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Shaun Tan is by all accounts, an incredibly interesting creator of children’s work; and I say this because I do believe that his work is accessible by children, which was the subject of an argument I’ve had with people and some criticism I’ve seen leveled at his work. It actually speaks to a relatively larger issue in picture books and children’s literature in general, which is the question of appropriateness. Where is there a line?
The books in particular that cause me to linger a bit are the brilliant The Arrival and, to a lesser degree, The Red Tree, which is also astounding. There is no doubt that Tan is an inspired and talented artist, and that his ability to evoke emotion as well as narrative through his artwork is highly reminiscent of Christopher Van Allsburg, who wrote Jumanji and The Polar Express, as well as various others, and deserves a blog post all his own. What’s interesting about the work by Tan, however, is a sensibility that feels “too old” for picture books aimed at children – which is generally children under the age of 10, as in the second grade, children are often encouraged to begin to pick up “young reader” novels.
The Arrival is a wordless tale of a man who immigrates from one country to another. A great deal of the imagery is familiar, but Tan uses an element of alienness – creatures who are not remotely real and cities with alien architecture – to convey a sense of foreignness and isolation. This is an incredibly adult tale, simply because of the understanding of the other and the understanding of xenophobia. But this book, which I have found as frequently in the “Graphic Novel” section of bookstores as I have in the Children’s section, isn’t necessarily singularly an adult novel. The notion that children do not have the ability to grasp xenophobia, or do not understand what it would be like to be in a place where nothing was understandable is absurd, because those are emotions that children are expected to deal with every day.
The Red Tree, similarly, deals with emotions: primarily depression. It doesn’t do what most didactic children’s material does, which is to outline depression as a word, and then discuss how to talk to doctors or parents or teachers, or treat depression like an issue. Instead, it talks about how it feels to be depressed, in simple language with corresponding images, using surreality to highlight the surreal emotions that may surround a person who feels depression.
The argument often leveled at this book is that it does not appropriately discuss depression in a way suitable for children: it doesn’t talk about grief or feeling sad in clear terms. But the notion that all children’s literature must be didactic is so unbearably antiquated that it’s shocking that anyone can think about this in these terms at all. The ability to recognize parallels is not relegated simply to the world of adult fiction, and having no easy answer is also not something that children cannot understand.
The thought that adults have to regulate children’s media is one that is worth examination. Shaun Tan’s work is a part of that examination, because his artistic sensibilities and techniques are often so honed that adults are left wondering about audience and intention. But I take issue with the notion of intention; I find this is often a way for adults to appropriate work designed for children and render it unfit for children’s consumption. This has happened in the past with books like Peter and Wendy and Alice in Wonderland, but there is something more dramatic when this is targeting a picture book. If children understand it and respond to it, what does intention matter? If children respond to it in dramatic and upsetting (to adults) ways, then why is that not a venue for communication? We cannot expect books to not portray the world in non-challenging ways anymore, especially for modern children.
This of course builds up to the notion of censorship…which leaves one to wonder about the controlling of children’s media by forces outside of the home. But that may be another post for another time.
I’m always excited to see what Shaun Tan will do next, and how his next books will open venues for conversation between children and adults.
The New York Times released a list of “notable” children’s books from this year. I’m pretty ashamed to say that I’ve only read one of the books on their list this year, that being The Impossible Knife of Memory, although I have seen a lot of these books on recommended lists and I personally wanted to pick up Rain Reign and Brown Girl Dreaming before the end of the year.
So this post is a little different from my usual – I’m going to go over the books I read that I found notable, although many of these were not published this year.
The Witch’s Boy; Kelly Barnhill
I will be honest and say I haven’t finished it, but I find it utterly engrossing. Its themes include loss and disability, and it wrestles with a lot of moral issues. It tells the tale of Ned, who lost his twin in an accident they both suffered and survived as “the wrong boy” and the adventure he undertakes with a girl named Aine, who lost her mother. Great language and motif work.
