the world of beauty pageantry create conflict ripe for exploring themes such as:

  • What it means to be a woman
  • How women with completely different views can learn to get along in this world as true allies

Since the world of beauty pageantry is a heterotopia, the audience is more likely to identify with the character who is coming into this subculture as an outsider.


Dumplin and her mother

Women tend to be presented as those who’ve taken the red pill and those who’ve taken the blue*. These days, borrowing from the language of religion, we say ‘woke’ versus ‘not woke’. But this division has been around for as long as the feminist movement has been around. There’s a scene in Six Feet Under when Clare tries getting an office job for a while. She complains about the mandatory nylon hose, and complains to a non-woke female co-worker that it’s not fair women have to wear such torturous items. The co-worker says, “Well the men have to wear ties,” as if ties and hose are equal in the comfort department. This interaction served to illuminate two very different types of women, who must nonetheless learn to get along.

* I bet you’re thinking of The Matrix, but don’t forget the idea originated in children’s literature, with Lewis Carroll.

The feminine divide is at its most fraught between mothers and their daughters, in which case a generation gap is also manifest. For this reason, the setting of a beauty pageant is often peopled by a mother who is big into pageantry and a daughter who is decidedly not.

Occasionally, as in Little Miss Sunshine, participation in a beauty pageant is driven wholly by the daughter, with the bemused, fish-out-of-water family along for the ride. However, Little Miss Sunshine is an atypical inversion on the norm.

The ‘rebel daughter’ character in this set-up will have a best friend who shares her basic values but who will also function in the story as the ally who challenges the girl’s views, encouraging her to examine the exact nature of her rebellion, and refining it in to something more manageable for existing among polite society. In Dumplin, the character of Ellen performs this function, and for a good portion of the film the girls are estranged.



Julie Murphy draws on personal experience to create the character of Willowdean (aka Dumplin), who is about halfway there in terms of accepting her body as it is, but has yet to jump the final hurdle. That ‘final hurdle’ is revealed in the Anagnorisis phase of the story, but at the beginning Murphy is good at setting Willowdean up as a fully-developed character:

Her psychological shortcoming is inevitable, after a childhood living in a society where her body is of an unacceptable size and shape. Willowdean does not have the confidence to live life to the fullest, with the ultimate test being ‘getting a hot boyfriend’.

Willowdean’s moral shortcoming is more pronounced in the book than on the screen, where saying this sort of thing out loud would seem even worse than putting it down on paper:

“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse.I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way”.

In the film, Willowdean acknowledges to her best friend that she feels like a bad person, but she doesn’t want to call another fat girl ‘stupid’. In the film, there is no BMI difference between Willowdean and Millie — instead, Willowdean despises her for being ‘stupid’.

It says something terrible about our culture that despising someone for being stupid is more relatable than transferring your own body issues onto someone else. I mean, it’s terrible that there is a hierarchy of terribleness in our fictional characters. It’s quite possible that in ten years time, even this modification for the screenplay — from very fat to stupid — will look horribly outdated. (Well, we live in hope.)

On the other hand, the audience is fully encouraged to criticise Willowdean for thinking these things, and it is later revealed that Millie’s apparent stupidity is actually something else: Enforced Christian politeness and a people-pleasing attitude which overrides her own sense of autonomy.


Willowdean’s outer desire is to join the beauty pageant to teach her mother a lesson — that her pageant stuff is stupid and she’s a fool for being so heavily involved, and for living in the past, when she peaked as crowned winner back in 1991.

Below that conscious desire, Willowdean wants her mother to really see who she is, and to accept her for who she is without constantly asking her to change.


Willowdean’s mother is her first opponent.

Society in general is another opposition, personified by groups of boys who point out her fatness in public, as if she didn’t already know.

Willowdean’s argument with her best friend goes into another aspect of fat politics — is a skinny (read: not fat) girl ever able to fully understand what it’s like to be fat? Can she ‘join the revolution’? I did like this storyline because it reminded me of my own high school experience. I do think that with sufficient listening and awareness that a skinny person can achieve a passable handle on fat politics. So I like how that relationship evolves, very much. I also like that Ellen seems, on the outside, to conform exactly to the dominant beauty ideal, yet as she explains to Willowdean in the car, she can never escape the constant criticism which is attendant with existing in a female body. Her boyfriend points out her pimples, for instance, and she goes numb. The closer a girl conforms to the beauty ideal, the more society picks on the tiniest imperfections.


When Willowdean finds her dead aunt’s entry form into the 1991 beauty pageant which she never entered, Willowdean takes this opportunity to honour her memory (and help with her own grieving process) by entering it herself as the first fat girl to do so.

There are various barriers to this, of course:

  • Persuading her mother to sign her entry form
  • Coming up with a ‘talent’ when she doesn’t have any
  • Finding a suitable fashion style

The plan takes Willowdean and her assortment of fellow rebels (not yet friends) on a mythic journey to a bar, where Willowdean is introduced to people her dead auntie once knew. Drag queens perform the songs of Dolly Parton. Because Drag Queens are transgressive in their fashion choice, outside the cultural norm, one of the drag queens takes Willowdean under his wing and performs the narrative function of a fairy godmother dressing Cinderella for her ball.

Meanwhile, Willowdean is being actively pursued by the hot guy she works with at the fast food restaurant — a guy who looks a lot older than Willowdean in the film, by the way. He sucks on a lollipop stick in the way bad boys more commonly suck on a cigarette, giving him comical, inverse cowboy cred. We conclude this boy is right for Willowdean because he, too, refuses to conform to the norm. (At least, I think it’s a lollipop stick?)


The anagnorisis and Battle phases of this story are inverted somewhat, or to put it another way, the Anagnorisis occurs in parts, taking place across several scenes around the Battle.

In a beauty pageant story, the big struggle is probably the beauty competition itself (or in Whip It, the beauty competition was replaced by a roller derby comp.)

