Unreal is a collection of 8 short stories, first published 1985. This was the book that really kicked-off Jennings’ career as a children’s author. Though it wasn’t called that at the time, these books are excellent examples of hi-lo literature.
I am revisiting the work of Paul Jennings with the benefit of 2019 hindsight. I’d like to clarify what writing lessons I can learn from Paul Jennings, against what to throw out.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WITHOUT A SHIRT”
The premise of “Without A Shirt” is masterfully childlike.
I’m reminded of a group of boy classmates in Year 9 who started saying ‘Cheese On Toast’ very randomly. There was nothing behind this joke — it wasn’t an in-joke — the joke was that it was utterly meaningless.
One day these boys got in big trouble. They stole a piece of chalk (I guess our high school was phasing out blackboards in 1991) and used that chalk to write Cheese On Toast in huge letters across the blank canvas wall of the Hunter Gym. Although chalk isn’t permanent, and although Cheese On Toast is harmless, a PE teacher walked past, saw the graffiti and started fuming. My friends and I happened to be sitting right in front of the wall. Looking back, the boys were probably hoping to impress.
The scary PE teacher interrogated us girls until we told him who had done it. I still regret telling this teacher who’d done it, because they all got detention. For ‘graffiti’ that would come off in a shower of rain.
Paul Jennings understands the things that kids do for fun. One reading of “Without A Shirt” is that Brian Bell’s speech issue is an analogue for stuttering or similar, but really, the premise could derive for this kind of playful ridiculousness.
Playing with words in this way is carnivalesque. Children are expected to say certain things at certain times, and by defying this expectation, humour ensues.
Paul Jennings does his trademark story-within-a-story in “Without A Shirt”, because Brian is doing a speech about his own family history. It starts, “A man fell overboard”. The content of this Level 1, metadiegetic speech is important to the Level 0 plot.
Brian Bell has a speech difficulty. He can’t help but say ‘without a shirt’ at the end of every sentence.
His problem really challenges this shortcoming: He is giving a speech in front of his whole class.
Brian’s problems mount up. When he gets home he learns he and his mother are about to be evicted, due to all the holes dug by Brian’s dog, Shovel.
Brian wants to avoid getting teased. He wants to stay living in his house.
But neither of these things is possible.
He wants respect and security.
Sue Featherstone, a high prestige girl (her father is the mayor), makes fun of him for his speech issue.
Paul Jennings likes to use girls for this role, on the basis that boys like to impress girls even more than they like to impress other boys.
Margaret Attwood: Men are afraid of being laughed at. Women are afraid of being killed. In this story, Brian happens to wish Susan were dead. Is this mitigated by the fact that he also wishes himself dead?
Not really. This oppositional set up feels so icky to me. That’s because I’m reading this story in 2019. Margaret Attwood’s quote wasn’t published until 1996. “Without A Shirt” was published more than a decade earlier than that. Hard to remember this, but people didn’t have a clue about the experiential differences between existing as a man versus as a woman.
The Featherstone family is a formidable opponent — Sue Featherstone’s mother is their landlady. She comes to evict them.
After eviction, they go live in the cemetery. This is a very Paul Jennings thing to do. Common sense and reality is replaced by an absurd decision. But then he reveals that they actually live in a ‘cottage’ in the middle of the cemetery.
Now we have the comic scenario of a dog that digs holes, living in a graveyard. Paul Jennings needs the audience to understand this connection, so the real estate agent walks away chuckling about it. This is a necessary step.
Because predictably, the dog starts bringing bones back. Unpredictably (and quite a bizarre writing choice), the bones don’t come from the graveyard. They come from the nearby beach which we didn’t know about.
The bones form a leg which hops. This scares the opponent Sue, as her mother was scared, which means Brian regains his social capital and also scores ten out of ten for his speech.
Brian fits the skeleton together, same as a detective in a detective story would piece together a puzzle. Eventually, Brian realises the skeleton is that of his great-great-grandfather, whose bones are unhappy because they are scattered and aren’t wearing a shirt.