Knuffle Bunny; Mo Willems
I will be the first to admit that my specialty is not in picture books – I love them but I don’t know nearly enough about them to critically examine them. And Knuffle Bunny’s been around for a while – there are a couple of sequels, even – but I adore Mo Willems work and this book, which combines illustrations and photography really well, is so cute and well done I can’t help but recommend it. His other work, especially his pigeon books (I promise if you look into it, you’ll know what I mean) are really great too.
Out of my Mind; Sharon Draper
This book deals very strongly with disability and perceptions of intelligence, and it’s funny and really well done. I think it blows last year’s book on this topic, Wonder, right out of the park with its protagonist; a genius girl whose cerebral palsy is so severe she can’t speak, until one day she manages to get ahold of a device that allows her a voice, similar to Steven Hawking. It’s brilliant and well-done, and doesn’t have the same sort of softness that Wonder had that I personally disliked.
Godless; Pete Hautman
This is another book that’s been out for a while, and it’s sort of irreverent if you’re in any kind of a religious household – it’s about a group of teenagers who develop their own religion that worships the water tower in their town – but it has some really great examinations of God, and religion, and the culture we build around it. Very good book.
Finally: having a degree in Children’s Literature, especially this time of year, gets me a lot of requests like “what book should I get my kid for Christmas/Hanukkah/their birthday/to get them to read.” I’m not a teacher, and I’m not really an expert on childhood or children, exactly, though, so it’s hard to say. The books I talk about tend to be books I find have interesting themes or issues brought up, but aren’t necessarily books I would recommend for anyone (take, for instance, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making). But that said: if you have a child in your life you really want to give a gift of a book to, give them a gift certificate to a local, independently run bookstore. Unlike Amazon or Barnes and Nobles, no only are you supporting the local economy, but chances are these bookstores have less in the way of toys and games or things outside of books for them to choose from.
I’ll be back soon with some more academic musings!
Sorry for the radio silence: I have recently accomplished a move (having gotten a new job!) and so I’ve been trying to settle my life and get used to the new job, and sadly this blog fell a bit to the wayside. But no worries, as I’m back now.
I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to the RSC musical Matilda recently, which is of course based on the book by Roald Dahl (which was turned into a fantastic movie by Danny DeVito about 15-20 years ago – I remember seeing it in theaters but I don’t like to think about it too much, otherwise I start feeling very old!), and in listening to some of these songs, especially songs that regarded Matilda’s relationship with her parents, or Miss Honey’s relationship to her aunt, the Trunchbull, I began to think about the sort of extreme coda of abuse that permeates a lot of Dahl’s work. In most of his books, with some very obvious exceptions (like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Fantastic Mr. Fox) often have this incredibly clear message: the most frightening thing in a child’s life is a grown-up.
This isn’t to say that all grown-ups are frightening, in Dahl’s work, because obviously this isn’t the case. Matilda has Miss Honey, James from James and the Giant Peach has very fond memories of his father, and the main character in The Witches has his lovely grandmother. But in the world of these characters, even when there is a supernatural menace, there is still the implication that the worst possible danger to any child is an adult.
The subversion of this particular notion is incredible. To fully understand it, one has to examine children’s literature, particularly in England, in a wider historical context. Outside of possibly Peter and Wendy, adults are by and large almost absent figures from children’s literature, and even in Peter and Wendy the menace that comes from Captain Hook is a buffoon menace, a false menace that is undermined by how utterly Peter does not fear him at all. But in Dahl’s work, adults are not only a menace, they are an incredibly real threat because he is absolutely authentic in his portrayal of how an adult can harm a child. Dahl does not shy away from adults who hate children on a sociopathic level, usually for no reason except that they are children.
For instance; in Matilda, the Trunchbull is almost psychopathically evil, but despite that, everything she does she gets away with for the simple fact that she is the ultimate authority figure – a school headmistress. The notion that any child who spoke up against her, particularly considering the utterly extreme punishments she concocts (like the Chokey, her closet of horrors) and making a little boy eat cake until he practically exploded are too bizarre and too evil to be believed – any child who told their parents about them would be automatically labeled a liar.
Even more insidious, is that Dahl is apt at parents and caretakers who simply don’t care. These are not parents who love their children but are oblivious, or aunts who are too busy to notice mischief. These are guardians who don’t care, who wish malice upon their charges, who are absolutely incapable of raising a child. These are the kinds of adults who upon we would wish a swift call to Child Protection Services.
