Lewis Carroll and Portmanteaus ...

I recently stumbled across commenter Lisa's new word blog This Wretched Hive.[1. The title of Lisa's blog makes me think all blogs should be named after things Obi Wan said.]   Lisa writes smart, succinct posts about words old and new.  One of my favorite pieces discusses portmanteaus.  Portmanteaus are words that combine two different words to make something new:  televangelist, spork, interrobang, etc.

I love portmanteaus because when done well, they brush up against word play.  In fact, without that element, portmanteaus pretty much fail.  Consider the example Lisa discovered in her grocery store:

"Portmanteau" is actually a French word for an upright trunk that has dresser-like compartments in one half and a hanging closet in the other.[2. I find a beautiful irony in the fact that the word portmanteau is a portmanteau -- being a combination of "porter" (to carry) and "manteau" (cloak).]  I first discovered the word as a child when I read Lewis Carroll's introduction to "The Hunting of the Snark."  He observes:

Humpty Dumpty's theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all.  For instance, take the two words "fuming" and "furious".  Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first ... if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious".

Carroll is referring to something Humpty Dumpty says in Alice in Wonderland[3. "You see it's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word."] in order to explain how a reader might be able to decode the made-up words in his famous nonsense poem, "The Jabberwocky."

A few years later, while scouring footnotes in Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice (which I read nightly for over a decade), I discovered that Alice in Wonderland was actually the first time portmanteau was used in this linguistic sense.  Way to be awesome, Lewis Carroll!



Harry, Neo, and Prophecy Stories

Well, I'm supposed to be furiously working on a new script right now ... but I hated the idea of not following up on this particular topic.  Last week I wrote a piece that compared rolling the dice in a board game with authorial intervention in a plot.  The comments that followed were lively and engaging.  One early remark (by friend and K-Blogger Robosoyo) went off on an interesting tangent:

I’ll be honest: this is why I was disappointed by the last two, and especially the very last Harry Potter book.  Because by book 4, Harry’s luck should have run out, and his own skill/inventiveness/wit should have been the thing saving him.  Instead, Who He Was got him all the way to defeating Voldemort, rather than What He Learned.  The end of book 7 and the git still only knew about five spells, two of which were “Authorio Intrusio” (accio and apparating).[1. This is actually an abridged version of a much more in-depth rant Rob published a few years back on his own blog, which is worth a read provided you can accept the premise that Tolkein is a great writer.]

He makes some good points ("authorio intrusio" is truly inspired), and several commenters voiced their support.  I get it; everyone hates lazy prophecies.  However, I cringe to think that just because a story contains a prophecy it must be obligated to subvert it.  Rowling is a smart writer, and she went out of her way to make it clear that Harry Potter would never be the most skilled/smart/witty of his friends ... I have to think that that was intentional.  Maybe it even has something to do with the point of the whole series?

This question sparked an off-blog conversation about "prophecy stories."  As I see it, prophecy stories contain unexceptional protagonists who have been selected as The One.  Why have they been selected as The One?  Well, that's sort of the point:  they've done nothing to deserve the title; it is thrust upon them and the central question of the story is "Will they live up to it?"  In our current world, which places great emphasis on personal merit and individual choice, this concept may seem completely unrealistic -- but remember that for thousands of years people lived in a world where a baby could become a king by virtue of bloodline, and another baby could be born into slavery for similarly arbitrary reasons.  In that older world, the idea of being The One might actually speak very directly to the human experience.

In fact, I would argue that "older world" is a key distinction here.  Prophecy stories almost all take place in ancient worlds (even high tech sci-fi stories Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica occurred long ago in galaxies far away).  This is different from our current age.  Nowadays we crave stories about characters who shape their own destiny.  We want to believe that individual choice and personal merit are the most important determinants of success.[2. I can't say for sure, but I suspect this storytelling sea-change has something to do with the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and Shakespeare.]  While true to an extent, it is occasionally very untrue.  Just ask the victims of a natural disaster.

The world is a big place, and there is plenty of room for both kinds of stories.   The problems start when authors try to have it both ways.  That's usually the point when readers start to revolt.  Any time I see a story about a hero with superpowers (personal merit) who also was predicted by The Ancients (destiny), I start to get nervous.  It means that no matter how the story ends, it will betray one of its central metaphors.[3. This idea has been stolen directly from Matt Bird's excellent blog post on the subject.]