Once Brian has pieced the bones together and dressed them in the found-shirt, he no longer says “without a shirt” at the end of every sentence. The ghost has found peace.
Notice how Paul Jennings doesn’t give a fig about coincidence. That is the feature of the tall tale. By complete coincidence, Brian is giving a speech about his great-great-grandfather at the same time his dog happens to find the great-great-grandfather’s skeleton.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE STRAP BOX FLYER”
This short story reminds me very much of a picture book Wolf Comes To Town by Denis Manton (now hard to get).
- The story opens from the trickster’s point of view. We are let in on the trickster’s scheme, so we are in audience superior position.
- Next we are shown a few incidents in which the trickster causes trouble for a community.
- In both stories, a boy dies as a result. So yes, it is okay to kill off a child in books for very young readers, if you were wondering. Writers have to be very careful about this, because it’s sometimes okay and at other times not. The rules seem to follow the rules for killing off mothers: If we don’t get to know the character, their death does not affect us. If we’re going to kill off a child character, set up the story so the child expects it. Don’t spring child death on the reader. Genre is important. Child death in funny stories is okay. Child death in sad stories must be handled with more care. See also: Death in Children’s Literature.
- In both stories, the trickster leaves town in search of a new community of gullible people to trick.
- Here’s where the stories part ways: The trickster wolf in Wolf Comes To Town successfully gets away. The trickster scam glue-seller in “Strap Box Flyer” meets his trickster match, then comes to a sorry end.
Being a good con artists also makes you a really good mark. This is a psychological phenomenon which applies to real con artists. The con artist is always on the knowing side of things, and they can’t imagine themselves on the dupe side. This gives them a lot of (false) confidence.
This is explored in many stories which end in the con artists getting duped by another con artist e.g. Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels.
This is one of those stories. Audiences do love tricksters. We love it even more when a trickster outwits another trickster.
Giffen, con artist, wants to get rich quick. He is immoral. He is only after money and, by extension, power. He is the ultimate trickster villain.
His opponent appears as the “little man”, named Flinty. Flinty is a symbolic name. When describing a person, the word means very hard and unyielding. We know that this trickster is going to outsmart Giffen.
Once Flinty appears, the audience is now placed in audience inferior position. We have full trust in Flinty and watch him as he carries out his plan.
It is satisfying to watch what a master trickster does, but only when that information is withheld from the audience. This is how heist stories work, too. To see how this is done, it’s a good idea to refer to the heist subgenre of crime. Breaking Bad and Animal Kingdom are TV series for adults which also structure their episodes in this way.
The plan: Flinty makes a flying machine, uses Giffen’s glue to hold it together, then coaxes Giffen up into the air. That’s the plan in sequential order.
But note that, as revealed, the audience is shown the plan in reverse order. The LAST thing the reader learns is that the flying machine has been held together with Giffen’s glue.
When it comes to the metrics of ascent and descent, artificial intelligence has come up with six basic plots:
- Rags to Riches (rise)
- Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
- Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
- Riches to Rags (fall)
- Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
- Icarus (rise then fall)
Jennings has clearly drawn upon the Greek tradition here. One of the most influential stories in Western literature is the Greek story of Icarus and Daedalus.
Giffen’s glue = the wax, a symbol of hubris.
A lot of the time, flight = freedom. Not just freedom from specific circumstances in the plot but also freedom from more general burdens. In a slightly religious sense, flying = freeing of the spirit. The notion that the disembodied soul is capable of flight is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition and probably many others. But for the ancient Greeks and Romans this concept was problematic: the souls of blessed and damned alike were meant to go to an underground realm. The belief in a celestial heaven leads much of later Western culture, who think of a soul as light and travelling upwards.
But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom.
If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.
There are plenty of stories about flying whose flights — like Icarus — are interrupted prematurely.
For more on this see The Symbolism of Flight In Children’s Literature.
These much earlier stories in the Icarus tradition were written in highly spiritual times and the endings include an element of rebirth. (Gravity starring Sandra Bullock is a clear example of that. Testament of Youth is another.)