Dumplin shares this in common with Pixar’s Brave. In both stories, the young heroine gives an impassioned, didactic speech to a crowded room, showing that she has had her Anagnorisis (most of it) before the Battle sequence has fully begun. In Dumplin, I’m talking about Willowdean’s onstage speech about loyalty, which she describes as the signifier of true friendship. (At its heart this is a “Who’s Your True Friends?” story.)


Here’s the important rule I’m noticing if you want to create a story in which the main character’s Anagnorisis comes BEFORE the Battle. (Because for the audience, this is an unexpected inversion.)

The main character may well get her Anagnorisis out of the way before she hits the Battle, newly steeled and ready to win (whatever winning means to her). But the Anagnorisis phase still requires SOMEONE to realise something.

In Dumplin, as well as in Brave, and in Lady Bird, we have a mother and daughter who both undergo a character arc. In effect, two characters each undergo their own Anagnorisis, their journeys interlinked.

In each of these stories, mother and daughter learn to get on better. In Brave and in Dumplin, this is partly achieved by the daughter literally taking on the mother’s care role, caring for her own mother.

In Brave, Merida looks after her mother in bear form, feeding her with berries and guiding her in human etiquette. We see that same sequence in Dumplin when Willowdean’s mother is unable to zip up her own dress. (This is a classic unmasking, by the way.) Willowdean reassures her own mother, then goes to find her ‘suitable’ clothes. Dressed in a costume which serves to take the mother out of her cloistered, judgemental and highly circumscribed world, Willowdean mouths encouragement to her unconfident mother. Mother-daughter emotional support has thus been inverted.

The dressing-room scene also finishes off Willowdean’s Anagnorisis sequence for the audience: Mother apologises for calling her Dumplin, but now Willowdean is fine with the moniker. “It’s just a word,” she says, signifying much more to the audience about her newfound body positive attitude.


Willowdean was always going to get the boy. We knew this from the beginning. Her self acceptance means that she’s now sufficiently confident to accept that a hot boy might genuinely want to date her. This is an old, conservative plot line but it’s still being used in 2018, straight out of fairytale princess narrative.


I’d like to say those two will be very happy together, but I hope he likes Dolly Parton. The problem for young adult authors: Which pop cultural references can I use? If I use things I really like myself, I’ll be accused of being hopelessly out of date. But if I use contemporary references, I’ll be accused of being trendy, and trends change so rapidly anyhow.

A lot of young adult authors get around this by creating a slightly eccentric interest for their main character which is deliberately and self-consciously retro. And for contemporary young adult readers, who may not know someone like Dolly Parton, there will be a scene in which a peer asks who on earth that person is.

That way, the young adult author gets to:

  1. Make use of a cultural reference known to them
  2. Avoid being accused of forced trendiness
  3. Know in advance that this is a real icon — Dolly Parton isn’t ever going to be forgotten in the way some of today’s artists will be
  4. Create an interesting eccentricity for their main character

It’s a win-win, really.

Dolly Parton turns 73 next month. Gotta say, that alone makes me feel old.


I sense two main schools of body acceptance feminism in this cultural moment.

  1. The first message is to embrace your body type by putting yourself out there. Activists demand to be noticed. Small, everyday actions such as taking a selfie of your culturally unacceptable body and uploading it to social media constitutes a small act of activism which, over the long term, with all body types doing this, will help to expand our cultural notion of physical diversity.
  2. The other form of activism, as explained by Beauty Redefined, is to move beyond the very notion that physical body is a meaningful way to gauge one’s self worth. While loving your body is important, the focus here is very much on what the body can do rather than what it looks like. Under these ideas, one would never set foot in a beauty pageant because there’s no avoiding the fact that the emphasis of such an institution is still very much on the body — no matter what that body looks like.

Dumplin belongs to the first school of body acceptance. Julie Murphy wrote this series specifically to provide models of fat girls confidently entering spaces where there are not traditionally accepted. This is achieved with flamboyance.

In the meantime, new limitations of the inverse kind have popped up. It almost seems like now, if a woman is physically large, she is required to be flamboyant. Flamboyance is no longer a choice. There is now comedy which parodies the very message Julie Murphy worked hard to create in Dumplin — that fat girls shouldn’t hide.

There are other problems, pointed out by others, regarding the ideology in Dumplin. I cover that in this post: The Ideology of Fatness in Children’s Stories.

One thing I’m confident saying — fat politics are changing so rapidlythat a book written three years ago will seem ideologically naive to a mainstream audience, if not outright offensive, even if its author is a self-described fat woman herself. In the week of Dumplin’s release on Netflix I have seen tweets to the effect of, “I don’t want anyone’s opinion on the Dumplin movie unless the reviewer is fat themselves”, which is a good indication that the politics of the body are some of the most important — and can be the most damaging — to a young adult audience.

I hope that some of Dumplin’s young adult audience will see themselves in these characters, and that this story’s transition to screen opens up many more interesting discussions.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War cover

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier was not written with a young adult audience in mind, but class sets of the book found their way into English departments all over the world. Though this is not my favourite Cormier novel, it remains his best known. Heavy in symbolism and discussable themes, The Chocolate War also makes for a good case study in juxtaposition. The novel begins with a juxtaposition in the title — chocolate is sweet and comforting; war most certainly is not.

There are many resources for teaching and studying this book in a high school literature class. This blog focuses on the storytelling: What writing lessons can we take from this young adult story from 1974, banned and beloved in equal measure?

Content Note

I feel readers deserve a content note about Robert Cormier novels, and about The Chocolate War in particular. This novel has been widely banned, but my reasons for the content note are probably different and girl readers in particular deserve this acknowledged: Cormier writes consistently from the male point of view and objectifies female characters as part of his commentary on how awful boys can be. Cormier never proved he could write well-rounded girls, to be fair. Even when he writes a female character (not in this book) she self objectifies or she is murdered or both. The Chocolate War contains implied rape of girls at the nearby girls’ high school. Archie, a psychopathic character, ‘usually manages to persuade one of them into his car’. He gives them a ride home ‘with detours’. The older I get the more icky I find this. Here’s my exact beef: Robert Cormier and many other writers who imply/describe sexual assault feel the need to include girls — otherwise absent in the story — in order to amplify the awfulness of a particular boy character. This is done for characterisation reasons, yet that’s not how sexual assault works in real life and I expect a bit of mimesis here. Despite his heterosexual orientation, a character as awful as Archie does not need to prey on the girls at a different school entirely. If ever there was a clear psychopath in young adult fiction, Archie is it.