And then there are the Witches, whose main goal in existence is to wipe every foul child off the face of the earth, but who are disguised as perfectly lovely ladies, and who adults, in general, do not believe in.
What Dahl does is interesting because he presents a danger that is all too real, and does not talk down to children about it. His works continue to be well-received because of that honesty. To tell a child there is danger out there, but your parents will protect you from it is easy, but for many children it is not an honest representation of the world, particularly when the danger is so close to home, or hiding inside of it. Dahl’s message is not that evil is a force with no face, or a monster that easily recognizable – it is that bad people will have power over you, and that is the way of the world.
To tell a child this, especially when children so easily recognize how much sway adults have over their lives, is absolutely critical. But even more critical, it gives children who are in those situations: in situations where child-hatred and child abuse are simple facts of reality, an adult voice that says that yes, this is true, but look, here is someone who recognizes it, and there are ways out. James finds a family in the friends he makes once he lands in New York, and Matilda finds a new home with a favorite and beloved teacher.
It is no surprise that Dahl’s work continues to be popular, then: it present a fiction that is so absolutely grounded in reality.
I’m going to start by saying that this post is a bit different from my usual posts in the regard that I’m discussing something sort of teeters at the edge of my expertise (and veers slightly away from the main topic of this blog from books to movies). Please don’t hesitate to argue with me in the comments if you disagree (respectfully, if you so choose).
I have a friend who absolutely loves Jacob Grimm.
This isn’t about his fairy tales – it’s about his linguist discovery (Grimm’s law) and when I told her he was an awful misogynist, she was disappointed (but unsurprised) to hear it.
I open this post with this because the Grimm brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob, are probably the most responsible party for the modern trend of revisionist fairy tales – if by modern trend, we’re talking about something that has been done aggressively, by many people, over the past few hundred years. Fairy tales are an interesting literary invention; they are living bits of literature, morphed from adult stories to nursery tales and back to adult stories with stunning ease. the villains shifting and changing as is popular by contemporary (whatever the time period) standards of villainry.
I talk about Grimm, because they have the most famous (although not the only) collection of fairy tales, which could be easily changed to “princess tales” or “fantasy tales” with ease, as only a small handful feature fairies. People are under the impression that the Grimms passively collected stories, wrote them down sans agenda, and went along their way; often Grimm’s collections are dark and adult and feature stories like The Juniper Tree whose codas of cannibalism and filicide are a bit shocking when examined against the saccharine buoyancy of Disney retellings. But that’s a myth; the nature of fairy tales is one of change, even when that change comes at a cost of promoting the morals of whoever is doing the retelling.
So let’s examine the recent Disney film, Maleficent. I’ve been known to dislike “villain narratives” because I often feel that the redemption of villain characters (particularly characters like Captain Hook, or the Wicked Witch of the West – sorry, all you Wicked fans – meaning characters who come from and exist predominantly in children’s literature) is a completely adult justification. In children’s books, children are often the protagonist and adults are the villain – in villain narratives, this deconstruction often paints the child as ignorant, misguided, or too quick to judge, which really defeats the purpose of the entire narrative (which is to strengthen the truth that to children, there is nothing more dangerous than an adult). In villain narratives, it is the opposite; there is nothing more dangerous to an adult who has had a complex and difficult life than a child (just look at Professor Snape). In other words: to be a villain is to be a victim of a story poorly-told, where children have been duped into cheering for the wrong protagonist. Once they grow up, they will learn that they were wrong all along, and change their tune. (You can see why I find this incredibly difficult to swallow – it essentially is a terrible game of “gotcha!” with the narratives of our childhood).