What happens when authors betray their metaphor?  Well, consider the Matrix trilogy.  Everyone loved the first movie and hated its sequils.  Why?  some people claimed they were too confusing, but so was the original.  Some claim it had too many pointless special effects, to which I ask Why did they feel pointless? Looking back over what happened in that series, I suspect that one of the central problems is that the story transitioned from one of choice to one of destiny.  The first movie is all about Neo choosing to become a hero (as exemplified by the red-pill/blue-pill scene).  The later installments, however, take pains to reveal that Neo has never really been in control of his own destiny -- that everything he's ever done has been part of a plan.  This is a literal slap in the face for the audience, as it's telling us that we (along with Neo) were fools for ever caring about which pill he chose.  Ha ha.  Joke's on us.

So how does this tie back to Harry Potter?  Well, I would argue that just as The Matrix began with the premise of choice, the Harry Potter books built their foundation on prophecy.  Baby Harry defeated Voldemort not by his actions, but simply by being The One.   In the end, [SPOILER ALERT] he defeats Voldemort in the very same way -- and, to me, any other outcome wouldn't have felt half so magical.

"Blogs, and Poetics, and Hermeneutics -- Oh My!"

Over the last year-and-a-half, my wife and I have been reading Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain aloud to each other.[1. For the record, I do a pretty awesome Gurgi ... ask me to bust it out the next time you see me.]  While doing so, I started to form a brilliant theory about how traveling parties in quest stories often function as reflections of a specific trait in the protagonist -- it was going to be the Greatest Blog Post that the world had ever seen!  That is, until Betsy Bird at the School Library Journal went and ruined everything by beating me to the punch.

Last week Betsy posted a piece entitled The Oz Quest Theory: Are Four Characters Too Many? She suggested that Wizard of Oz is but one example in a long list of quest books in which the hero picks up three sidekicks who represent guts, heart, and brains.  One of the reasons I like Betsy's blog is that everybody reads it, which means that everybody also leaves comments.  Some readers mentioned titles that either broke or followed the "rule of three",  others floated theories about what might be motivating the pattern, a few even chimed in to ask "what's the point?"

While reading these comments, I noticed that there seemed to be two separate conversations taking place -- each exploring different questions:

1)  How might three be a uniquely suitable number for storytelling?

2)  Why might three be a uniquely significant number in our culture/world?

These are two fundamentally different questions, and looking back you can see the tension that stems from people talking at cross purposes.[2. As for my own contribution, I stupidly tried to tackle both questions simultaneously -- which just made me sound scatterbrained.]  The comments thread is also a perfect snapshot of a philosophical battle as old as literature.  It's the reason MFA writing programs are distinct from Lit PhD programs.  It is the difference between poetics and hermeneutics.

If you want a scholarly breakdown of these terms, click here.  In the broadest sense, poetics is concerned with how and hermeneutics is concerned with why.  Poetics people look at stories the way auto mechanics look at a car engine:  they want to know how every moving part fits together to make a unified machine (maybe in the hope they might one day build a car of their own?).  Sticking with the metaphor, hermeneutics people don't really care about what's under the hood; instead they're more concerned with what it means to live in a world with cars.

Often, the people most drawn to poetics are people who work directly with the nuts and bolts of storytelling -- authors, editors, and dramaturges.  People who deal with hermeneutical questions are those whose job it is to administer books to the world -- scholars, librarians, and teachers.  I have often found that people from one camp have little interest in the questions of the other.  (My own marriage is an example of this Capulet-versus-Montigues battle.)

So which camp is better?  Well, I might be slightly more interested in poetics, but I'd be a fool to argue that hermeneutics isn't absolutely essential.  After all, hermeneutics is what justifies the very act of making of books (as Mary has informed me on more than one occasion!).

Perhaps this is what I find so compelling about the children's literature community?  There exists an  unusual amount of cross-fertilizaton between poetics and hermeneutics -- authors, editors, librarians, teachers, and readers all coming together to discuss this thing they all love.[3. Except, I would point out when it comes to booking conferences:  ALA always seems to book the same weekend as major literary conferences (MLA and ChLA).  Because of this, Mary will miss my first book signing, and I will miss her presenting a paper on Octavian Nothing.  Not cool, conference planning people, not cool...]  Is it messy?  Of course!  Is it frustrating?  Sometimes.  But what fun would a quest be without a few friends?

SPEAK, JELLICOE ROAD, and Revelation Narratives

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. 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.]

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. Several other characters in Jellicoe Road also have secrets that are constantly being teased -- the book is nothing if not teasy.]  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.