Archie was always puzzled about whatever there was inside of him that enjoyed these performances — toying with kids, leading them on, humiliating them, finally.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

There are plenty of boys he can pick on to assert his sexual dominance, without leaving his own school. My problem here is the extent to which writers are comfortable with the implication of male on female sexual assault, but can’t seem to even fathom male on male sexual assault. Written in the 1970s, going this far may not have even crossed Cormier’s mind, or maybe he self-edited, who knows. Archie carries out his own version of sexual assault on Emile, pretending to take a photo of him after finding him in the toilets masturbating. But it’s never implied that he does to the other boys as he does to the girls. And I don’t think his heterosexuality has anything to do with that. Archie’s 1970s pretend camera would be an actual camera in the 2010s. This kind of timelessness is why some schools continue to study The Chocolate War with modern teenagers, though I think the objectification and assault issue requires a discussion. Though uncomfortable to talk about, the problems with glossing over this aspect of Archie are two-fold:

  1. As a culture we underestimate the rate of male on male sexual assault (important emphasis: rape is about power over others, not about orientation);
  2. We become uncomfortably comfortable with the image of the assaulted female, to the extent where, as a culture, we have now learned to look the other way. To what extent is the male gaze designed to be titillating? Does it matter really if it’s not meant to be, and still is? At no point are readers encouraged to find descriptions of the boy characters titillating, regardless of the reader’s orientation.

These are not the exact reasons The Chocolate War has found infamy as a frequently banned book. This novel has been banned  due to:

  1. Frequency of sexual references
  2. Detail included in the sexual scenes e.g. masturbation
  3. Physical violence
  4. Bribery
  5. Negative portrayal of the institution of school
  6. Catholic schools in particular get a bad rap

But mostly? The issues in this book are so heavy they are difficult to discuss with 30 teenagers, some of whom will have been sexually assaulted themselves, some of whom will sexually assault/have already assaulted. I find it far easier to write about these issues on a blog than to manage a class discussion, and to have that discussion go in the right direction. When schools ban books, that’s sometimes a factor. The Chocolate War is one of those novels which requires the reader to bring their own morality to the table. We’re to look at these boys as an example of treating people badly. But what if some readers do not have morality to bring? What then?

Three Types of Young Adult Novels

Further to the banning, it’s important to note that Cormier did not intend The Chocolate War for a young adult audience. The reading age happens to be twelve, however. That seemed to be Cormier’s natural writing style.

The American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories:

  1. Books Written Specifically for Adolescents
  2. Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Main Characters
  3. General Books of Interest to Young Readers

The Chocolate War belongs to category two and was seen by many as a good text to study in schools.


There are many. Here’s a big one:

“Do I dare disturb the universe?”

from T.S. Eliot, in a poem he wrote in his early 20s.

At its heart, this question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is about power. It serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves. Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974).

Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption “Do I dare disturb the universe?”: “Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.” The Chocolate War explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe—of what will happen to him if he dares assert his personal power. […]

In The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel’s end because he has chosen to break the contract and so be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry’s power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, depending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel’s time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys’ non-participation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a “war.”

Foucault even supplies the term “war repression schema” as a synonym for the “domination repression” model of power; he makes much of the notion that “power is war, a war continued by other means”. […]

The Chocolate War is the same sort of dark adolescent fantasy that Lord of the Flies is: when adolescents achieve total control, they become totally corrupt. Both novels are metaphors for the concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

[…] Anne Scott Macleod argues that what happens at Trinity is a microcosmic metaphor for American politics. […]

Perry Nodelman interprets the chocolate war as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. […]

Jan Susina interprets The Vigils as the Mafia. […]

Cormier himself has identified big business as the central metaphor of the novel.

At the heart of all these interpretations is the recognition that The Chocolate War is a political novel. It is an investigation of social organisation and how individuals interact with that organisation. The novel communicates that institutions are more powerful than individuals, but that individuals who engage their own power can affect the shape of the institution. Cormier implies that as social organisations, institutions are not to be trusted. […]

When ideologies in YA novels focus specifically on government, they tend to convey to adolescents that they are better served by accepting than by rejecting the social institutions with which they must live. In that sense, the underlying agenda of many young adult novels is to indoctrinate adolescents into a measure of social acceptance.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

But is The Chocolate War any more political than your typical young adult novel?

Few adolescent novels are as direct as Cormier’s are in addressing government as a form of social organization, although almost all adolescent novels are informed by ideologies that are political in nature. That is, all novels are influenced by their authors’ sociopolitical beliefs.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature


Juxtaposition and Irony

The Chocolate War is a story of irony and juxtaposition, which makes the title so apt. Examples from chapter one:

  • ‘A terrible stillness’
  • ‘Suddenly he loved that voice, “Show up tomorrow”.’
  • ‘A strange happiness invaded him.’

And in chapter two we get all the ironies of Archie:

  • ‘Archie the bastard. The bastard that Obie alternately hated and admired.’
  • Archie looks like an All-American Boy but it turns out he’s atheist, which is not very American at all, especially in 1974.
  • ‘That’s what baffled everyone about Archie — his changes of mood, the way he could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next’
  • Although Archie is really mean, he ‘disliked violence’.

Norman Stanton: ‘a blustering bragging character with wild red hair and eyelids matted with yellow crap’

Roland Goubert: The Goober. Juxtaposition: Very tall yet like a child.