Maleficent, however, suffers a problem that Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West never faced: she was never meant to be in a children’s story in the first place. Sleeping Beauty and Briar Rose was, up until very recently in the history of its lifetime, an adult story (a fact that I’m sure many people are perfectly cognizant of). It existed in several forms, with the bad fairy who curses the princess generally doing so for having been snubbed by not receiving an invitation for the christening – something that modern readers may not recognize as a tremendous oversight, as christenings were often incredibly elaborate and involved social events. This can be seen as a variation on the good host/bad host trope that the Beast in Beauty and the Beast also suffers from, but that is a conversation unto itself. As it is, the bad fairy’s motivations are pretty clear – she wanted to go to the party, and without an invite, was relegated to party-crasher. Further, in most variations, that’s the end of the bad fairy’s involvement – she curses the princess and takes off, and the briars and brambles are put up by other fairies, or time, depending on the variation one reads. In fact, in many of the original tales, there’s an entire part of the story featuring an ogre mother-in-law (the next wicked woman on the train of wicked women intent on destroying this poor princess’s life) who wants to eat her, or her children, or both.
Disney boiled these elements down from both the Grimm and the Perrault retellings to create what was probably their most satisfying animated adaptation, with the most satisfying villain – an evil fairy who answered to no one, who did what she wanted, and who did it for no reason other than to be thoroughly evil.
And Disney, in a show of following the trend of retelling fairy tales from the villain point of view, then turns this on its head and gives her reason, inclination, motivation, and character depth – odd for a villain who turns into a dragon and tries to eat Prince Phillip while proclaiming that she has all the power of hell behind her. Why do that? Why Maleficent, who is so irredeemably bad, and who doesn’t call for any redemption at all?
One might give the argument that Disney created a female evil so intense from the legacy left to us by the Grimms, who transformed a great many ogres in disguise into wicked stepmothers, who did a great disservice to all women who were not virginal and young by making them wicked and jealous. Disney was only following suit, and now in this time of feminism and revisionism, are trying to sell a different story.
But I don’t think so.
I think, instead, that it has become harder to sell villains for the sake of villainy. We as consumers of media no longer buy that someone is evil for the sake of being evil because there has been movement away from the altogether religious belief that the devil is the devil solely for the sake of being the opposite of God. We no longer accept the Lucifer of the Catholic Church, who is pure evil for the sake of evil – we want Milton’s Lucifer, complex and smart and wholly misunderstood, angry with God. And so we want evil characters who have motive, who have reasons that we can understand and relate to.
All this brings me back to the Grimms. I personally do not particularly like the retelling of stories from the villain’s point of view (for the reasons I have stated above) but the fact is that this is not the first time that we have changed the cultural narrative to redirect the story to a different protagonist, and it won’t be the last. Fairy tales are unique in that every retelling describes the cultural values that are being touted at the time of their retelling.
And if that’s the case, what does sympathy for the villain tell future generations about us?
I first read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel The Prince of Mist about two years ago, and then again in the original Spanish, and then recently again in English. The translation is very good, as Zafon’s novels tend to be translated very well, although there are elements of the story that I feel need some critical editing, I also think that this is probably one of the most successful horror novels for children and young adults that there is.
The story focuses on a boy named Max, whose family leaves a big city during the war (the author has clarified that this story takes place in England during World War II, but everything is left pleasantly vague) to a seaside village, where they move into a mysterious house with a truly creepy statue garden featuring a menacing clown statue. At the village Max and his sister Alicia make a friend named Roland who is embroiled in this supernatural Faustian bargain struck with a mysterious figure who goes by the Prince of Mist. The trio spend the summer uncovering secrets as they come of age.
This novel is indicative of Zafon’s style and future works (including the spectacular adult novel, Shadow of the Wind) particularly in his elegant prose. It was written in 1993, during the height of the American Goosebumps phenomena (a slightly cheesy series of preteen horror novels written in the style of Animorphs, in a monthly serial ghostwritten format) but not translated into English until 2010, possibly spurred on by Zafon’s popularity as an adult novelist. But this Spanish novel does not have a trace of camp, and the comedy in it is far from cheesy. The scares are not safe. They do not ascribe to any theory that children cannot handle horror in the most complex and unsettling fashion.
And that’s the crux of this novel: there is nothing satisfying about it. There is no clean ending, there is no comforting message at the end. The idea of an evil that exists with no clear way to vanquish it is not the usual message that exists in children and young adult horror – G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed” simply does not apply here. Zafon creates a dragon (perhaps, quite Biblically, the Dragon) that can’t be defeated and cannot be killed. The price that the Prince of Mist extracts from these young people is distinctly unfair but it is relentless and it is not comfortable.