But there is no such religious awakening in a Paul Jennings story. Instead, the reader gets a simple ‘plot revelation’, in line with a comedy set up and gag. After fully expecting it, the reader learns how the “little man” tricks the con artist.
We extrapolate that the con artist falls to his death. This feels like a just punishment because he has already killed a child, and is fully a victim of his own misdeeds.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SKELETON ON THE DUNNY”
The Australian-ness of this story is evident from the title. We know it’s going to follow in the tall tale tradition.
Bob is scared of the outhouse toilet at his Aunt Flo’s house. The name Aunt Flo is in itself funny, for being a pun on ‘flow’.
Bob’s problem is that the dunny is haunted by the ghost of Old Ned, who died out there. Comedy derives from Aunt Flo’s deadpan story that she came home to find her house sitter dead on the toilet. Only his skeleton was left.
When the ghost makes Bob’s teeth chatter, he breaks one off. The plate is expensive, then falls down the toilet.
This doesn’t make sense to me, since I’ve never used an outhouse connected to the sewerage system — it’s always a composting set-up — but I suppose such things exist. It’s technically possible that this house is so old, the sewerage system was set up without the owner (Aunt Flo) moving the toilet into the house. I don’t know the sewerage history of Timboon.
Anyhow, Bob now wants his plate back.
Notice what Paul Jennings has done with the desire line: There’s really nothing Bob can do about getting rid of the ghost. Bob’s deep desire is to ‘use the dunny without being scared to death’.
But this deep desire to avoid fear needs an active desire-line which functions to propel the narrative forward. So Jennings gives him a surface level desire-line — a Holy Grail type quest: To find a lost item.
The ghost of Old Ned.
Bob goes to a fantasy version of a treatment plant, where all sorts of lost things are kept in baskets. He finds his tooth and now
Finally, in a Three Little Pigs scenario, the ghost blows the roof off the dunny.
The valuable painting is hidden in the roof of the dunny. (This information has been planted earlier in a very obvious form of Chekhov’s Gun.)
Old Ned floats up into the sky.
He was gone. He wouldn’t be coming back.
Paul Jennings must have realised that the audience would be left with a refrigerator moment: What was a painting doing in the roof of the dunny? Chapter 10 functions as an epilogue, in which the narrator offers his theory on that.
Because epilogues are inherently boring (with closures instead of reveals — the storytelling equivalent of tidying your room), Paul Jennings makes it seem less epilogue-y by including a supernatural gag in Chapter 10: The recovered painting now contains an image of Old Ned (on the dunny).
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LUCKY LIPS”
Growing up in the 1980s my parents subjected us to a lot of Cliff Richard. I am mortified to find I know all the lyrics to “Lucky Lips”. The things the brain stores…
“Lucky Lips” (the song) is a simple wish fulfilment fantasy for the Every Man — you don’t have to be rich or good-looking (or even decent) — all you need are lucky lips and you’ll have ‘a baby in your arms’.
I resisted re-reading this Paul Jennings story by the same name. I didn’t remember the plot — I remembered I had never been comfortable with now. Now that it’s 2019, and I am older myself, I am better able to articulate what is wrong with this story: It is rapey. It is also uncomfortably heteronormative. The transgression between boy and animal would have always felt risque, which was Paul Jennings’ point. But now, that feels rapey as well.
Moreover, this story promotes the idea that being sixteen and never kissed is shameful. It turns sex into a competition and a milestone, which mutually excludes its main function for teenagers: enjoyment and excitement.
“Stuck up snobs,” he said. “I’ll teach them a lesson.” He decided to make the most popular girl in the school kiss him. That would show them all.
The adventures of Marcus fail to amuse me at all. This character is very creepily reminiscent of Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 went on a misogyny driven murder spree before ending his own life.
Marcus doesn’t realise this about himself, but the third person narrator is able to tell us that Marcus is stuck up and unlikeable.
Because he lives in a culture which tells boys (especially) that having sex with girls is a prerequisite for manhood, the fact that he’s never been kissed goes against his sense of self. He feels entitled to girls’ attention.