Brother Leon: Can control a class but Archie sees vulnerabilities. Assistant Headmaster but in Archie’s eyes he is simply an errand boy for the head. Not worthy of respect. However, like Archie, this man has two juxtaposed sides to him. “In the classroom, Leon was another person altogether. Smirking, sarcastic. His thin, high voice venomous. He could hold your attention like a cobra. Instead of fangs, he used his teacher’s pointer, flicker out here, there, everywhere. He watched the class like a hawk, suspicious, searching out cheaters or daydreamers, probing for shortcomings in the students and then exploiting those shortcomings.’ This man will make a good shadow character for Archie.

Leon is an ambiguous character. In Chapter Six we see him carry out a cruel taunting on a student then tells the class he’s delivered a lesson. He hasn’t delivered a lesson without causing the boy in question grief, so is this similar to doing something really mean and then calling it ‘a joke’? Another juxtaposition.

‘Emile was a brute, which was kind of funny because he didn’t look like a brute. He wasn’t big or overly strong. … Wise guys usually sat in back. Emile didn’t. He chose seats near the front where he’d be in better position to harass the teacher.’

‘Emile, you’re a beautiful person’, says Archie, watching Emile steal fuel from a weaker kid’s car. But Emile never knows if Archie is serious or not — in fact, stealing fuel probably does count as beautiful in Archie’s eyes, because Emile can be useful to him. At the end of Chapter Six, Emile is ‘somehow disappointed’ that the owner of the vehicle hasn’t caught him stealing gas. This is a different kind of irony — an emotion the the audience wouldn’t expect in most people.

The sale of chocolates is such a cozy thing to do — this part of the plot could easily be used in a middle grade novel set in a genuine utopia. But here, the chocolate fundraiser is juxtaposed against the evil of the school.

Goober is the reflection character for Archie. Whereas Archie is delighted at chaos, Goober is utterly bewildered by it, not comfortable at all. We are set to root for Goober because he is such an underdog, but we are equally keen to see what Archie gets up to, because Archie is interesting. Without each other, this book would feel too pathetic or too mean. These boys balance each other out for the reader.

Jerry Renault is the Every Boy — most readers have not lost their mother to cancer, but we can empathise with him because we feel our lives would look like his if we did. Apart from the ghost of a dead mother, nothing much stands out about Jerry. He’s like the Jerry Seinfeld off Seinfeld actually — the characters around him are more individualised.

Among the teachers, too, we have a replica of the classroom, with the Brothers responding in contrasting ways to the same event. Brother Eugene is the grown up Goober — sensitive and emotional and vulnerable. Brother Leon understands Archie the best, though Archie does not have a sociopathic equivalent on staff, which is good for him. The teachers have power by virtue of being teachers, so Brother Leon is still a formidable opponent for Archie.


The Chocolate War is an American novel with a USA setting.

Obie describes the school as ‘a lousy little high school like Trinity’. This is a Catholic school. The culture revolves around sport. Football is everything. It is clear from this that we’re talking about a boys’ high school, with its particular brand of hyper-masculinity. Boxing turns out to be other other big sport at Trinity — another dangerous, combative pastime.

The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones.

This is a run-down school — the football field needs seeding and the bleachers need replacing. This needs to be a run-down school because if it were wealthy the need to sell all those chocolates wouldn’t be as dire.

Within this school we have something akin to the mafia:

The Vigils kept things under control. Without The Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart like other schools had been, by demonstrations, protests, all that crap.

The school is populated with a variety of teachers, some good, some not so good. Brother Eugene: one of the good brothers who teach at Trinity. ‘A peaceful sort’. He exists to contrast with Brother Leon.

The Vigils meet in a small room behind the gym.

Obie works at the grocery store stacking shelves for a part-time job. A friend of the family owns the store, suggesting a cosy, small town where everyone knows everyone.

But this version of American suburbia is an snail under the leaf setting — underneath, things are rotten. Case in point: The Vigils. The gang headed by Archie. These boys run the town. Lead by Archie. President is another bastard called Carter. Obie is secretary and underdog.

For fun there’s the Teen-Age Canteen where the boys have the opportunity to meet girls, referred to as ‘broads’, because these boys objectify female characters as if they’re an entirely different species.


In a novel, even the unseen narrator can be considered a character. I feel the narrative voice is masculine, perhaps someone who knows these boys really well, a stand-in for a fellow student at the school. He talks about girls as if they are a different species: “The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.” (Not the way girls usually describe each other.) However, he is also closely emulating the voice of the characters themselves. ‘Close’ third person.

This close third person narrator reminds us occasionally that he is telling a story. Here, he lampshades some pretty obvious symbolism. Perhaps as he was writing even Cormier thought the cross symbolism felt a little heavy handed:

The shadows of the goalposts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. That’s enough symbolism for one day, Obie told himself.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Cormier’s narrator is an all-knowing, misanthropic, pessimistic character who can zoom right into the psychologies of the characters as if he knows them better than they know themselves (he does), and that’s because he sees through their eyes. The narrator is one of them. However, The Chocolate War does not have the immediacy of voice common to most young adult novels. Most are written either in first person right after the events, or occasionally in third person right after the events. Perhaps because this was never meant for the young adult audience, Cormier’s narrator seems much older, as if he’s looking back in time as an unnamed student in this school, but with the psychological insight of a 40 year old man. The advantage of this kind of narrator is that his wisdom can fill in the gaps for an audience who has yet to give much thought to how social groups and dominance works. A teenage narrator would seem preternaturally gifted in psychology to believably write this stuff.

The Chocolate War does not ask the young adult reader to trust in the voice of a single speaker or to accept a single, unchallenged view of events. In alternating chapters we are given thirteen different characters’ perspectives on events. Within some chapters, especially chapters twenty-five and thirty-five, the reader gets multiple points of view. Although Jerry Renault’s views are those most frequently shared, they do not account for even one third of the book. Despite the fact that no adult’s thoughts are represented (we never see into Jerry’s father’s or Brother Leon’s or Brother Jacque’s thoughts, for instance), the book does not limit itself to a single adolescent’s view of the world. The reader develops a sense of a complicated world through the recognition of competing positions and perspectives that are quite different from each other despite their all being “young adult”.