Instead, Zafon seems to indicate that sacrifice and acceptance of the mistakes of others is a commendable trait. And this is not only unsettling, but it is also an unsatisfactory ending – something that Ruth Graham, writer of the Slate editorial Against YA (I’m not going to link it: and I’m sorry for those readers who are a bit sick of this rather blatant bit of clickbait appearing in children’s lit blogs everywhere!) seems to feel is a marker of adult fiction. This is particularly funny, considering Zafon’s most prominent adult works, which is The Shadow of the Wind, has one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in recent years, to great success. But I would argue that not all unsatisfactory endings are good ones, or even literary ones.
The question is if Zafon’s unsatisfactory ending works, not only with the message, but with the age group that he writes for. Problematic endings, with problematic deaths, can serve the purpose of making a novel linger, and can make the message harder to determine, but at the same time, once the reader has considered that ending, it can make the solution to the ending more satisfying. In that, Zafon succeeds: despite the terrifying ending, and the truly bone-chilling implications of Zafon’s story, the ideas of self-sacrifice and the way that these actions coincide to create what is fundamentally a story about the loss of innocence, particularly within the larger scope of a story that is set against the backdrop of war, makes the problematic ending shattering and incredibly well-done. And at the end of the day, the idea of problematic endings being a hallmark of good fiction transcends age and transcends genre.
Children’s literature, like adult literature, goes through trends and themes; that means that things that seem fresh and new will one day feel dated. That’s why reading novels like The Once and Future King or Tuck Everlasting can be a challenge to young readers because despite the engaging story and well-written material, the book itself comes from a particular point in publishing, and we have moved away from that. This is also why, for instance, we can point to book series like The Babysitter’s Club and Animorphs as being a unique feature of the 80s and 90s. In fact, many monthly, ghostwritten series appeared in that particular era because it was profitable and easily marketed, where now publishing has shifted away from that model.
This goes along the lines of genre, too, particularly in Young Adult novels. This is most readily and easily seen in YA, in fact, because publishing for this demographic is so clearly delineated and because adaptation is so prevalent, which throws these books into the public eye. The first Twilight book came out in 2005, giving us almost ten solid years of Twilight (a difficult thing to consider), followed relatively quickly by the sequels. This started a spate of paranormal romance novels, where young women were falling in love with werewolves, fallen angels, and fairies by the dozen, and occasionally young men were falling in love with witches – to the point where Paranormal Romance was an accepted genre in bookstores in the Young Adult section. Then in 2008, the Hunger Games launched another trend: dystopia and dystopian romance, which while relatively popular in adult literature of the 1940s, was actually a genre that hadn’t gotten much attention in 70 years, but caused a push in young adult literature.
Now we have seemed to move on to realism with novels like The Fault in our Stars, and Fangirl, or really, anything by Rainbow Rowell. The interesting thing about young adult literature and the trends that emerge from within the genre is that they don’t mimic adult publishing at all. That might be the natural suggestion, but in fact most young adult novelists are not looking at adult work for inspiration, but rather, refreshing the genre from within. This makes young adult work, in essence, some of the most innovative literature being released today, even with the advent of “copycat” writers – that is, writers who capitalize on whatever trend is being marketed aggressively at whatever time they choose to publish.
This innovation, or rather, the shifting of trends in a relatively quick and seamless manner is, in my opinion, comes about because of two specific reasons. The first is authors themselves, particularly authors like Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and John Green, who are not ashamed (even as bloggers and writers try to shame them and their readership for writing for children and young people) to write exclusively, or maybe in the case of Neil Gaiman as least intentionally for young audiences. Pullman himself has said that people need to stop asking him when he’s going to start “writing for real people,” comparing it to asking pediatricians when they’re going to start treating adults, as if there is something only half-formed and childish about serving a younger population. That implies that these writers understand that literature formed for young people is inherently literature formed for young people and does not need to mirror adult literature or “prepare” young people for adult literature, but rather accepts the genre as a literature world into itself.
