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! ↩
Just a short post reminding readers that I’ll be discussing R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island on Monday1. If you were hoping to read along, now’s your chance. All this week, I’ll be posting quotes from the book in the Marginalia Box (in the right column). Also, I’ve included an excerpt from the preface to whet your appetite:
“If there is any boy or man who loves to be melancholy and morose, and who cannot enter with kindly sympathy into the regions of fun, let me seriously advise him to shut my book and put it away. It is not meant for him.”
Did I mention the book has pirates? And a shark? You can read it for free here.
- 1. I’ll be trying my best to connect it to Harry Potter and D. M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy … we’ll see how it goes. ↩
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 …
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. 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. To prepare students for the assignment, we read a few early excerpts from Patricia Demers’ From Instrustion to Delight ↩
- 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 ↩
- 3. These BFG illustrations were drawn by Rebbaz Royee — it’s a bold man who decides to take on Quentin Blake! ↩
My wife (who is a PhD candidate in English Literature) and I (who am not) are co-teaching a course on children’s literature. Mary has taught this course many times before, but with the pressures of dissertation-writing weighing heavily on her shoulders, she was wary about taking on the extra work. And so she asked the school if I could teach with her1!
We pretty much spend our waking lives reading and discussing children’s books, and now someone is going to pay us to do it!
Mary suggested we take the opportunity to throw out her old syllabus. She wanted to try teaching some new texts, and we were both eager to insert a bit more contemporary work (she specializes in the 18th and 19th centuries). A few of these books are ones I haven’t read before, and I’m very excited to dive into them.
I thought I’d put the first half of our reading list on this site and use the course as a way to talk out some of my ideas on each book. The thesis of the class has to to with creating unique geographies in children’s literature. I also am including the course dates, just in case you want to read along:
The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes
by John Newbery (1765)
That’s right, the John Newbery. The guy who started it all. His Goody Two-Shoes stories are a perfect example of the earliest children’s literature, which functioned primarily as moral instruction. I’ve only read excerpts from this piece back when I was an undergrad, so I’m excited to revisit.
Discussion on: Jan 27
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After the bombshell that was Robinson Crusoe (1719), there came a wave of “Robinsonades” — knockoff books about people being stranded on islands. A lot of these were written for children (Swiss Family Robinson anyone?). Coral Island was an immensely popular take involving a bunch of schoolboys who land on an island and behave like good English gentlemen. I love adventure stories, but have somehow have failed to read this book.
Discussion on: Feb 10
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A Little Princess
by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)
We’re reading this book to balance out Coral Island. Like many of Burnett’s books, A Little Princess is a wonderful example of a domestic girl’s story. It also provides a nice female perspective on notions of Empire and community (within Sara’s school).It’s been a long time since I’ve read this and I’m excited to revisit!
Discussion on: Feb 17
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This is without question my favorite book of all time. I have read it a dozen times over and still can’t find a single word that feels out of place. It is also a wonderful synthesis of the two genres preceding it — a combination of boy’s adventure and girl’s domestic tales 2. Can’t wait to talk about this book!
Discuss on: Feb 24
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If Peter and Wendy is an example of an author creating a world that hinges on childlike imagination, Winnie-the-Pooh does one better: it is a meticulous recreation of an actual child’s world. It is also adorable.
Discussing on: March 3
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Charlotte’s Web is a step away from the fantasy of Barrie and Milne. It takes readers back to a more grounded world. Yes, the animals can talk, but only to each other … plus they die.
Discussing on: March 10
So that’s it for the first half of the semester. After these books, we’ll be moving on some more contemporary work (including some YA). If you have any desire to read or re-read these books in the coming weeks, do so!