Archive: January 2011
Little Goody Two Shoes

So this week in our children’s lit class, my wife and I taught The History of Little Goody Two Shoes 1. I wanted to put down a few thoughts and reactions that came up in discussion.

If you haven’t read the book, let me save you the trouble: Little Goody Two Shoes follows a recently-orphaned girl who rises above oppression by being an exemplar of moral and social virtue. She’s rewarded for her hard work by a wedding proposal from a rich old man — which I guess was a good thing back then.

Little Goody Two Shoes was written at a time when children’s literature was almost entirely limited to educational and religious primers 2. It’s sort of shocking to think that this book would have once been perceived as entertainment. To a modern reader, it feels like a series of straightforward moral lessons.

Still, children’s literature had to start somewhere, and there is no question that Little Goody Two Shoes had a huge influence on books that came after it. I thought it might be fun to look at how elements from this book show up in later works of children’s literature:

1) It’s an origin story

This book popularized the term “goody two shoes,”  but the phrase had been around long before it. In the book, a small orphan girl named Margery Meanwell only owns one shoe. But then a rich man buys her a complete pair, and Margery is so delighted that she runs around the village, exclaiming: “Two shoes, ma’am! See, two shoes!” The nickname follows soon after.

It seems like Little Goody Two Shoes was trying to create an origin story for a phrase that was already in the culture. It reminds me of the “How the X got its Y” structure from Kipling’s Just So Stories. An even more direct comparison might be Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, where the author creates a secret underground society comprised of the “Jacks of All Trades”3.

2) Silly Character Names

Little Goody Two Shoes is full of characters with loaded names: Margery Meanwell, William Dove, Timothy Gripe, Farmer Graspall (can you guess which ones are villains?). Nothing much to say about this other than the fact that this technique later became inseparable from Charles Dickens. I also think Roald Dahl is pretty dang good at it …

4

One big difference between Little Goody Two Shoes and books that came after it is that the former plays it straight. There’s nothing particularly funny or playful about the names — they’re just meant to highlight the moral lessons. It’s nice to know we’ve evolved beyond that.

3) Animals save the day!

Little Goody Two Shoes spends a lot of time saving animals. The middle chapters of the book are a series of animal-rescue adventures. She saves a few birds, a dog, and a lamb. She teaches them to “speak and spell.” This pays off in later chapters when her dog, Jumper, rescues Goody and her students from a collapsing schoolhouse.

Again, not much to say on this. But there’s a pretty clear connection between this book and later stories like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Also, Cat Lassie … We must never forget Cat Lassie …

4) My two favorite parts

There are two awesome bits from Little Goody Two Shoes that I wish had made it into pop culture. Here’s hoping I can make them stick:

At one point Goody befriends a raven that she names Ralph and a dove that she names Tom. She teaches both of these birds to spell by using alphabet blocks. Ralph-the-Raven loves spelling things with the uppercase letters; Tom-the-Dove spells things with the lowercase letters. Soon, the schoolchildren begin to referring to capital letters as “Ralph’s alphabet” and lowercase letters as “Tom’s alphabet.” Awesome, right?

Later in the book, a man walks into Goody’s schoolhouse and sees her surrounded by animals. He points at her, screaming, “A witch! A witch!” Goody, without missing a beat, points right back and exclaims “A conjurer! A conjurer!” I think this rejoinder could have saved some lives in Colonial Salem.

That’s it for Little Goody Two Shoes! Next week our class is discussing RM Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. (I recently got called out for dismissing boys’ adventure novels as “escapist fluff” — my Coral Island post will probably take the form of a long apology.) See you then!

