Since relocating to Pittsburgh, I’ve been invited to teach at the MFA program at
Hogwarts Chatham University. This is a thrill, as my students will be actual creative writers of Children’s Literature! It will also be a challenge.
The educational needs of creative writers are slightly different from those of straight academics. The questions/vocabulary/theories that serve scholarship aren’t necessarily the ones that help a writer become better at their craft.1 The goal of this course will be to combine the reading list of an English Lit class with the vocabulary of a creative writing workshop.
I’ll be writing pieces on this blog about each of the books that we’ll be discussing in class.2 Here’s the first half of our reading list. You’re welcome to follow along!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum (1900)
I’m not actually the biggest Baum fan. His books often feel like rambling journeys where each chapter has no relation to the larger story. The first book in his series, however, is a welcome exception. Even better, Baum’s famous introduction to that book is a great way to start a course on the genre — it’s the Declaration of Independence of Children’s Literature.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
One of the recurring tropes in Children’s Literature is the creation of enchanted spaces — especially ones that are controlled by children. What better example of this than a book that manages to create such spaces without needing to resort to magic?3
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885)
Now that last year’s Huck Finn debacle seems to have blown over, it seemed like it might be fun to explore this book — one of the rare children’s literature titles that has gained full acceptance in the larger canon. From a writing perspective, it will also provide a chance to examine the quest narrative in greater detail.
Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie (1911)
My love of this book is well documented.
Charlotte’s Web by EB White (1952)
I’m actually more of a Stuart Little guy myself, but with this book recently topping the School Library Journal’s list of Top 100 Children’s Books, I thought it would be worth looking at. One of the things I love about Charlotte’s Web is how (seemingly) effortlessly it manages to combine prosaic American farm life and talking-animal magic — with Charlotte being the nexus between those two worlds.
- For more on this difference, you can check out my post on poetics vs hermeneutics ↩
- Some readers will remember that I blogged through the Children’s Literature course I taught last year. ↩
- My one regret is that I will not have space in the course to pair this book with its natural bookend: Bridge to Terebithia ↩
My first year of grad-school, I wrote a terrible play about a woman who hadn’t slept for 17 years. At the center of the story was a mystery regarding what had happened to make her stop sleeping. When I went back home over holiday, I had a former drama professor look at the script. He promptly told me why the play didn’t work: I had written a revelation story and didn’t know it.
Revelation stories, he explained, are plots in which the central dramatic event is the revelation of information to the audience. The key phrase in that definition is “to the audience”. In revelation plays, the climax takes place not on stage, but in the seats.1
These sorts of narratives are hardly limited to theatre. A recent(ish) example from the literary world might be Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.
[COMMENCE SPOILER ALERT!]
Speak tells the story of a high school freshman recovering from a recent sexual assault. The book begins after this assault took place, and its climax involves the protagonist learning to “speak” of what happened. While Anderson does a pretty good job of making this revelation feel dramatic, the early chapters of her book rely heavily on the assumption that readers will readily identify with the protagonist’s emotional life – and that that identification will be enough to carry them all the way to the climax. While the gamble pays off in this book, I have seen many other stories (my play included) where it blows up in the author’s face.
[END SPOILER ALERT.]
The primary problem with revelation narratives is that all the interesting stuff happens in flashback. So how does an author bring those past events into the present-tense (where the audience can experience it in realtime)? Usually authors spice up the revelation by making the characters deal with the past trauma. But on the spectrum of dramatic impact, “dealing with issues” is pretty weak — no matter how well it’s written.
Even if you pull this off, there’s still the added challenge of not pissing off your reader. In her recent book on publishing, children’s book editor Cheryl Klein talks briefly about the storytelling power behind mystery:
“I want to think about mystery a little more because it’s probably the single most effective plot technique for hooking a reader: Have a secret, let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. It’s a classic childhood strategy, the equivalent of dancing around your reader saying ‘neener-neener-neener.’”
I think that Cheryl is spot-on so far as it relates to individual scenes. However, occasionally a story drags out the mystery so long that reading the book feels like 300 pages of “neener-neener.” Not exactly the best way to win over your audience.
When I first started reading Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road for our children’s literature class, I thought I was getting into a Speak-style revelation narrative. The hero, Tyler Markum constantly eludes to some past events that have defined her.2 But when Tyler finally gets around to sharing her memories, she learns her understanding of the events was either incomplete or flat-out wrong. That added element creates a nice Rashomon-style twist to the moments of revelation — and it also keeps the storytelling focus on the chracters, where it belongs.
- Mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers has talked about the danger of art whose sole purpose is in manipulating the audience: “In the end it is directed to putting the behaviour of the audience beneath the will of the spell-binder, and its true name is not ‘art,’ but ‘art-magic.’ In its vulgarest form it becomes pure propaganda.” A bit extreme for me, but still interesting. ↩
- Several other characters in Jellicoe Road also have secrets that are constantly being teased — the book is nothing if not teasy. ↩
Last week for our Children’s Literature course, we had an enjoyable discussion about Roald Dahl’s Matilda. This book is very dear to me — it was the first “long” book I read as a child and it sparked a lifelong love of reading. One thing that struck me during our conversation was how many things in this book run contrary to current parenting trends. Let’s dive right in …
1) Let them Read Anything
More than a few children’s books include reading lists of all the novels the protagonist loves. This usually functions as a sort of literary name-dropping intended to give a young hero instant credibility with readers: “You loved the Narnia books and so did my main character!“ With Dahl’s book, however, it’s a little different. He doesn’t just have Matilda read beloved children’s books, he has her read beloved adult books — the list includes Dickens, Bronte, Hardy, Hemingway, Greene, Orwell, and Faulkner among others. Most of the titles are ones that would get a parent arrested for showing to their child. Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Really? Dahl doesn’t even let us pretend that young Matilda skipped over the dirty bits; he makes the point of including a scene where the girl asks her librarian about Hemingway’s sex scenes. What’s the woman’s response? “Don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”
2) Give them a Long Leash
Kids today can’t go anywhere without their parents knowing. Yes, a cell phone is a form of freedom, but it is also a way for a parent to track their children’s every move. Newbery winner Rebecca Stead has stated that she set When You Reach Me in the 70s because kids today don’t have the independence necessary for her story. I’m sure Roald Dahl would agree. While re-reading Matilda, I noticed how he makes a point of letting his young hero do grown-up things. The whole story starts with her walking to the library by herself at four years old. And this isn’t just parental negligence. The first thing the kind Miss Honey does when she invites Matilda into her house is ask the girl to fetch some water: “The well is out at the back. Take the bucket on the to the end of the rope and lower it down, but don’t fall in yourself.” When’s the last time you heard a parent tell their child to make herself useful and do something that could kill them?
3) No Positive Reinforcement
The book opens with an authorial screed about parents who dote too much on their children. Dahl fantasizes about being a teacher and sending home more accurate letters describing his students: “Your son Maximilian … is a total wash-out. I hope you have a family business you can push him into when he leaves school because he sure as heck won’t be getting a job anywhere else.” Later on in the story, the lovely Miss Honey bemoans how parents are constantly over-praising and over-estimating their mediocre children. And even after Matilda reveals herself to have psychic powers, Miss Honey is careful not to let her get a big head. “It is quite possible that you are [a phenomenon] … But I’d rather you didn’t think about yourself as anything in particular at the moment.” This runs contrary to the current trend of telling every kid that they can become an astronaut or the president.1
4) Blood is Bad
Dahl doesn’t play the coward by giving Matilda evil step-parents or evil guardians. She has evil parents. Period. In doing this, Dahl breaks the tradition of letting adult readers delude themselves into thinking that they could never do the horrible things that book villains do.2 It also dispels the fantasy that being related to a person necessarily means you will be loved by them. This is a narrative conceit that has bothered me in countless movies/books/sitcoms, and I’m always glad to see it challenged — It’s the reason I prefer “Hansel & Gretel” to “Cinderella.”
5) Golden Rule, Shmolden Rule
There is a central cruelty to this novel that I think makes it unique among children’s books. Wronged kids are nothing new in children’s literature, but Dickens never let Oliver Twist come back and terrorize his persecutors. Matilda, on the other hand, dishes out revenge with gleeful pettiness. Consider her first strike against Mr Wormwood: he demands that she eat dinner in the living room, and so she puts superglue in his hair. That’s draconian by any standard. Dahl knows it, too, and he complicates the book by blurring the line between Matilda and Trunchbull — consider how both characters always make sure the punishment fits the crime.3 This connects to a thread that runs through all Dahl’s best work — revealing how children can be just as cruel and selfish as the worst adults.