The second reason would be the market: young adults, particularly in the United States and Britain, tend to have independent funds, tend to be adventurous readers, and tend to shape their own reading preferences independent of school or adult influences. These factors combine to allow teenagers to shape the market to what fits their needs independent of adult influences. Additionally, when a book for teenagers catches on – like Twlight or The Hunger Games, it’s often read by adults as well – parents who want to know what media their kids are consuming, librarians, college students, postgraduate students, young professionals – usually because popular books are adapted into popular movies. And in an effort to recreate the lightning in a bottle effect of these immensely popular novels, publishing houses then publish a spate of similar titles, hoping that it will cash in (which works to varying degrees).
As realism picks up the question is, naturally, what’s next? This is by no means any kind of cycle – but one wonders if the fantasy overflow of the late 90s will repeat itself with fairytale recreations and circular fantasy, or if we’re looking at a completely new reworking or an old genre (sci-fi, perhaps? Or a blend of the two like Cinder). But whatever it is, young adult literature and the trends that follow are certainly likely to be surprising in many ways, for both the authors and the readers.
Sorry about the length of time between posts – I’m going to do my best to post more often!
I’ve been rereading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children so that I can read the sequel Hollow City which has been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for the past few months. In case you’re not familiar with this book, it’s a decent story with substantially acceptable writing and a fun, slightly scary premise. But the most interesting aspect is the art that goes along with it. Ransom Riggs, the writer, uses found photographs – that is, photographs that have been collected from various sources (like garage sales and antique shops) over the years and kept in personal collections (which he thanks in the postscript). These photographs are “unaltered” – presumably digitally – but they are a little odd, a little creepy, and a little unsettling. They make a great foil to the novel, which is probably best described as “middle grades” rather than young adult.
I’ve also been reading The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy, and those novels have excellent illustrations by Carson Ellis. These illustrations are fantastically done, and fit the tone of the novel. This is just another book in the spate of middle grade novels that have illustrations (including the aforementioned discussed The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making).
Of course this brings up the question of what purpose these illustrations may or may not serve. In Miss Peregrine’s Home they do the admirable task of furthering the plot, as they are mentioned by the characters and so exist in-world – rather than building the world, they allow the reader to become the viewer. In other middle grade novels, the act of illustrating has been a longstanding tradition – I recall my copy of The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland were lavishly illustrated every few hundred pages, and it was always a joy to come across them. But what I’m interested in is the act of illustration as a bridge from “picture books” to “adult books”.
It’s common for the first books that we encounter to be picture books, with more illustration and art than words (and in the works of Shaun Tan, sometimes no words at all, but his intended audience is arguable). So it makes sense that as readers become more sophisticated, there are less pictures and more words – unless, of course, we’re discussing graphic novels, but that’s a topic in and of itself. However, the construction of worlds is often considered better left to the imagination, so the question remains: why use illustration to construct a world when the words should suffice?
I think that there are some books that may use illustration as a crutch to explain complex and hard to picture concepts, especially ones that use words that may be beyond the reading level of young readers, and I think some people may find that distasteful. But when the art is as well done, and the world building is as complex as what Colin Meloy proposes in Wildwood, I think that the art only serves to highlight critical moments, but more importantly, to draw the reader into the world more completely. Whether or not children need illustrations is beyond the point. The art and the lyrical style suggest more strongly that it is the author that needs the illustrations to make his world complete.
The attitude that children need the crutch of art is reductive and dismissive. Instead, the consideration should be that books can be a medium that is not purely words on paper, but can encompass art and still be valid and complex, and that art can improve a mediocre story if the medium fits the writing style.
I’ve been working my way through Colin Meloy’s book Wildwood, recently, and it’s given me a lot of thought about self-awareness in circular fantasy, because it hedges the line at times. I wrote my Masters thesis on the topic of children’s circular fantasy fiction, which is fiction that begins in the “real” world, ventures out into a fantasy world, and returns – and it’s sort of a staple of children’s fiction. There’s a lot to be said about it, including topics of imagination, dreamlands, and escapism, and it’s often banished strictly to the realm of children and young adult fiction (unless your name is Neil Gaiman, in which case carry on). Of course, this post isn’t really about Meloy – I haven’t finished his novel, so I’m disinclined to discuss what I see so far, but about another self-aware circular fantasy of recent relative popularity.