  1. 1. The book was published in 1765 by John Newbery (heard of him?). There’s debate about who authored the book; among the contenders is Oliver Goldsmith
  2. 2. To prepare students for the assignment, we read a few early excerpts from Patricia Demers’ From Instrustion to Delight
  3. 2. Unrelated: at ALA, Neil Gaiman noted that his book was meant to be in conversation with The Jungle Books … which promptly made me feel like an idiot for not noticing the fact
  4. 3. These BFG illustrations were drawn by Rebbaz Royee — it’s a bold man who decides to take on Quentin Blake!
FLY BY NIGHT Quote #4

My favorite image:
“Mosca saw … a woman in a tattered black cambric shawl who had spread across her lap a dozen pigtails, all crudely severed. … Mosca guessed that she must be one of the notorious scissor women, who would snip the locks off unguarded children to sell to wigmakers. The pigtails lay like fat, silken ropes, their sad little ribbons still attached.”
- Frances Hardinge
Fly by Night, ch. XVII

(more quotations here)

FLY BY NIGHT Quote #3

Recently read:

“‘You broke the school,’ she whispered aloud. Somehow this was the only part of the tale that she could feel and understand. Her father had broken the school.”

- Frances Hardinge
Fly by Night, ch. XII

(more quotations here)

FLY BY NIGHT Quote #2

Recently read:

“Saracen’s tiny wounds has faded from live-poppy red to dead-poppy red…”

- Frances Hardinge
Fly by Night, ch. XIV

(more quotations here)

PETER NIMBLE in Korea …

Mary brought back the mail today. In the pile was a contract from my agent for a Korean edition of Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes! The publisher will be Sodam & Taeil.

I have exactly one friend living in Korea. He teaches English and runs a popular K-blog. Maybe he’ll make his students buy copies? In the meantime, here’s an awesome monster attack from the 2006 movie The Host. Warning: contains a monster.

FLY BY NIGHT Quote #1

Recently read:

“It is a very terrible thing to be far smaller than one’s rage.”

- Frances Hardinge
Fly by Night, ch.VIII

Worst Way to Die …

Scanned from my Spring 2005 journal:

My friend Karen1 used to play this game when she and her brother were kids. The called it “Worst Way to Die.” The title pretty much says it all. The two of them would take turns trying to one-up each other with the most awful death scenarios they could think of. After a while, the game turned collaborative. They put their heads together to come up with this:

Now we’ve all thought about lemon juice in a paper cut, but the styrofoam takes things to a whole new level. Not only are you in pain. Not only are you drowning. But you are also going to look ridiculous trying to keep your head above the surface. The moral of the story? Kids are awesome.

Feel free to throw any of your own “Worst Way to Die” submissions in the comments.

  1. 1. Mary has asked me to note that Karen and her brother have grown up to be normal, well-adjusted members of society
Genre Mashups: Peter Pan and The Hunger Games…

A while back, I sat down to re-read JM Barrie’s The Little White Bird – which is sort of a rough prequel to Peter and Wendy 1. The introduction to my edition was written by Jack Zipes, who makes an interesting observation:

“Barrie himself, as author, was trying to bring together two different strands of children’s fiction that collided with one another in his novel: the adventure story for boys and the domestic and fairy story for girls.”2

I’d like to discuss this idea. I know both of the genres that Zipes mentions pretty well. They are, by and large, escapist fluff. And there’s no question that Peter and Wendy contains a lot of the same elements as that fluff (pirates, fairies, mermaids, etc…). So why does Barrie’s book feel so much better than the works that informed it? Why is it greater than the sum of its parts?

I think it’s because Barrie — while using those genres — also problemetizes them. The ending of Peter and Wendy ruthlessly shatters the escapism of both worlds:  neither Peter’s adventuresome spirit nor Wendy’s domestic longing is strong enough to keep them together. I’m fairly convinced that it was this genre-critique that made Barrie’s book feel different from its predecessors.

With this theme in mind, I started thinking about more contemporary works that also mix genres traditionally associated with opposite sexes. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games came to mind straightaway.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

In her books, Collins takes the dystopian-gladiator setting (masculine) and narrates it as a teen romance (feminine). But the real question is: does Collins do anything new with these genres? I would argue that she does.

Let’s look at the dystopian-gladiator bit first. Most books with characters who kill each other on live television are thinly-veiled cautionary tales about the evils of violent media. In Collins’ book, however, the “games” are more of a metaphor about command performance — being forced to jump through hoops set in place by those in power3. Is this an earth-shatteringly new theme? Not really. But it is a fresh take on a well-worn genre.