The Chocolate War is not written in first-person address, though the narrator reports throughs from the position of the characters being portrayed. We are told, for instance, that “The Goober was beautiful when he ran”. We understand that Goober himself considers this to be true in contrast with the rest of his life, including the moment under narration in which he attempts a terrifying “assignment”. Here we see what Gerard Genette would call indirect address.

Mike Cadden, The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel



Cormier is a master of this technique:

If you have too many scenes that just set up questions and knock ’em down, then the story will seem plodding and episodic, and it won’t build a larger narrative. So you have to mix quick payoffs with longer mysteries. Usually the question that ends the scene is a practical one that’s instantly answered by the circumstances of the next. But you should keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.

Matt Bird, The Secrets of Story

Cormier was a master of the question and revelation sequence. He makes readers work just the right amount before handing over the information. I started to make detailed notes on how Cormier was achieving this, but it soon got so complicated I gave up the task. Just know that this book looks simple at first read but is extremely intricately plotted, with set ups and pay-offs, perfect foreshadowing and expert subtleties. If I planned to write a book similar to this I would persevere with my detailed notes.


Our protagonist (in its original, Greek sense — the character who gets the story going) is Jerry Renault. We see him getting beaten up in the first scene, straight into ‘action’, in its most widely used sense.

Hey Coach, you pit on me, Jerry protested. Stop the spitting, coach. What he said aloud was, ‘I’m all right, coach,’ because he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another — he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

He is not the right body type to be playing football. Too skinny. Ironically, this is his dream.

Chapter two flips to Obie.

Obie was bored. Worse than bored. He was disgusted. He was also tired.

There we have them — Obie’s main psychological shortcomings in the very first line. Cormier is masterful the way he combines unexpected emotions. We can imagine how someone would mistake disgust for boredom, though may not of thought of this before.

The alternating points of view establish that this is not a story about any one character or hero, but about a community. The community itself is the main character, and this community has a dark, seedy underbelly.  Another story like this is Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Another is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

The boys in this story each has their own shortcoming, except for Archie, who demonstrates better than anyone in YA literature how psychopathy is an evolutionary advantage.


Archie is kingpin and has a very specific goal. It’s Archie’s goal which drives the story, making him the ‘main character’ in a sense. His aim is always to inflict as much psychological pain as possible on those around him.

Certain other boys desire the approval of Archie. Emile is another sociopath, though not quite as smart. I suspect circumstances have deprived him of empathy, whereas Archie seems ‘born evil’.

Goober just wants to be left alone to run.

Jerry doesn’t want anything at first but gets sucked into the drama and wants to passively aggressively claim some status for himself. He doesn’t have to do much to earn that — in fact, he has to do the opposite of something — nothing, so the little rebellions prove too tempting.

So in these characters we see the whole range of desire, from ‘leave me alone’ to ‘I’m going to turn this little community upside down.’


The coach is Renault’s first opponent, though it remains to be see whether he is an ally. Teachers can swing either way — in fiction as in real life, they can seem mean but actually have students’ best interests at heart. This coach is a stereotypical mean guy. He looks like ‘an old gangster’ and even has a movie-star scar on his cheek. ‘But a helluva coach, they said’. Turns out the meanest looking coach isn’t the most dangerous adult in the school.

Obie’s arch nemesis is Archie. Archie is depicted as an ‘all American boy’, with blonde hair blowing in the wind, sitting in the bleachers. ‘Archie turned and smiled at [Obie] benevolently, like a goddam kind passing out favours.’ Archie is soon set up as the main force of evil — the true, evil villain of the story. Even the title is drawn from him — minions must buy him Hersheys or else get on the wrong side of him.

There’s no true friendship in this novel. When a pecking order is being established it has to be constantly maintained. Everyone is everyone else’s opponent. Though it appears Goober and Jerry could have been friends, they weren’t for the entirety of the novel.


Each character has his own plan in an intricate big struggle for top of the hierarchy. The boys are each a different example of one way of going about gaining dominance within an institution. For instance: Jerry — passive aggressively, by refusing to do as asked, then getting a bit addicted to the adrenaline of rebellion and taking it further. Archie — like a sociopath, taking power from others, killing their spirits Goober — Just trying to get along unnoticed, manoeuvring around the power plays of others These characters are mirrored in the characters of the teachers.


The minor big struggles of the pranks and the refusal to sell lead up to the big fight — a literal big struggle scene which we suspect may have killed Jerry Renault. (You have to go back to the first sentence of the book to be sure, but it’s metaphorical — his spirit has been killed.) This fight has been set up by Archie to get Jerry back for refusing to start selling the chocolates again. He is pitted against Emile Janza, a strong physical opponent. Students can buy raffle tickets. They write on the tickets who gets to hit who and where. Things get out of hand when Emile loses control of himself.


Jerry is almost dead when he comes to some kind of understanding:

The knowledge, the knowledge: what he had discovered. Funny, how his mind was clear suddenly, apart from his body, floating above his body, floating above the pain. ‘It’ll be all right, Jerry.’ No, it won’t. He recognized Goober’s voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. … They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.

The Chocolate War

When writing anagnorises: Make your character come to the absolute brink of (spiritual/actual) death before giving them their epiphany. Otherwise it won’t feel like they earned it.

Seelinger Trites makes use of the word ‘epiphany’ when describing the revelation that takes place in this novel, and points out that the anagnorisis experienced by Jerry in The Chocolate War is completely typical of young adult literature:

[The] intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature form children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read…much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home.

Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power. But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. […]

In The Chocolate War, for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school.. Jerry’s epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

YA literature reassures readers that the world is your oyster if only you can find the power within yourself to rise above it or up into it.


To help lead a character (and readers) towards a anagnorisis, authors often make use of a symbol which they return to again and again. In YA novels, it’s quite often photos. But it can just as easily be something else. In The Chocolate War, it’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prucock“. Jerry sees a poster with Do I Dare Disturb The Universe? (the inspiration for Seelinger Trite’s book on YA literature) every time he opens his locker.