After setting this up, Jennings had a chance to subvert the cultural expectation. But he doesn’t do that at all. Instead, he punishes Marcus for being stuck up and manipulative. There is no critique of the cultural forces at work.
On the page, Marcus wants to be kissed by girls.
His deeper desire, dangerously off the page, is that he feels entitled to girls and their bodies and their attention, and requires this attention to prove his own sense of worth. Desire and need are meant to intersect in a good story. I’m in no doubt of my own analysis. The problem is, the child reader is likely to only see the slapstick humiliation of the story.
Marcus’s initial opponent is the witch. The witch is a fairytale outworking of the forty-year-old middle-aged ‘hag’ he’ll encounter as punishment. (This duality — women as witches — was explored masterfully in Anthony Browne’s postmodern picture book adaptation of Hansel and Gretel.)
This story is absolutely typical of the 1980s, in which ‘consent’ never once came up in sex education lessons. Paul Jennings does try to lampshade this icky aspect. ‘Consent’ wasn’t used in this context, so he talks about ‘stolen kisses’:
Marcus started to feel a bit guilty. He fingered the lipstick in his pocket. Should he use it? He remembered something about stolen kisses. Was he stealing a kiss if he used the lipstick? Not really — if he used it, Jill would be kissing him of her own free will.
But free will is a very controversial concept. Just take a listen to what philosophers and public intellectuals disagree about when they talk to each other.
So if a children’s author is going to delve into the nature of free will, it’s super risky to use sex as a means to do that.
It soon becomes clear that these girls (referred to — jokingly, I’m sure — as ‘victims’ on the page) do not have free will at all. The setting magic of the lipstick takes free will away from them. Marcus is justifying non-consensual sexual acts to himself. These girls are horrified to learn they have kissed a boy they’re not attracted to at all.
Jill jumped back as if she had been burned. She put her hand up to her mouth and went red in the face. … Jill didn’t know what to say. She was blushing. She couldn’t understand what had happened.
As a forty year old woman myself, I’m also icked out by Paul Jennings using Fay Billings’ mother as his ‘punishment victim’. Mrs Billings is too old for Marcus — of course — and her ‘old-ladyness’ is his first punishment. He himself is non-consensually kissed, and this is the first (more minor) part of his punishment.
He realises he’ll have to be more careful if he doesn’t want to be kissed by undesirable older women. So he stops going round to girls’ houses and instead makes sure he surrounds himself only by other girls.
Marcus wants to be kissed by only one type of girl, and only one at a time. But in a scene I’m sure Paul Jennings intends as ridiculously slapstick, Marcus is kissed by many at once.
The ‘catty girliness’ of these ‘females’ is underscored by the following description:
They shrieked and screamed and fought: they scratched and fought and bit.
I’m not sure if this idea is completely dead yet, but I clearly remember being told by my father in the 1980s (my father is the exact same age as Paul Jennings) that boys fight ‘fair’ and girls fight ‘dirty’. A punch in the face is ‘fair’; scratching and biting is ‘dirty’. I don’t know why I was told that, since I never relied on scratching and biting myself, and never got into physical tousles with my brothers anyway. This was common wisdom.
Leaving aside the fact that a single punch can be deadly, whereas biting and scratching tends to create surface wounds, there is no evidence to support a gender division between ‘ways of fighting’. When lives are threatened, people fight for in any way they can. When a victim is overpowered by size and strength, they will use non-muscle means of escape, whether male or female. In order to understand how and why people fight, researchers need to move away from gendered constructs. This is especially important now that women are becoming more violent, even as men become less violent. (At least, here in Australia.)
The wilfully sexist misunderstanding of gender and violence is why Paul Jennings’ description of the girls mid-Battle is so offensive to me. Also, there’s that very long history of women being compared to cats (and to birds). Scratching and biting are distinctively feline.
Plus, as he has done in other stories, Paul Jennings has created a scenario in which the worst thing that can happen to a boy is being laughed at by girls.