Just a few bits of child-rearing wisdom from old Uncle Roald. So throw away your Baby Einstein, pull out the TV dinners, and get parenting!
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In two weeks, I’ll be discussing Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road. For those interested, you should check out these other posts from our course reading list:
Plot vs. Story in The Chocolate War
Realism and talking Pigs in Winnie-the-Pooh and Charlotte’s Web
Literary dress rehearsals in Peter Pan
On the shoulders of A Little Princess
The childlit mentor in The Coral Island
How Little Goody Two-Shoes influenced other major children’s books.
- By my last count, only 1 in 300,000,000 people gets to be the president — chances are you’re kid’s not it. ↩
- I have to give a shoutout to Betsy Bird for making this same observation last year in her Top 100 Children’s Books series. ↩
- This is actually a subject big enough for its own post — I think the subtle differences between Matilda and Trunchbull set up a very sophisticated set of moral rules that determine who deserves punishment. My guess on the deal-breaker? Bad sportsmanship. ↩
Last week in our Children’s Literature course, Mary and I discussed Robert Cormier’s proto-YA novel The Chocolate War (1974). For those who have not read it, The Chocolate War is a harrowing story of a freshman who dares to buck convention by refusing to participate in the school-wide chocolate sale. This book was a perfect followup to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In some ways, The Chocolate War is a continuation of Flies’ thesis about the depravity of human nature, but unlike the earlier book, The Chocolate War does not seek shelter in rules and law — in fact, social strictures are depicted as fundamentally destructive.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a unique way that Robert Cormier achieves a sense of “interiority” in his writing. YA literature is often noted for its use of interiority — working overtime to forge a direct, emotional connection between reader and protagonist. We don’t just know what the main character did, we know how they felt while they were doing it. (This probably explains why so many adolescent girls are in love with Holden Caulfield.)
It’s no surprise that The Chocolate War — a seminal work of YA literature — trades in interiority. But what is surprising is how the book goes about creating it. Generally speaking, most books aiming for interiority make use of the first-person narrative mode.1 As a writer, I’m a bit leery of this technique. Sure, a great number of brilliant novels have been written in the first person. But I also feel that less talented authors sometimes use this device to compensate for an anemic narrative. Most of the Twilight books contain about 100 pages of plot sandwiched between 500 pages of, er, “interiority.”
Robert Cormier was a journalist, and it shows in his clean prose. Authors who rely too heavily on first person narration should feel shame when reading The Chocolate War, which somehow creates intimacy between reader and hero without ever ever breaking from the third person. Even more, Cormier doesn’t even bother to stay with his protagonist in every chapter — instead he nimbly hops from one side-character to another, shifting his third-person-limited perspective every few pages. In fact, every public scene containing the protagonist (Jerry Renault) is narrated from the perspective of an outside observer, and it’s only after school that we get to hear out hero’s take on the events that transpired. I would judge that at most 1/4 of the book is told from Jerry’s POV, and yet, by the end, we somehow know him like a flesh-and-blood friend.
How does Cormier pull it off? I’ve read the book three times in as many months and still can’t answer that question. However, on this most recent reading, I started to wonder if Jerry’s aloofness was actually part of the puzzle. Perhaps the reason that we connect with Jerry so much is because we long to connect with him, and so when we do get a rare glimpse inside his head, we make the most of it.
My former writing teacher Milan Stitt once outlined the difference between “plot” and “story.” He defined plot as the chronological list of events that transpire. Story is the act of telling those events in a way that creates meaning. These are two very different skill sets, and while the ability to concoct engaging plots is helpful, it is secondary to the ability to tell those events in a way that pays off. The gap between plot and story is the reason your mom can’t retell a joke.2
Cormier understood that a book about selling chocolates would not work unless he made it meaningful … unless he made it a story.3 Many people have observed that DIARY OF A WIMPY KID’s Greg Heffley is a sort of middle-grade version of Holden Caulfield … I wonder if there’s a middle-grade version of Jerry Renault out there? Any ideas?
- Some go one further and employ the present-tense. If you like hearing people dump on contemporary literary conventions, I urge you to read Philip Pullman’s delightful takedown of this trend. ↩
- I see now that this comes dangerously close to a “your mom” jab … Please accept my heartfelt apologies, Moms of the World. ↩
- Robert Cormier died in November 2000, and Publisher’s Weekly released this touching memorial discussing the man and his work. ↩
Taking a break from so much drawing to share with you readers the second half of our syllabus list. For those new to the site, my wife Mary and I are currently co-teaching a children’s literature course. A few months back, I posted the first half of the reading list, which took students up to the midterm. The books in the first half of the class were meant to give students a grounding in the basic idea behind children’s literature — where it came from and how it evolved into the genre we know and love today.