This is a classic case of: The reader has the anagnorisis even if the character doesn’t. When the character doesn’t have any revelation, the author has to use recursive tricks like a photo, a line from a poem, a stamp on a hand (in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy) to ram home the message for readers.


I would like to point out that Jerry’s advice to Goober can be read two ways. It can sound like he’s saying, ‘buckle in, do what they tell you.’ But Seelinger Trites believes the message is yes, do disturb the universe:

Jerry’s final words in the novel echo the novel’s opening statement, “They murdered him.” His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: “Do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too…. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober. Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel’s end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature


  • The events in this novel ring very true to me. They probably ring true to you, too. Weird things happen in schools. This viral thread about the bread reminds me of the incidents in The Chocolate War, though doesn’t end as darkly.

I Kill Giants As Perfect Example Of Being-toward-death

I Kill Giants movie poster

I Kill Giants is an American comic book written by Joe Kelly, illustrated byJ. M. Ken Niimura. The comic series is now ten years old. This post is about the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Anders Walter. The guy who wrote the comic also wrote the screenplay. I watched it on Netflix last night with my ten-year-old daughter and trust me when I say, this is a film for the tween-adolescent crowd — a reality which is always reflected in IMDb scores (which are not graded by ten year olds, and certainly not by ten-year-old girls). That’s why it gets a paltry 6.2.

I’m interested in this film regardless, because last week I happened to be reading Disturbing The Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites, who takes the philosophy of Heidegger — particularly his concept of ‘Being-toward-death’ — and points out that this view of life/death is perfect to describe pretty much every young adult novel. (Or film, I’ll add.) I updated my Death In Children’s Literature post last week to reflect that lightbulb moment (thanks to Trites) and it just so happens I’ve spent the following Saturday evening watching the perfect example of a Heidegger YA movie. It’s like Joe Kelly read Heidegger (or Trites) before sitting down to compose I Kill Giants.

FTR, I don’t honestly believe that’s how creativity happens — these things are ‘in the air’. Storytellers absorb the ideas, reshuffle, re-vision, and (re-)produce old ideas using original character webs and new settings. I’ve done it myself. I can apply Heidegger’s philosophy to stuff I wrote before I’d even heard of the guy, let alone the concept. We’re all products of some big ur-Culture.

I’m especially interested by these concepts which are ‘in the air’, unnamed until someone names them — a philosopher, a literature professor, a writer in interview. It’s only then that patterns start to reveal themselves. Covert ideologies come to the fore — some of them hugely problematic. I have no major political beef with I Kill Giants; I’m interested in this children’s story because I am a reformed Goth it makes for an excellent primer in Heidegger and death. Buckle in.

What is Being-toward-death?

No point me re-inventing the wheel. This idea is as old as humanity itself — we can go back at least as far as Confucius. Hard to know what that guy actually said but apparently he once said, “We all have two lives, the second one starts when you realise you only have one.” This is another way of expression the developmental stage in which we realise, at a gut level, that we too are going to die.

Heidegger came later.

  • The Guardian Australia published a series on death back in 2009 (death hasn’t changed much since then — it’s still perfectly relevant). In Part 6, Simon Crichley wrote about Heidegger’s concept of death.
  • I would recommend that article before delving into the Wikipedia explanation of Heideggerian terminology. (You know it’s gotten serious when the name of the philosopher has been turned into an adjective.) There’s always the source material itself, of course, which I don’t plan to read.
  • If you prefer to listen, Episode 100 of the Philsophize This podcast is about Heidegger. (They transcribe their podcasts.) The next two are about Heidegger as well — the first one is about how he fits into the wider study of philosophy. His teacher was a pretty influential guy in his own right — a mathematician who turned into a philosopher. The teacher was all about certainty and truth, and how do you know what’s certain? He was right into cognitive biases, which we’re hearing a lot more of today in books such as Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me. Heidegger took issue with a lot of what his teacher said. Basically, Heidegger wanted to dig down further and define some very basic concepts which had been glossed over. In order to do this, he had to invent his own words — not because he was being a poser, but because of genuine linguistic holes.
  • So is Episode 32 of The Partially Examined Life.

Here’s my own work-in-progress bullet-point summary of Being-toward-death:

  • German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote a book which in English translates to Being and Time.
  • Heidegger contributed a number of different/related ideas to philosophy: Dasein (being), attitudes towards technology (‘Ready-to-hand’), a definition of the concept of ‘World’, and so on.
  • The one I’m interested in here is the concept of ‘Being-toward-death’. German loves capitalisation, so you can capitalise the ‘B’ in ‘Being-toward-death’ if you want. Or not, because it’s English too, now. (Minor grammatical point.) The German is Sein zum Tode.
  • In a nutshell: Being = time and time is finite. The reason Heidegger’s words are hyphenated is because you can’t have one without the other. There’s no ‘being’ without then dying and vice versa. (This applies to all of Heidegger’s terms which end up hyphenated in English.)
  • Until we understand that we’re all going to die, we are unable to appreciate the time we do have.
  • (Can you think of a subculture of people who think a lot about that? I can. Goths. The Goth is the ultimate Being-toward-death philosopher.)
  • This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s actually liberating. Once we confront the ‘finitude’, we are freed to live authentically and fully. (Maybe this is why people’s happiness levels tend to increase after a middle-aged slump? Old people really get death, and learn to live with it?)
  • In order to really understand the finitude of life (ie. death) Heidegger broke it down into four different little epiphanies:
    • Death is non-relational. When standing before death you cut off all relations to others. You can’t really understand death by seeing others die — you have to understand that you, yourself — yes, you — are also going to die. This has since been contested, notably by Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas. The fear of losing someone can be worse than the fear of dying yourself — because then you’re the one who has to deal with the grief and the mourning.
    • Death is certain. There’s no getting out of it. No matter how good you are, no matter how many brassicas you eat.
    • Death is indefinite. So, you’re definitely going to die, but you don’t know how long you’ve got left. We could die this afternoon, overnight in our sleep. It can happen ANY TIME.
    • Death is not to be ‘outstripped’.  (That’s probably a bad translation.) What the hell does that mean? Death is important. It overshadows everything else. This is what Heidegger meant when he famously came out with this first-glance bullshite: death is the “possibility of impossibility”.
  • Once you get all that about death, then you are in a state of Being-toward-death. You are free to live authentically.