The Shame Shelf ...

Some of you might remember when I posted a link to Kirby Field's fantastic article about file-sharing.[1. I also encourage you to check out his great Popmatters article about his favorite childhood used bookstore.] Well, clear your schedules because Mr. Fields has struck out on his own!  He recently launched a site called Reading Remainders, in which he will slowly tackle all the unread books on his shelf.

This is a noble pursuit.  Pretty much every reader I know is plagued by stacks and stacks of unread books.  For years, I had a personal rule that I could not put a book on a shelf unless I had read it in its entirety.  I considered a shelved book no different than the mounted head of a deer -- it was a trophy.

Of course, this all got ruined when I met Mary.   All of a sudden there were somebody else's books cluttering up my shelf.  The horror![2. One of our first real arguments was about how to organize said books ... during which I was informed that my longtime sorting method ("grouped conversations") is nothing short of insane.]  I eventually managed to convince her to at least allow me the "no unread books on the shelf" rule.  Those books can be broken up into two basic categories:

1) the one book Mary is about to actually read

2) the many books Jonathan swears he will read so can he pretty-please buy them all?

These books are strategically-placed above Mary's desk, where they can inspire maximum guilt.  My old pal Kirby, however, has elected to display his shame shelf before the whole world.  And it's not just a bunch of classics that everybody knows of and hasn't read -- he's also reading all the crappy books that have somehow ended up in his possession.  Consider this week's piece, which is an extended, thoughtful meditation on an Anthony Robins self-help book from the 80s.

These are less book reviews than platforms for reflection on a lifetime of reading and thinking. (The above Anthony Robins piece, for example, is set against Kirby's first-ever brush with unemployment.)  In his NFQs page[4. Which I can only assume stands for "Never Asked Questions"], he refers to the blog as an "online manuscript."  Whatever you call it, it's a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Five Reasons MATILDA is a Parent's Worst Nightmare...

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. By my last count, only 1 in 300,000,000 people gets to be the president -- chances are you're kid's not it.]

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. I have to give a shoutout to Betsy Bird for making this same observation last year in her Top 100 Children's Books series.]  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 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.]  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.

Plot vs. Story in THE CHOCOLATE WAR

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. 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.]  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. I see now that this comes dangerously close to a "your mom" jab ... Please accept my heartfelt apologies, Moms of the World.]

Cormier understood that a book about selling chocolates would not work unless he made it meaningful ... unless he made it a story.[3. Robert Cormier died in November 2000, and Publisher's Weekly released this touching memorial discussing the man and his work.]  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?

Class Is in Session: Part Two

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!

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

After subjecting our students to a fairly rigorous[1. 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.] 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 book[2. 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.] 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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The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (1974)

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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Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)

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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So Many Picture Books! by ???? (????)

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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Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (2006)

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. Every description I've read puts me in mind of Rian Johnson's movie Brick.]  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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Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis (2007)

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

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (I actually devoted an entire week to this one book)

Winnie-the-Pooh and Charlotte's Web by A.A. Milne and E.B. White (respectively)

A Few More Dedications ...

Following last week's post on book dedications, a few readers and friends chimed in with their own favorites, which I thought I'd share ...

Scholar and blogger Kerry Mockler sent along a dedication from the late Diana Wynne Jones[1. For those unaware, Jones passed away this week -- you can read a tribute on Kerry's blog here, or a touching piece from Neil Gaiman here.]  from Howl's Moving Castle:

“The idea for this book was suggested by a boy in a school I was visiting, who asked me to write a book called The Moving Castle. I wrote down his name, and put it in such a safe place, that I have been unable to find it ever since. I would like to thank him very much.”

Librarian Anne-Marie Gordon brought up Daniel Pinkwater's short-but-sweet dedication to Aunt Lulu:

"Aunt Lulu" is dedicated to "good librarians everywhere."

Scholar and friend Alexandra Valint described some scandal around the dedication in Jane Eyre -- I'll let Alex tell the story:

"Charlotte Bronte dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to W. M. Thackeray.  She clearly did it out of great admiration for his writing (she had not met him at that point), but eventually, when her real identity got out, the dedication caused quite a bit of scandal.  You see, Thackeray’s real wife was insane and suicidal and eventually had to be locked up (Bronte would not have known this).  So, of course, rumors started to spread about the real relationship between Bronte and Thackeray.  Add to that that there was a kind of a subdued literary rivalship between them, and we get, in general, a great dedication."