For this second half of the class, we’re broadening the scope to include some YA titles. Instead of listing the reading date for the class, I’ll be listen when I plan to post on said book. Let’s dive in!
After subjecting our students to a fairly rigorous1 midterm, we gave them a week to kick back and watch Peter Brook’s 1963 very good movie adaptation of Lord of the Flies. I opted for the movie because (a) everyone with a high school diploma has already read this book2 and (b) we didn’t have time. Still, it’s an important book for this course because it acts as a bridge between The Coral Island and the next novel on our syllabus …
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Cormier enjoys a place beside Judy Blume as one of the most challenged authors of All Time. Like Lord of the Flies, this book functions as a critique of the idea that communities of adolescent boys are anything short of monstrous. Unlike Golding, however, Cormier is kind enough to give readers a striking and memorable hero who stands out from the other — the indomitable Jerry Renault.
Blog Post Date: April 7
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Some of you may know that Roald Dahl is my very favorite children’s author. And this was Dahl’s very favorite book. That alone is excuse enough to include it on this reading list. Fortunately, Matilda also fits with our ongoing theme of child-communities. While this fantastical revenge story about a psychic bookworm is not nearly so grim as The Chocolate War, I do think the books are in conversation with each other — Dahl’s Crunchem Hall is every bit as dangerous and depraved as Robert Cormier’s Trinity.
Blog Post Date: April 12
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For this class, Mary will be giving a lecture on the history of the picture book. All I have to do is sit back and marvel at how lovely she is. Students will also bring in their own picture books from home and discuss them in groups.
Blog Post Date: April 19
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This book was first published in Australia in 2006. A few years later, the rest of the world picked it up and promptly freaked out. The story takes place in a sort of heightened world that is all but completely dominated by adolescents.3 Mary had a colleague recommend Jellicoe last year; she read the book and promptly declared that she wanted to teach a course connecting Marchetta’s novel to Peter Pan. Looks like she’ll get her chance.
Blog Post Date: May 3
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Curtis is truly rare in his ability to make historical fiction both powerful and funny. Given our course’s theme (communities in children’s literature), Elijah was a natural choice. The story takes place in the real-life Canadian town of Buxton, which was an organized black settlement during the American Civil War. It follows an eleven year-old boy (Elijah) who ventures out of the safety of his community to help a friend. If you haven’t read any of Curtis’ excellent books, I advise you to use this as your excuse!
Blog Post Date: May 10
So that’s it for the course! Read along if you can! Also, for those interested, below are some links to previous posts from the first half of the semester:
Little Goody Two-Shoes (published) by John Newbery
The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Winnie-the-Pooh and Charlotte’s Web by A.A. Milne and E.B. White (respectively)
- I’m a big believer in the idea that we learn more from hard-won failure than from easy-won success. In fact, I’d say one of the primary functions of college is in creating a space where it is safe to fail. For that reason, I tend to make tests incredibly difficult and then grade on a curve. ↩
- You doubt me on this? I defy you to Google “Lord of the Flies” and find one measly link that isn’t a study guide or essay-for-sale. Can’t be done. ↩
- Every description I’ve read puts me in mind of Rian Johnson’s movie Brick. ↩
Today I thought I’d talk about the last couple of books Mary and I have been discussing in our Children’s Literature class. We rounded up the first half of our semester with a few books about animals — specifically, Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Webb, and A Day No Pigs Would Die.
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
This book marked a change from previous texts in the course. While still being British, Pooh has very little to do with colonialism or moral instruction. Instead it’s just a great big exercise in adorableness. “How adorable,” you ask? I defy you to read this page and not smile.