Being-toward-death in I Kill Giants

At first I Kill Giants reminded me of Donnie Darko for a slightly younger audience — an adolescent loner, who lives in a community, is battling something supernatural and ‘crazy’, which no one else can see — the giants who circle the island. She is completely preoccupied with this mission. The task of killing giants causes great anxiety but also gives Barbara a superiority complex. In a story of this variety, about the possible delusions of the ‘village crazy’, we can expect a big reveal. This kind of reveal is binary in essence for we learn one of the following:

  1. Either the hero is proven right. This is what happens in Donnie Darko. Donnie was correct about the weird thing happening in his town. Everyone else is ignorant.
  2. Or the hero is revealed to be legit crazy. This is what happens in I Kill Giants. I should be careful about use of the word ‘crazy’, except that’s the accusation levelled against Barbara within the setting, and the word contains all the baggage it’s meant to.

The audience and Barbara receive this revelation at the same time (unless you predicated it somehow — I suspected but couldn’t be sure). The guidance counsellor tells Barbara, “Your mother needs to see you.” Then we learn there’s a woman-in-the-attic plot mildly reminiscent of Jane Eyre — Barbara’s mother has been upstairs in bed (probably cancer) and Barbara has simply refused to see her. Instead, her giant killing activities are an unhealthy displacement activity — unhealthy because this activity is a genuine delusion which is affecting her life.

The giant is about as metaphorical as metaphors get: Even my ten-year-old got it, though didn’t know the word ‘metaphor’; the giant stands in for ‘fear of death’, and/or mental illness in all its different forms — perhaps depression, perhaps anxiety. Bad feelings, in any case. Anticipation of grief. Dread, in other words.

Barbara has not been dressed up as a Goth (the movement has kind of moved on), but she is the modern equivalent. Barb is a bit of a scene kid, has her own style designed to stand out, but at the same time hopes to be invisible. The rabbit ears, as she explains to the new girl, represent her spirit animal. She has no respect for authority — only ‘respect’ in the sense that teachers work hard. She doesn’t respect someone just because of their position. She treats her school psychologist badly. (This is her moral shortcoming.) But first, the setting.

Setting and Being-toward-death

  • To hammer home the metaphors for its adolescent audience, this story is set on an island. Islands can mean various things in story but the most obvious one is ‘isolation’. Even when surrounded by love ones, we all go into that dark night alone. Death is a supremely lonely experience. The specific island chosen in this story happens to be Long Island.
  • When Barbara is taken home to Sophia’s house and find herself upstairs, she becomes upset. Obviously, there’s all this symbolism to do with houses  — I wrote a post on that too — and Barbara is not only forced to remember her mother sick in bed at her own home, but ‘upstairs’ is itself closer in altitude to our notion of Heaven.
  • What era is this set? Technology usually gives us a clue. Until the older sister’s smartphone rings, this story could happily exist in the Stranger Things universe, back in 1980. It helps that those big frame glasses have come back into fashion — our young protagonist wears 1980s frames which are actually very modern. But apart from that mobile phone, this story could actually be set in 1980. The story opens with a joke between squabbling brothers — one criticises the other’s hair. They both have the exact same hair — an out-dated — or perhaps timeless — cut similar to Moss’ in The I.T. Crowd. Barbara is into Dungeons and Dragons, which kicked off in the 1970s, and plays a starring role in Freaks and Geeks — this is the game that eventually unites the main Freak with the Geeks. Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980.
  • Because I Kill Giants feels like a 1980, 2017 combo, this makes it ‘vaguely contemporary’. But add in the folklore of the giants, and Barbara’s explanations of the giant ur-story, and now the storytellers have achieved ‘timeless’. What does Heidegger say about time? That’s pretty interesting. In order to understand the finality of death, we do need to understand the concept of eternity. In our modern culture (not all cultures are like this, by the way), we think of time in terms of present-past-future but Heidegger considered this a mistake. In order to understand the meaning of your own life (and death) you need to understand your place within eternity — how are you different from others of your generation? From someone living 10,000 years ago? In a story which deals with the concept of death, the storytellers will very often aim for that feeling of timelessness in the setting. I Kill Giants is an excellent example of that.
  • Then there’s the weather, which relates to season. The majority of the story takes place in a kind of in-between season — autumn? I’d have to watch it again to be sure it’s not set in spring. Autumn would be more in line with popular symbolism — ‘autumn years’ and all that, but it happens to be tornado season. The incoming tornado is a classic example of pathetic fallacy, and not more more can be said that Seelinger Trites hasn’t said already:

3 recurring patterns in YA literature

  1. DEATH OCCURS ONSTAGE — Whereas in MG novels death tends to happen off stage, reported back by characters, YA novels make the death far more immediate. We’re often right there for the death.
  2. DEATH IS UNTIMELY, VIOLENT AND UNNECESSARY — Whereas MG novels tend to kill off the elderly and parental figures, YA novels kill the young.
  3. TRAGIC LOSS OF INNOCENCE — When the YA character first understands the finality of death, at first it seems really tragic. But before they came to their acceptance of death they were ready for a fall. They overcome tragic vulnerability, avert catastrophe and transform the tragedy of their own mortality into some level of triumph. In this way, the YA novel isn’t so different from The Little Match girl, who came to terms with death (okay, died) but everything was okay actually.

Character and Being-toward-death

Goth characters make good main characters in stories which explore the concept of Being-toward-death.

