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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’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.