And finally, teacher Mike Lewis scanned and sent this charming dedication from Paul Feig:

That's it!  Stay tuned later in the week when I'll be posting the rest of this semester's reading list for our children's literature course!  Until then ...


This weekend I sat down to write my dedication for Peter Nimble. This is something I have mulled over quite a bit in the last few years.  Like naming my (imaginary) boat or drawing my (non-existant) tattoo, wording my first dedication was a flight of fancy.  When my editor told to submit something by Monday, I completely clammed up.  The fantasy had become a reality, and I was terrified of blowing it.  Should I write something intimate and cryptic?  Something sweet and funny?  Something in keeping with the tone of the book? Of course, it doesn't really matter to a reader what I write.  Readers are interested in the story, not in a few words opposite the copyright page.  But every once in a while, I see a dedication that makes a book come alive -- something that makes me long to know the author personally, and slightly jealous of the lucky dedicatee.[1. Bet you didn't think that was a word.]  With the spectre of those great dedications in mind, I started browsing my bookshelf, thumbing through examples that really stuck in my memory.  Here are a few of my favorites:

A.A. Milne - Winnie-the-Pooh

As I've mentioned before, this whole book is adorable from start to finish.  The dedication is no exception ...










Jerome K. Jerome - The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow: a Book for an Idle Holiday

So far as I'm concerned, Jerome does not get his due.  He is a truly funny writer, as exhibited by this delightful dedication to his beloved pipe ...














C.S. Lewis - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I'm not the biggest fan of this installment of the Narnia series (more of a Magician's Nephew kind of guy), but the dedication at the front is hard not to love.[2. Unless you're Philip Pullman, that is.]










G.K. Chesterton - The Man Who Was Thursday

This is a long poem written for Chesterton's childhood friend, Edmund Clerihew Bentley.  I think Chesterton is someone best taken in small doses, which would explain why this dedication is better than the book itself!




Adam Gidwitz - A Tale Dark and Grimm

And finally comes this newer edition to the canon of great dedications, which made me laugh out loud in the bookstore:







For those interested in reading more about dedications, there's an essay collection called Once Again to Zelda that tells the story being fifty famous dedications; the book got mixed reviews, but still might be worth checking out.  Also, feel free to put down your own favorite literary dedications in the comments section.

As for what I wrote in Peter Nimble?  You'll have to wait and see.


UPDATE: readers chimed in with their own favorite dedications here.

Risks and Rewards of UN CON VEN SHUN

Today we've got a post from friend and booklover Craig Chapman. Readers of The Scop might recognize his name from the comments section.  Back in high school, Craig and I regularly cleaned up in the local debate scene.  Look!  Here we are in our school year book:

Nowadays, Craig is some kind of mad scientist, but in his spare time he reads a lot of YA.  Recently, he was talking to me about China Mieville's YA fantasy, Un Lun Dun.  I only know Mieville as the guy who hates Tolkien, but apparently his book made some waves as a sort of anti-Harry Potter.  I asked Craig to share some of his thoughts on the blog, and boy did he deliver!  Please forgive his ridiculous Canadian spellings ...

*     *     *

Conventions can be liberating.  They establish expectations that convey volumes of information.  Taking an example from my world of research in behavioural neuroscience, humans have the unique ability to accurately guess what another person is thinking.  This ability – referred to as Theory of Mind – is thought to be the base capacity required for successful communication.  Here’s an example: You are walking by the office of a co-worker and see that they are looking frustrated while rummaging through an open drawer.  You infer that this person is looking for something.  Of course, it is possible -- though unlikely -- that they are trying some new exercise regimen.  How do you know that the first option, if not correct, is much more likely?  The simple answer is that it fits with the context.  That is, given the surroundings, your experience with this person, their expression, and even thinking how you might act in the same situation, you expect that they are looking for something.  And so you ask “What are you looking for?” instead of “How many calories have you burned”?

Along the same lines, authors can use conventions to convey information without the need to write anything down.  Consider a recent post and comments on this blog regarding the ‘Childlit mentor’.  It went without saying that we all knew exactly what a mentor was like.  They are old, and wise.  They help the protagonist when all seems lost, or when things just don’t make sense.  By using a convention like the mentor, the author gets all of this content for free.  I don’t think I’d even ‘met’ Dumbledore as a reader and I already knew that he was the key to a lot of the challenges Harry would face (and that he was probably an awesome wizard, too!).