Well, almost the worst thing.
Marcus’ final punishment is left off the page, and for good reason. It would be disturbing to watch. The reader can easily extrapolate: Marcus is kissed by the ultimate unattractive partner: an actual sow who has just eaten slops.
Women have been placed on an attractiveness continuum throughout this story as a way of building to a climax.
First we have the ‘unattractive class’, starting with the witch, leading to the forty-year-old woman, then to girls who laugh at Marcus, then to the sloppy sow.
At the top of the ‘attractive class’ we have the designated ‘popular girl’, though the new (vulnerable) girl is a better victim, so Marcus targets her first.
“Lucky Lips” is a gross-out narrative at its most damaging. Give me the poo jokes any day.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “COW DUNG CUSTARD”
As a kid, whenever I asked what was for dinner, the answer was ‘horseshit and rhubarb’, or ‘a big potato with a little one’. The title of “Cow Dung Custard” reminds me of the first (non-)answer. I’m sure I’m not the only child of the 80s who got this response. (My child doesn’t even need to ask — it’ll be one of my three rotating dishes.)
“Cow Dung Custard” is a rags to riches plot with a surprising ending.
I imagine this short story was inspired by the terrible stink of hair removal cream, which has gotten less offensive in recent years, but still smells like hell.
A boy has no social prestige because his father makes him collect dung for his prize-winning vegetable garden.
The Cow Dung kid, along with his mad-scientist archetype father, want enough money to buy a farm where their smelly cottage industry bothers no one.
The rest of the townsfolk are up in arms over the stink, especially after the father invents Cow Dung Custard, which smells so bad it attracts a massive swarm of flies.
The flies themselves are an environmental opponent, in a comical variation of a cyclone movie such as Twister.
Father and son must get rid of the flies and appease the townsfolk. They plan to mix a batch of Cow Dung Custard so strong it kills the flies.
The Battle is against the flies but also against the stench of their own invention.
They realise it smells so bad it makes hair fall out.
In an epilogue paragraph, we learn that cow dung custard has been rebranded as hair-removal cream and has made father and so so rich that they have moved out to the farm. Now, only the characters and the readers of this book know that hair removal cream is really made of cow dung.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LIGHTHOUSE BLUES”
I read the first section of this story when I was reminded of a film which really took off for a long time in my hometown of Christchurch. It played at one of the Arts Centre cinemas and was called Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod). I went away and found the tune to Gloomy Sunday. I’ve played it heaps over the last 24 hours. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI7nbxec7XQ
I don’t know why I’m listening to it, because it really is gloomy. At least, I think so.
Not everybody experiences chills when listening to music. Those people are called ‘musical anhedonics’. Between 1 and 5 percent of people experience “specific musical anhedonia”.
Not all emotions associated with music are good emotions. This is in line with my usual response to classical music: I usually feel bittersweet. I feel like I just watched a film with a pyrrhic victory for an ending:
In a study involving more than 1,000 people, Swedish music psychologist Alf Gabrielsson showed that only a little over half of strong experiences with music involve positive emotions.
Many involved “mixed emotions” (think nostalgic or bittersweet love songs), and about one in ten involve negative emotions.Inverse
But the vast majority of readers have experienced emotional reactions to music.
In “Lighthouse Blues”, Paul Jennings extends this feeling and uses the same trope used in the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday: A song which affects a character so deeply has an effect not only their emotions but on their fate.
The affective music Jennings chose for this story is “Stranger On The Shore”. I’m pretty sure Paul Jennings’ CD tower looks the same as my parents’ CD tower. I grew up with the clarinet tunes of Acker Bilk, and now associate it with long car trips. I also associate it with elevator/waiting room music.
I’m not familiar with Stay Away From Me Baby, but I’m guessing it’s this one, by Larry Bryant:
But Paul Jennings has chosen these ‘grandpa’ tunes for a reason. The third song is a childlike tune, and juxtaposed against those first two, creates humour. Do kids still know this song? I’d say all kids of the 1980s know it.