As for the teen romance part? I would point to the end of the trilogy. Like Twilight, readers have been primed for a “which cute boy will she choose?” climax. But right when we’re expecting to hear Katniss bear her heart … the narrative jumps ahead. Years ahead. Her decision is stated as simple fact, not an impassioned declaration. I think this is a pointed critique from Collins about limited scope of most YA romance novels — no matter how big things feel at seventeen, life goes on.

Is The Hunger Games as good as Peter and Wendy? Of course not. But I do think that both books successfully appropriate escapist genres to tell powerful, distinctive, literary stories.

  1. 1. The Little White Bird was a novel Barrie wrote before Peter and Wendy. Several of the chapters deal with a nascent version of his beloved Peter Pan (and are often excerpted under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens)
  2. 2. Introduction, pg xxiv
  3. 3. For more on this point, I suggest reading Laura Miller’s fantastic New Yorker article, which covers the subject far better than I ever could
A Drollic Blateration …

I recently became aware of a site run by the Oxford University Press called Save The Words1. It contains a collection of English words facing obsolescence. Visitors are invited to “adopt” a word — which involves agreeing to the following statement:

I went ahead and adopted two words because I’m that kind of guy.

Drollic /drəʊl/ Of or pertaining to a puppet show.

Blateration /blætəˈreɪʃən/ Babbling chatter.

Head on over there and pick some words for yourself! Or don’t. More for me.

  1. 1. thanks to Laurel for the link!
MFA Writing Programs: Lego vs. Construx

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a big fan of Lego1. Even as a child, I was not shy about my dislike for those rigid little bricks. My problem was that Lego was too detail-oriented. The work was painstaking and the rewards small: put together a bunch of rectangles to get … a bigger rectangle. Sure, some people can do incredible things, but who has that kind of time when they’re eight years old?

The building toy that won my heart (and allowance) was called Construx:

Totally awesome, right? Construx are similar to tinkertoys in the sense that consist mainly of beams and joints2. This type of system forces kids to think in structural terms. With Construx there is no such thing as a “final product” — even the models in that commercial looked unfinished. But what a child loses in polish, he or she gains in versatility and speed. It is essentially a concept driven building toy.

I do not actually think one toy is superior to the other. That depends on the kid. But I do think the differences between Lego and Construx perfectly reflect the two major styles of writing MFAs.

Graduate writing programs tend to fall into one of two categories: “Creative Wrtiting” (fiction and poetry) and “Dramatic Writing” (movies and plays). From what I have read and experienced myself, it seems that with each of these categories comes a different pedagogical approach.  Creative Writing seems to put a heavy focus on fine-tuning the details of a product — word choice, flow, tone, etc… Conversely, Dramatic Writing tends to emphasize the big picture issues — plot, pacing, character.

As with Lego vs. Construx, it all depends on the needs of the student. Some writers need help with fine-tuning, others need help with structure. Actually, writers need both — but hopefully they can figure out whatever they didn’t learn at grad school on their own.

I recently read a fascinating article by Cathy Day who has been teaching fiction-writing for years3. She identifies a problem with traditional Creative Writing MFA programs:  semester logistics makes novel-length assignments impossible, and so instructors instead focus on short stories — a medium that most students (not to mention the reading public) don’t even care about. This model is justified by the “learn to walk before you run” argument. Day, however, observes that such programs don’t help people run, they just teach people to walk really well.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with short stories (or walking!). But Day worries that all this focus on fine-tuning leads to graduates who are not prepared for the structural challenges unique to long-form projects. It sounds to me like she is wishing her students could play with fewer Legos and more Construx.

  1. 1.  I am aware that this is heresy; feel free to leave hate mail in the comments section
  2. 2. This toy was tragically discontinued in 1988, which meant much of my collecting involved dragging my mother to yard sales in search of discarded sets
  3. 1. Thanks to Liz Burns for the link!
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