I once had a friend observe that — other than the wind — Winnie-the-Pooh is an adventure without an antagonist. I think that’s by design. There’s a lot to be said about the fact that this book was published in the shadow of World War I. It’s a safe bet that most of Milne’s readers were the children of veterans, and I can imagine those parents embracing the idea that their progeny were somehow too innately good to ever march into war. In this way it sort of acts as a critique for the bloody adventures of a Peter Pan or Rover Ralph — whereas those characters romanticize violence, Christopher Robin illuminates the beauty of real-life child’s play.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
I think there’s some interesting stuff in the gap between Pooh and Charlotte’s Web. Like the previous novel, this, too, was written after a World War — but it was a bigger war that changed the landscape in even more terrifying ways. It’s one thing to indulge in a little escapism after fighting the Kaiser, but doing so after Hitler and “The Bomb” somehow feels like poor taste. Instead White gives us a book full of compassion — but not so much that it ignores the reality of death.
“Hang on,” you might be saying. “If Charlotte’s Web is aiming for ‘reality,’ why all the talking animals?” I think White knew that the impact of animal deaths would only land if we cared for them as we would humans — which he could only do by making them talk. Through fantasy, White makes his story feel realer than real-life. If you ask me, that’s a pretty neat trick.
A Day No Pigs would Die by Robert Newton Peck
This third book wasn’t one we could fit into the course for time-reasons. That’s a pity because A Day No Pigs Would Die is a truly wonderful book that doesn’t get its due. It’s pretty much the exact same story from Charlotte’s Web, but now all bits of fantasy have been stripped away — including the fantasy that a farm animal can avoid death. It is a profoundly-moving book about a Shaker boy and his doomed pet.
I first became aware of Day when I taught reading classes to middle-schoolers. Anyone who’s taught that age knows that they can be a pretty jaded group — add to this the fact that this was a summer class that my students were being forced to addend and you’ve got a pretty hostile audience. This book changed all that. Students read and discussed the novel over the course of a week, and on the final day, I read the last chapter aloud to them … without fail, every kid in the room was a sobbing mess. Awesome.
So that ends the first half of our semester! Later in the week, I’ll unveil the next chunk of books, which will take us into the scary land of YA. Until then!
As promised, I’m devoting this entire week to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Today I’d like to discuss the long path leading up to the creation of this iconic character.
Thanks to Johnny Depp, most people know that Peter Pan was a 1904 stage play before it was a novel, but what Finding Neverland fails to mention is that the character of Peter Pan actually goes back even further — to a book called The Little White Bird. Published in 1902, The Little White Bird was an adult novel that featured an unaging boy named Peter Pan who lived among birds in the middle of Kensington Gardens.
It would be a stretch to call this earlier book a prequel. Yes, the kid’s name is Peter Pan, and, yes, he refuses to grow up, but that’s where the similarities end. This proto-Peter lacks the cockiness and capricious violence of his later incarnation. When he meets a girl, he asks to marry her. When he’s granted a wish by the fairy queen, he asks to return to his mother. I simply cannot accept that this pansy would turn into the pirate-murdering, rooster-crowing, teeth-gnashing Peter Pan that I know and love.1
I don’t think Barrie intended for his readers to see the characters as contiguous. Rather, I think he considered Kensington Peter to be a sort of “dress rehearsal” — one of many incarnations necessary for the creation of his final character. Even the stage play, which much more closely resembles the 1911 novel, lacks much of the depth of character and theme found in the later book. Scholar Jack Zipes agrees in his introduction to a Penguin edition of Peter Pan:
“There is a sense that [Barrie] wanted to provide definitive closure to the story with the publication of the prose novel in 1911 … The ‘definitive’ novel is the most complicated and sophisticated of all the versions of Peter Pan.”
As someone who has read Peter Pan a number of times, I think the work shows. The 1911 edition, while simple in language, is unbelievably rich in theme.2 The idea that something this good can only be got after countless revisions thrills me as a reader, but the writer in me trembles. There is something terrifying in the possibility that a great character may take several passes to get right — that long after publication a story might still bear revision. When do you stop revisiting past work? Unless you’re George Lucas, the answer to this question might be “never.”
Other Examples of Literary Dress Rehearsals
In the interest of expanding the conversation, I tried to think of some other books that functioned as literary dress rehearsals. I’m sure there are a lot more out there, but here’s what came to mind:
Huckleberry Finn – More than once during the latest Huck Finn Debacle, I had to remind myself that Huck started out in 1876 as a supporting character in Tom Sawyer. It wasn’t until eight years later that he got his due in Huck Finn.
Sara Crewe – Frances Hodgson Burnett’s wonderful heroine first found life in a stripped-down serial novel in 1888. Fourteen years later, she appeared in a stage adaptation titled A Little Un-Fairy Princess. It was only after that that Burnett revised A Little Princess to create the Sara we know today.