STORYWORLD OF “LIGHTHOUSE BLUES”
Both setting and era-of-publication are important for “Lighthouse Blues”.
Paul Jennings grew up in an era with lighthouse keepers, or ‘wickies’, as they were often known. Here in Australia, the majority of lighthouse keepers became redundant in the early 1980s, just a few years before Jennings published this short story.
With the advent of satellite navigation and automation of many functions, lighthouses were deactivated in 1983 and no more keepers were employed.
Even when lighthouse keepers existed, we have long associated lighthouses with loneliness:
While the image of the lonesome keeper, trudging the stairs up the light tower all through the long wind-swept nights is partially true, many keepers had families who lived with them. They moved from lighthouse to lighthouse around the coast. Together the families worked, played, taught their kids, grew their own food and even made their own home brew.The Lighthouse Keeper’s Life, ABC Radio, Perth
Because there’s a super long history of stories set on islands.
Apart from the symbolism, islands remain very useful to storytellers because a character stuck on an island cannot easily escape. Oppositional characters are thrown together, and this creates an extra layer of conflict. Not all islands are actual, literal islands, in the ocean. A small town in the middle of nowhere can also function as an island. A hotel in the middle of a massive blizzard is an island. Various kinds of heterotopias (or ‘heterotopies’) can be used as symbolic islands. The island itself is a heterotopia (Foucault’s terminology) because the rules there are different. The island is therefore a perfect setting for a ghost story. Anything might happen.
Anton’s problem is that he can hear ghosts but can’t see them. His ‘problem’ is initially more of a mystery to be solved.
Notice that in stories, opposition is introduced at the same time (or instead of) a mystery.
Anton wants to find out why he’s hearing music.
When Anton learns the lighthouse will be unmanned, he wants to fight to keep it manned.
The ghosts are the supernatural opposition, for frightening Anton.
But the big, bad outside opposition is the unseen, unnamed ‘they’ who want to shut down the lighthouse and turn it into an unmanned one.
Anton points out to the ghosts that playing music isn’t going to help them keep the lighthouse manned. This is a comic spin on the usual scary ghost story, because it contains logic. Ghost stories are about atmosphere, not logic. So humour derives from the juxtaposition of logic and a generally inexplicable scenario.
Playing music on Friday nights won’t stop them. We have to think of something else.
The ghosts can’t talk so they can’t formulate a plan together. But they start playing a well-known protest song.
(Pete Seeger’s version is quite moving. He sings ‘straight and gay together’, which was radical for 1966.)
Anton teaches the ghosts to come out during the day so that they can scare the wreckers. Jennings might have made the decision to keep their practice behind the scenes, and simply show the reader the scare.
But because the scare itself doesn’t have a twist, he made the decision to show us the ironic scene of a boy teaching ghosts as if he’s the teacher and they are his students. This is a hierarchy flip, and is therefore satisfying itself, especially for a young reader.
The wreckers are terrified when they see the floating instruments and hear their music.
We’ll Meet Again is a classic wartime tune. When you consider how many young men hearing this song never saw their loved ones again, it’s very sad. (Yep, I also grew up listening to The Very Best of Vera Lynn.)
Well, that is just about the end of the story.
This marks a kind of epilogue. The story is not finished. A child and ghosts save the day. There’s a pyrrhic victory with Stan dead. But it’s not a complete story, yet.
In part 10 we learn that Anton has been made lighthouse keeper.
And Stan has joined his father and grandfather as a third ghost. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqsT4xnKZPg
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SMART ICE CREAM”
Smart Ice Cream is an example of a very short story.
The story starts in the iterative and our narrator explains that he is smart and handsome. We deduce that he is full of himself.
The switch to the singulative starts with:
Last week something bad happened.
His problem is that another boy is getting the same high score as him at school and this affects his inflated self-esteem.
Later, he is revealed to be rude and vindictive.
He wants to solve a mystery: How did Jerome Dadian get so smart? He’s sure he cheated.
The ice-cream man, Mr Peppi.