But I suppose to begin with, I want to define what I mean by self-awareness in children’s literature: this isn’t an awareness of the main character, who may be genre savvy for whatever reason (they read a lot, they listen to their elders, they have heard tales of this place before – so on, so forth) but self-awareness in terms of the author to create a work that refers to itself in metafiction terms. Catherynne Valente, who wrote The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, for instance, seems to be incredibly self-aware. There is an entire speech in the novel from a character who describes not only circular fantasy in great detail, but also outlines the inherent problematic nature that not only the genre, but the self-same book possesses.
This level of self-awareness is already didactic and difficult to swallow in adult works – in children’s work it becomes borderline unreadable. To be fair to Valente, whose novel is well-paced and whose plot is not actually bad in the least, I don’t think that being didactic was her intention. There are problems with novels like The Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan that are inherent in their structure as well. But those problems cannot be examined from within the confines of another story about fairyland.
It becomes unsettling because of the conversations of adults (and this of course ties back to the notion that adults appropriate children’s work), such the discussion in her first novel of fairyland being tamed by children, which can be seen as a direct commentary on adult fairy tales being bowdlerized for children. That fairyland is, in it’s pristine and unchanged nature, a wild place distinctly unsuitable for children. This meta, which comes from the characters (and therefore makes this novel self-aware) is actually a bit offensive to me, because it implies that children’s fiction – all children’s fiction – is an infantilized mirror of a richer, more complex work, and that work will become apparent as children grow into adult literature.
That’s like saying that children consume safe media, which is patently untrue. There are monsters in children’s fiction that are much scarier than anything in adult fiction, and they are necessary, according to Bettelheim, for children to grow psychologically into healthy adults. I defy any adult novel to be as satisfyingly scary as Coraline, and still be as well-written and inherently dangerous. The danger in fairyland is not tamed for children’s work. It is there, lurking, and every child who reads these books don’t only see the danger, but understand the ways to defeat it.
What purpose does self-awareness in children’s work serve? Why put it in there at all? To satisfy the adult audience, whom Valente seems to actually aim her novels at (the language being relatively “cool,” if you’ll pardon my jargon) or to moralize to her child audience, who is getting talked down to by an adult author speaking through her characters? Why not cut the moments of self-awareness out and leave a satisfying story in it’s place?
I can’t answer these questions in a single blog entry: this may be the work of a 4,000 word paper. But it gets me thinking, and it makes me want to glance at other works, to find the elements of meta that don’t fit.
There has been a question, recently, if children’s literature is minority fiction. What defines minority fiction is not always who the fiction is about, but the perceived audience who will read it. Therefore, literary fiction can be about African-Americans without being considered “urban” fiction (a minority fiction category that is aimed at African-American populations) by simple virtue of the audience. This may be a publisher or editorial decision, or a decision made by the author in creation.
Like any genre, minority fiction suffers from a certain level of stigma when held up against the glowing bastion of literary fiction, which is generally considered more intellectual and better written (whether this is or isn’t the case is beyond the scope of this blog, but it’s an interesting question to consider). But what minority fiction doesn’t suffer from, and in fact one of the interesting categorical definitions of in includes is the concept of appropriation – for instance, where science fiction and fantasy can be adapted by anyone into film or transformed into other media by any person willing to receive the rights, when it comes to minority fiction there is always an element that makes it uncomfortable when in the hands of someone outside of that minority.
Now adaptation of children’s work, if we consider children’s work minority fiction (and it certainly bears the hallmarks – written, published and marketed en masse, without consideration for individual genre, for one specific subset of individuals) would be impossible by children. There is a great deal of children’s work that is successfully adapted and translated into other media and is aimed at children.
But my contention is that the appropriation of children’s work by adults does not take place when this work is adapted by adults, but rather when it is adapted for adults, even if it’s unintentional. An example of this would be Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, the immortal picture book by Maurice Sendak. Where the book is a classic and beloved by children, the movie adaptation, perhaps butting against the challenge of making a picture book into a full-length feature film, injects issues that should be universal, but don’t seem to hold any appeal for children. It’s a thoroughly adult movie. I would make the same argument in regards to Wes Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, where his usual style of filmmaking and quirky script put this film more in the leagues of his other work and less in the leagues of James and the Giant Peach, another stop-motion adaptation of a Roald Dahl work.