Gollum - In many ways, The Hobbit is a functional prequel to The Lord of the Rings. However, I’ve always felt there was a serious disconnect in the two characterizations of Gollum.3 His moral journey in the later books belies the riddle-asking monster-in-the-dark characterization from the earlier volume.
The Addams Family – Strictly speaking, these aren’t “literary” characters, but I often think about the fact that Charles Addams drew the members of his “Addams Family” for years before thinking to give them names. It wasn’t until the 1964 television show that the family really hit pop culture. Looking back on Addams’ older cartoons, you can see how over time he was able to tweak and refine his family into the distinct characters we know today.
Bod Owens – A more contemporary example of character dress-rehearsal might be Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I know a central chapter from the novel (“The Witch’s Headstone”) was first published as a standalone short story, but I have not read the original version. I’m curious to know whether the characterization of Bod Owens changed in any significant ways — anyone out there have a copy?
So those are a few literary dress rehearsals that I can think of. I have this nagging feeling that I’m missing some big examples … feel free to toss in others in the comments.
Tomorrow, check in to learn why I long believed Peter Pan to be an unfilmable story . . . and read about the London stage production that proved me wrong.
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For those who missed the other “Peter Pan Week” posts:
Day Two: The Problem with Peter
Day Three: Tink or Belle?
Day Four: The Neverland Connundrum
Day Five: Loss and Exclusion in Peter Pan (special guest post!)
Also, you can also read my ham-fisted attempt to connect Peter Pan to The Hunger Games here.
- there is a whole separate conversation to be had about how the “rules” of Kensington Gardens” don’t work with the “rules” of Neverland — more evidence that the two books were not meant to exist in the same universe. ↩
- My wife has observed that she can’t read the book with a pen in her hand because she’ll compulsively underline every sentence — they’re all that good. ↩
- This is closely related to the differing characterization of “the ring,” which too conveniently transforms from a straightforward invisibility-device to an all-powerful MacGuffin . ↩
Tonight in our children’s literature class, I’ll be leading a discussion on J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. In undergrad, this replaced Through the Looking Glass as my very favorite novel. I have read it at least a dozen times since then, and my love for the book has only grown. When I started brainstorming ideas for Peter Pan posts, I realized there were too many great topics to pick from. So, instead I’m announcing that next week will be “Peter Pan Week” (insert crowing sound). Each day, I’ll be doing a post on a different aspect of the book. If there’s any specific topic you want to see discussed, let me know in the comments. Until then, happy reading!
For any interested parties, feel free to check out posts from previous books in the course:
Little Goody Two-Shoes (published) by John Newbery
The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
And I’ve posted the full reading list here.
In last week’s children’s literature class, Mary taught Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. This meant I got to kick back and just enjoy re-reading the book. While doing do, I came across a passage in which Sara describes the view from her attic window:
“You can see all sorts of things you can’t see downstairs,” she said … “Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky—and sparrows hopping about and talking to each other just as if they were people—and other attic windows where heads may pop out any minute and you can wonder who they belong to. And it all feels as high up—as if it was another world.”
The subject comes up again a few chapters later:
When the square suddenly seemed to begin to glow in an enchanted way and look wonderful in spite of its sooty trees and railings, Sara knew something was going on in the sky. … she invariably stole away and crept up the flights of stairs, and, climbing on the old table, got her head and body as far out of the window as possible. When she had accomplished this, she always drew a long breath and looked all round her. It used to seem as if she had all the sky and the world to herself.
These passages stood out to me because I am in the middle of writing a book that is largely “about” rooftops, and it includes a few observations very similar to the ones above. While I did not deliberately set out to copy pay homage to A Little Princess, I am pretty sure I couldn’t have written my rooftop story if I hadn’t of first read them in Burnett when I was a child. (I can’t help but wonder if PL Travers felt the same way?)
This happens to me a lot. While revising Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes, I was continually rediscovering how this or that moment/character/theme/word was actually inspired by something I had read long ago. This seems right to me. Some writers make a big deal out of creating from nothing; I, for one, am more comforted by the thought that I create from the things that live within me — things put there by other, greater minds. On the shoulders of giants, and such. I love realizing how forgotten books are still unconsciously informing me, and I hope to continue making such discoveries for as long as I write.