The narrator plans to look inside Mr Peppi’s ice cream van to find out what’s going on. Legend has it, his green ice creams cure all sorts of ills. The hypothesis is that Jerome has been given ice cream to make him super smart.
There are some minor big struggles leading to the Anagnorisis. Those are the insults the narrator dishes out to his less fortunate classmates.
The Battle scene itself is a quiet one, in which the narrator breaks into the ice-cream van with a crow bar, then gets into the forbidden special ice creams.
The narrator has the following revelation:
I think I have made a mistake. I don’t think Dadian did get any Smart Ice Cream.
Meanwhile, the reader knows that ‘smart alec’ does not mean ‘smart’. I laugh in recognition at that, because when my daughter was very young I called her a smart alec and she took it as a great compliment.
The final paragraph is written in a dumbed-down style full of obvious spelling errors. The narrator is no longer smart. He’s not a smart alec, either. The truth is, he was probably never smart, just a braggart.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WUNDERPANTS”
Though this story doesn’t include girls with speaking part, “Wunderpants” is a case study in how to foment disrespect for girls. Short answer: With femme phobia. There’s possibly a bit of homophobia too, though it’s subtle for a child audience:
The underpants felt strange. They made me tingle all over. And my head felt light. There was something not quite right about those underpants — and I am not talking about the fairies.
Aside from all that, this is a disjointed story. I suspect it was positioned last in the book because it is the least successful as a narrative.
David’s main problem is that he’s a victim in a hierarchy power play between boys. They all live in a macho system whereby the worst thing you can be is weak and girly.
But of course, that’s my take on it.
David wants to watch Mad Max 2 with ‘all the other kids’ but his mean dad won’t let him. He especially won’t let him after it’s revealed the narrator used his father’s toothbrush to brush his pet mouse.
After this, the desire line seems to change. The desire to go to the movies is a MacGuffin. Section one exists to introduce the mouse in a funny way, and to set up a bit of family context and empathy for the narrator, who gets up to funny pranks and hi-jinx.
This is really a story about a race, which symbolises the hierarchy between a community of boys.
So the overwhelming desire of David is to win a mouse race, in which he’ll earn a substantial amount of money.
David’s father is his first opponent for standing in the way of him going to see Mad Max 2.
Scrag Murphy is the child opponent. “The meanest kid in town”, literally. (Jennings makes use of the cliche to draw a quick character sketch.) We’re told he’s carrying too much weight to run in the race (though he does manage to run away with the underpants). The fat kid bully is a common character from the 1980s. Now it seems fat phobic. But it did convey something important, perhaps — that bullying is a network of transferred abuses, and the fat kid bully has no doubt been bullied himself. Scrag is likely to beat the narrator in the mouse race because he has the fastest mouse. He speeds his mouse a special diet.
Now the mother becomes the opponent. She’s made a pair of pink underpants from fairy fabric and insists David wear them. (I do find myself thinking “Why doesn’t he just… take them off without his mother knowing. The last thing you want is for the reader to think “Why doesn’t the character just”.)
Pete, the best friend, becomes a temporary opponent by laughing his head off at David’s pink underwear.
There’s no real plan — David remembers it’s cross country day. On the way to school he discovers the pink pants give him super strength. This is supposed to be funny because pink means girly, and girly is the opposite of strong. But it only works as a joke if you believe that about girls in the first place.
David is winning the race by a long shot, so in a Hare and the Tortoise scene, he decides to have a swim in the lake, waiting for the others to catch up.
In a slapstick farce, David’s clothes are stolen by Scrag. He is forced to make his way home naked. On his way, his nakedness disgusts an old lady. (Girls’ naked bodies = appealing; boys’ naked bodies = disgusting in this kind of humour.)
David gets into trouble and also prepares his mouse for the big day.
The Battle is the mouse race itself, in which mice behave like greyhounds or horses (rather than actual mice).
The reader learns in the last sentence that David’s mouse is wearing the little underpants. That’s what gives the mouse strength.
For David, this is a victory. He has won against his main opponent.