Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Where are the good fathers?

For decades, fairy tale scholarship has sought to overturn the wicked stepmother and bad mother stereotypes, now there's a piece about the lack of positive father figures in children's literature.

Of course, finding any positive parental figure is difficult in children's literature. As a genre, children's literature has a habit of making children look much more sensible than adults. In class, we've played with the theory that the difference between adult and children's lit. with child protagonists is that in children's lit, the child will act as the adult, the adult as the child. Massive generalisations aside.

One of my favourite father figures in children's lit. at the moment is the father in The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. He's not a very observant father, but there's something endearing about his obliviousness to what his children are doing with him. I loved Matthew as a father figure in Anne of Greengables, though. While not her natural father, could you go passed a better father? Mo in Cornelia Funke's Inkheart is flawed, but pretty magnificient. The good fathers are there.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Violence in children's illustration

There's a terrific piece over at the BBC about putting the violence back into children's illustration. There's some excellent points made (although, it's disturbing how gender stereotypes continue so strongly - there is an element of truth, I guess, but surely there are girls who draw scenes of bloody mayhem too?). My only concern is that there are a lot of articles and essays today about 'returning' violence to children's literature. Of course, violence has always been there. It never went away - we simply grew older and more forgetful. And just as children's literature needs violence, it needs hope, joy, kindness, compassion and so on. The problem is, in the focus on sex and violence, people often forget the balance. This happens in respect to fairy tales. Yes, they should be darker, but they should also retain their lightness. The really good fairy tales always had both.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ever read Peter Pan?

Have you ever actually read Peter Pan or, more to the point, perhaps, Peter and Wendy? I teach the novel in Honours classes and students are frequently surprised by its... ah... strangeness. It begins:

"All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end. "

Just as it is important that Peter does not grow up, it is important that Wendy knows she must.

And Peter's first appearance?

"She started up with a cry, and saw the boy, and somehow she knew at once that he was Peter Pan. If you or I or Wendy had been there we should have seen that he was very like Mrs. Darling's kiss. He was a lovely boy, clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees but the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth. When he saw she was a grown-up, he gnashed the little pearls at her."

The teeth are a little creepy, as is the 'ooze'. The full text is available through Project Gutenberg. It is a magical reading experience, but much darker and disturbing than many have come to believe, as is the usual case with iconic children's stories.

Of course, the novel didn't come first. The tale was first spun in Kensington Gardens and then there was a play. It was with great interest that I read that the play was coming back to Kensington Gardens (here's the link). I'm not sure why a cast of 20 year olds is preferable, but I wish I were in London to see this.

Those banned books...

There's a great piece in Boing Boing about a high school student creating their own lending library of banned books that you can read about here.

I may have said this before, but while age-appropriateness is often tied to the fiction children and young adults access, I think it should likewise be discussed in terms of adults. It is, after all, just as ridiculous to say that only those 29 and above should read, say, Persuasion, as it is to say only those 15 and up should read Catcher in the Rye.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Part of the wonder of working in children's lit. and fairy tale is the illustration. I often encounter students who don't like illustrated books - as though the art 'limits' the imagination. To a certain extent, I can see where they're coming from. Yet the art leaves an indelible impression and the meaning can be profound. Not so long ago, Margery Gill died. It wasn't until I read about this event in the Guardian that I realised she was the illustrator behind many of my favourite books (as in, actual books... editions of the classics that I grew up with). Her little women were my little women. Sketched, with prim little mouths and messy hair, I loved them. I copied her illustrations as I learned to draw. The pen and ink was a revelation. The sadness of her little princess made it my favourite novel for a long time.

What inspired this thought? A little blog in which the artist is 'directed' by his four year old daughter. He's just gotten a book deal. Fantastic. I particularly liked his print of a duck biting a dinosaur's tail!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Neil Gaiman talking

Neil Gaiman on the Jonathon Ross show here. Am currently copying it to my iPod.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Anthropomorphism - it's about being human

In teaching the range of books that feature anthropomorphised characters, like Winnie-the-Pooh or Peter Rabbit, one of the issues has always been that these characters tell us more about humanity than about their actual species or otherwise.

Thus I delighted in this tale of a little tweenbot making its way through the park with the help of passers-by. As Kacie Kinzer remarks: "But of more interest to me was the fact that this ad-hoc crowdsourcing was driven primarily by human empathy for an anthropomorphized object. The journey the Tweenbots take each time they are released in the city becomes a story of people's willingness to engage with a creature that mirrors human characteristics of vulnerability, of being lost, and of having intention without the means of achieving its goal alone." With a smile on its little cardboard face, who could resist helping the tweenbot out? Even if it was just a bit of technology and cardboard?

How else to get people to read an early Bonaparte romance?

Napoleon Bonaparte was, essentially, a failed novelist. An English translation of one of his early romances is about to be released. Somewhat surprisingly, it's been dubbed, 'chick lit' by The Guardian.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Granger Danger - it could catch on

There's a great piece over at Jezebel about catch phrases inspired by the heroines of children's literature here.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fairy tale - fear and sweetness

There's an excellent piece in The Guardian about fairy tale fear. Notably, while there is an initial sad reflection on how fairy tales became too sweet, Ryan Gilbey also acknowledges that Disney - often accused of candy-coating fairy tale - did indulge in animated sequences of unsettling tension and fear. I suspect that many who glibly reference Disney as a prime culprit of the whitewashing of fairy tale have never really rewatched Disney. Snow White's flight through the forest from her stepmother, herself intent on putting Snow White's heart in a pretty jewelled chest, gave me the shivers, as did Scar's speechifying to the hyena population.

The catch, I believe, is that the best fairy tales are both fear-invoking and happily triumphant. It is the roller coaster emotional ride that gives them their greatest punch. The problem with raising the accusation of fairy tale censorship and then reasserting the darkness of fairy tale is that sometimes the happily ever after is forgotten. The moments of triumph, of joy, of overcoming the odds and defeating fear itself are just as important as the darker elements.