For those of you just joining the conversation, my wife and I are currently team-teaching a children’s literature course. Last week’s book was R. M. Ballantyne’s 1857 adventure The Coral Island. Instead of summarizing the plot1 or discussing its literary significance2, I thought instead I could talk about a certain character relationship that the book depicts — one that traces back to Homer’s Odyssey and lives on today in books like Harry Potter. It is the relationship between a boy and his mentor.
The Mentor in The Coral Island. In the second half of the book, fifteen year-old Ralph gets kidnapped by pirates. He spends many days on this ship, surrounded by cutthroats and monsters. Among the crew, however, he finds a man named “Bloody Bill”:
This man, although he was always taciturn and often surly, was the only human being on board with whom I had the slightest desire to become better acquainted. … Once or twice I tried to draw him into conversation, but he always turned away after a few cold monosyllables.
Ralph soon befriends Bloody Bill and learns the true nature of his character — namely that Bill is a sensitive man, wracked with guilt over his wicked deeds. The relationship between these two only spans a few chapters, but it acts as the emotional center of the novel. Without Bill, this would just be another book about some kids surviving on an island.
I find this child/mentor dynamic particularly compelling as an adult reader of children’s books. It forces me to question whether the adults in my own life were so deeply invested in me — people that I once perceived to be cold and indifferent. Usually after reading such books, I have an overwhelming desire to call my parents and teachers3.
The Mentor in Contemporary Children’s Literature. To be honest, child/mentor relationships were on my brain long before I picked up The Coral Island. It all started when I read D. M. Cornish’s “Foundling” trilogy over Christmas4. Cornish seems to compulsively render the child/mentor dynamic between his young hero Rossamund and … every adult character in the series:
Well, maybe not every adult character. But shades of this trope show up repeatedly. (I don’t blame Cornish for repeating this dynamic — he writes it very well.) With both The Coral Island and the “Foundling” books, I’m not just talking about a pairing of an old character with a younger one. Rather, it’s about the layers of understanding going on between those two characters. In both texts, I see a consistent theme of a young person struggling to comprehend an older caretaker.
When I think of other contemporary examples of this dynamic, my mind goes straight to Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore:
To my thinking, this relationship stands out as being the real story in the “Harry Potter” series. Each volume moves Harry closer toward understanding just how much this enigmatic old wizard cares for him — even when he appears distant. At the end of every adventure, Harry receives a “reward” in the form of a conversation with his mentor, who reveals the ways in which he has been watching and helping from a distance. These conversations are the climax of personal growth … just as they are for Rossamund Bookchild and Rover Roger.
The Mentor in Adult Literature. With the above examples in mind, I tried to think of some child/mentor relationships that predate children’s literature. The only thing I could come up with was Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. My friend Doctor Comics is publishing a book on Arthurian legends, and so I asked him about the relationship between King Arthur and Merlin. He told me that the original Arthur texts don’t really capture the dynamic I was looking for — in fact, it wasn’t until T.H. White’s depiction in The Sword and the Stone in 1938 that Merlin-as-mentor really emerged.
So it wasn’t until Arthur was re-written for children that the child/mentor dynamic really came through? Huh. With this new revelation, I started to wonder whether the relationships that I find so moving are actually unique to the genre. Maybe there is something about children’s literature – which is meant to be read by both children and adults — that captures this child/mentor relationship in a way that adult literature cannot?
I have no idea whether this is true. But a part of me suspects it may be so. In the meantime, I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of great child/mentor relationships from children’s books. You should let me know in the comments.
UPDATE: I wanted to give a special welcome to any readers visiting from Fuse #8! I like to think of the comments section as that “reward” that Harry (me) gets to have with Dumbledore (you) at the end of an adventure — in which wise readers tell me why I’m wrong about this or that thing. So please, pull up a chair, grab some butterbeer, and join the conversation!
- 1. Three boys get shipwrecked on the island. They get along splendidly. Then some pirates come and ruin everything. Also, cannibals. ↩
- 2. Coral Island is considered by many to be the first boy’s adventure novel; it is also the book that provoked William Golding to write The Lord of the Flies (as a rebuttal) ↩
- 3. This is no accident. The word “mentor” actually comes from the character of the same name in Homer’s Odyssey. In the poem, Mentor is a wise old man who looks after Odysseus’ son in his absence. In English today, it is a word for someone in a role that is equal parts parent and teacher. ↩
- 3. A special thanks to Betsy Bird and her wonderful Factotum review for putting these books on my radar! ↩