There is, to me, something inherently uncomfortable about the tonal switch in appropriated children’s work, because it suggests that children’s media is only valuable in its consumption by adults. This extends beyond these films, into adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and reinterpretations of work like the Wizard of Oz (Wicked remains unquestionably adult) that delve into “the darker side” of children’s work, as if these works are invalid without “an adult side”.
This may be from the propensity to demand that after childhood is an inevitable adulthood, but I question why nostalgia has to be expressed through this kind of appropriation and the purpose it serves the storyteller, other than possibly discuss unresolved emotional responses to children’s work.
It’s a question that I want to explore more.
I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine recently, where I posited that George R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame, had irrevocably changed Fantasy fiction forever by bringing to light the inherent problematic aspects of a fantasy world and examining those issues without pulling his punches. He asked me if I thought that his change was reflected in young adult fantasy, too, and I had to think about it.
Arguably, children’s fiction is historically entrenched in fantasy. John Goldthwaite examines this in detail in his book The Natural History of Make-Believe, which looks at the history of children’s fantasy fiction from Perrault forward, and I would recommend this book to anyone studying children’s literature (despite his disdain for Narnia). If we talk about the history of children’s books, we’re talking about books like Alice in Wonderland, The Water-Babies, Peter and Wendy and even books like The Chronicles of Narnia, despite the fact that these books are probably in the minority of the genre that comprise children’s literature as a whole. But if we examine just the history of fantasy novels, there’s a clear progression from the didactic lectures of The Water-Babies to The Chronicles of Narnia, but after the 70s and 80s, things begin to get a little murky – possibly because of Dianna Wynne Jones, whose excellent Chrestomanci and Howl (or maybe, more accurately, Sophie Hatter) books began to change the perception of children’s fantasy by poking holes in tropes, or because of the inception of American children’s fantasy with authors like Tamora Pierce.
It’s Tamora Pierce who holds a particularly interesting place in young adult fantasy. Her first novels were not originally intended for a child audience, but were then edited down from adult to young adult fiction, which was probably to her benefit. Alanna is an excellent young female protagonist (although admittedly, with purple eyes, magic, divine intervention and two handsome and well-placed love interests, the definition of a Mary-Sue) because she is brave, assertive, stubborn, and in a genre where brave, assertive and stubborn girls often need to be rescued in a strange kind of inversion of feminism, she does a majority of the saving.
But the Lioness quartet was fairly standard fantasy fare, where war and violence was kept relatively at arms length – Alanna may have engaged in violence, but it was the kind of violence that didn’t examine violence for the sake of the examination (which is, arguably, what Martin has tried to shift the fantasy genre towards). Instead it has violence as an aspect of being a knight, and is more focused on topics like destructive patriarchy and misogyny as an inherent feature of fantasy world. In fact, Pierce has been pretty consistent in trying to deliver female protagonists in her Tortall books whose mission is to dismantle the notions of male superiority, and she’s been relatively good at doing it.
But it’s the evolution of her work – from the misadventures of a lady knight who spent her first 8 years as a knight-in-training disguised as a boy to her most current works, which are aware of, and examine issues like cultural misogyny even in kingdoms ruled by women (The Will of the Empress) to the inception of PTSD from war and atrocities (Battle Magic) that begin to demonstrate the real evolution of fantasy from the relatively innocent world of Narnia and Neverland into something more sophisticated an adult. It would have been impossible for for work like Battle Magic to exist without Alanna, but I suspect that it’s not Martin’s world (which, incidentally, was being released around the same time as the Pierce’s early work) but more due to Harry Potter and the observation made by editors that children were in fact capable of not only reading but processing what were previously adult themes.
I hesitate to bring Harry Potter into this post because the analysis of Harry Potter and the impact that Rowling has on the publishing of children’s fiction is a post on its own. But I do think, thinking on this as a whole, adult fiction does inform children’s work, as any majority influences a minority.
More on children’s fiction as minority fiction in my next post.