  • Barbara is a loner bordering on misanthropist. This is her presented as her main psychological shortcoming, as well as her moral shortcoming, because she’s not very nice to the new girl. She needs to learn to connect with people. This hooks into this idea that death is a lonely experience, or to use Heidegger’s terminology: non-relational. “When standing before death you cut off all relations to others.” Heidegger also wrote about how everyone is connected, in a Buddhist kind of way which he didn’t call Buddhist.
  • Addendum to that point: Barbara’s fear of death is fear of her mother’s death. In this respect, the philosophy of the storytellers is more in line with more modern critics who argue death of another can be as scary as death of yourself.
  • The anthropomorphised character of Grief (the giant) is massive because “Death is not to be outstripped.” Barbara does understand the enormity of Death at the beginning of the story — but the understanding is limited to her delusional self. She has yet to snap back into reality. This story wouldn’t have worked so well if she’d turned Death into, say, a fairy or a goblin. Giants are huge just as Death overshadows everything.
  • There are a number of separate Battle scenes in the big struggle sequence of I Kill Giants — as is pretty usual in storytelling. We have a big struggle between non-family peers (the bullies are basically the giant, too — Barbara has drawn inspo from the bully scenes*). There’s the conflict within the family, in which the older sister is trying to hold things together. The sister also provides a reflection character in which she shows her difficult emotion to others, but unlike Barbara the sister’s dealing with the real emotion, not with a fantasy. There’s the conflict with the kind and well-meaning adult who is an opponent simply because her goal is different (the school psychologist — who has a surprising amount of time to spare for Barbara, but hey, this is a fantasy school). Then there’s the Big Battle scene with the Big, Bad Baddie — the fantasy of the fight with the giant, who isn’t real, but for story purposes he is. All of these big struggle scenes are of course proxy for the main big struggle — the entirely internal, non-big struggle — Barbara’s refusal to see her mother… and to confront death.
  • There are several key scenes in which we see Barbara coming to terms with death: In one of the first she meets her psychologist’s baby and says, “He’s going to die. We’re all going to die!” Then she runs off like the little Goth that she is. That’s pretty much Heidegger, word-for-word. “Death is certain.” Barbara has at some point had that part of the Self-Revelation regarding death. Hey, it was a rough day.
  • Then there’s the part where the giant tells Barbara, “I haven’t come for your mother. I’ve come for you.” This is a major, on-the-page anagnorisis — an absolutely typical anagnorisis, content-wise, in an adolescent story about death: Your mother is going to die soonish, but you’re going to die, too. You won’t know when. I’ll be lurking here, waiting. The giant tells her that every living thing must die. This is a concept you won’t find in stories aimed at adults. As Roberta Seelinger Trites has pointed out, this is specific to the developmental stage of being adolescent.
  • Continuing down that line, for the typical adult viewer, I’d say the New Situation phase of this movie is a little — well, a lot — too hokey. For the bulk of the film Barbara is confronting all four stages of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — literally a minute later, after a cut to a new school year, new, summery-lighting, we’re watching a completely different character in the same body, standing confidently in class telling everyone about her summer and how everything was great. A subsequent scene shows Barbara telling her psychologist that death is not to be feared. Perhaps this is true — it’s a very common ideology in story — but it’s okay for death to still be sad, right? We see melancholy in the final scene as Barbara sleeps in her mother’s now-empty bed, but the emotional flip after the anagnorisis phase is too heavily juxtaposed. Do characters need to change in a story? Yes, in a dramatic arc they do. The question is how much. Barbara has gone from fearing death to the point where she couldn’t live an authentic life (symbolised by residing in a fantasy world) to an almost mystical acceptance of death as a Good Thing. I’m not quite on board with that scope of change. I don’t buy it for one thing; the bigger problem is, I don’t even want that as an aspiration in a sympathetic character. Instead, Barbara has veered from one brand of crazy to another, and I don’t believe that was the intention.

*By the way, the bully scenes don’t strike me as especially realistic — these girls are too old to be engaging in slamming-against-locker, grab-around-the-throat, surround-on-the-beach type stuff. That’s not to say it never happens like that — this kind of bullying looks like something to an outsider, which is why it’s so appealing on screen, even when bullying has typically become far more covert and insidious by the developmental stage otherwise depicted.

Takeaway Points for Children’s Writers

My ten-year-old enjoyed I Kill Giants because despite the heavy subject matter — the grief around a dying mother — this story conforms more to middle grade fiction than to contemporary YA:

  • Death happens off the page. In YA it often happens right there in front of us.
  • Death happens to an older generation — the mother. In YA, death tends to happen to same-age peers; in MG, it’ll be a parent, grandparent or something the same age.
  • Before telling stories about death, what are our own feelings about it? What’s the end-game, emotionally? For our characters, for our young audience, for us? Helen Garner is an Australian author who writes for adults, but I like what she has to say about her novel The Spare Room: There are many ways of dealing with death. You’ll see every scenario play out in real life, and complete denial is one way of dealing with death. People do it every single day, folks. There are people who will die this afternoon, who should probably know they’re going to die, but they continue to deny it. And then they die. And that was okay, too. Where do you stand on that? Would that be an acceptable ideology in a children’s book? (If your answer is yes, you’d be breaking a long, established pattern!)
  • I Kill Giants has been described as magical realism, but is it really?

Cameras In Storytelling

The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)


Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.

TV Tropes

Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?

Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Death In Children’s Literature

Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked. 

[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
Fred Irvin (American, b. 1914). The Photo Booth, Catholic Digest cover, October 1960
Fred Irvin (American, b. 1914). The Photo Booth, Catholic Digest cover, October 1960

As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:

  • A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
  • Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991) 
  • Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)

Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies. 
  • The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
  • The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
  • Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”

Photographers as main characters aren’t limited to YA by any means — Nora Roberts likes a photographer as character. Goodreads has a list of novels with characters who love photography.


Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change. 

Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe


In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:

  • In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
  • Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
  • For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
  • Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.


Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.

Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.

The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.


It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.


There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.

Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.

It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).

Magical Camera


Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.

But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)

In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.

A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.


Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.

In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.

Scene from The Spiderwick Chronicles movie


The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror. 

For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.

In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:

Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.

Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.

Scene from Insidious


Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.

The memorable selfie in The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project is the archetypal example of the In-Universe Camera trope.