Of course, the problem of relying on conventions is that they can become stale – the text that overuses them can feel derivative and ultimately boring.[1. One personal pet peeve is how unimaginative fantasy authors are when conceptualizing how magic might work.  Almost always magic is simply the act of thinking really hard, then saying a word (the ‘Force’, the ‘Will and the Word’, ‘Avada Kedavra etc.).] Of course an author can decorate convention, dress it up so it seems new or interesting to explore because of its dressing.  For the perfect example, you need look no further than Harry Potter.  Rowling relies heavily on convention, but gives such exquisite details that it becomes a joy to read what could otherwise have come off as “more of the same.”  Still, there is a reason why not everyone is a Rowling:  making old conventions novel is ultimately very difficult.

Given the risks associated with over-used tropes, why don’t we read more books that are completely unconventional?  The problem is this:  if you create something truly new you have to spend a significant amount of text describing how this new thing works.  And in doing so you risk losing your reader.  Moreover, when a reader fills in the blanks of a story employing a particular convention, they will likely fill those blanks with material that they like.  While we might all know what a mentor is, your mentor and my mentor might be different – but as long as the author leaves it to the reader to fill in the details, then each of us can use whatever mentor we like best.

Perhaps there is therefore good reason why we don’t see many examples of true unconvention – because largely it doesn’t work, at least not for a broad readership.  But occasionally, I have seen excellent examples of authors being unconventional.  In his book Un Lun Dun, China Mieville employs the tactic of anti-convention.[2. Mieville also writes some of the best adult sci-fi/fantasy I have ever read; his book Perdido Street Station is so incredibly imaginative and horrific that it literally gave me nightmares, and his book The Scar (my personal favorite) has the single most memorable image I've ever seen, heard, or read in any medium.]  He doesn’t create something new, but rather he uses the exact opposite of a whole host of conventions:


In the book, the Chosen-One is a beautiful blond girl who shoulders her fate with quiet resolve -- but she goes down early and it’s her tag-along, rather-plain friend Deeba who becomes the hero of the story.  The prophecy describing how to defeat the evil Smog is spoken by a book, guarded by a sect of wise “Propheseers” -- all of which turn out to be hopelessly false ... not malicious, just wrong.  Deeba’s sidekick is a milk carton named Curdle who in the final fight cowers in the corner and at no point does anything to save the hero.  And, my personal favourite, when Deeba is faced with completing seven tasks to find seven essential tokens, she decides there is no time and completes the seventh task first, thus acquiring the most essential item (the UnGun, which, as you might guess, works best when firing nothing).


It ends up being a fun exercise to consider all the ways Mieville plays with anti-convention from the title through to the end of the book.  It’s almost as much fun to consider whether all of the unconventions are meant to specifically mirror Harry Potter or not.

By using anti-convention, Mieveille still gets all the free content that comes with the expectations associated with conventions.  Then, by turning a convention on its head, he makes the unconvention new and interesting for the reader.  Ultimately, Mieville is playing a complex game using Theory of Mind.  He supposes that his reader will have a whole host of beliefs and expectations that come from the conventions he employs.  But more than that, he wagers that he can guess almost the exact content of your beliefs and then invert them; the result runs so counter to what you expected that it is enjoyable.

It’s as though he’s guessing that when I’m reaching in my drawer I’m looking for something, then deliberately asks me how many calories I’ve burned, knowing that I’ll get the joke.

Piglet and Wilbur and Pinky

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!

Hasta La Vista, Hardy Boys!

Today is the third day of Share a Story – Shape a Future 2011, an internet superfest designed to promote literacy.  Each day this week bloggers all over the world will write on a specific topic -- today's topic is “Unwrapping Literacy 2.0.” Now I've already written a bit about the pros and cons of e-books from a publishing angle, so today I thought I'd discuss things from a young reader perspective.  But first, a little background on reading development ...

When I finished grad school, I took a job as a reading teacher for a company called the Institute of Reading Development.  Our curricula were modeled after Dr. Jeanne Chall's stages of reading development.  Each stage is fascinating and worthy of discussion, but today I want to focus on stage two: "Confirmation & Fluency."

This stage usually spans the 2nd and 3rd grades -- just after readers have mastered phonetics and can now read silently.  During these years, their primary mission is exposure:  kids simply need to see as many words as possible so that their sight vocabulary can grow to match their spoken vocabulary.  If reading development were a video game, stage two would be nothing but grinding.

The books children read during this phase are specifically designed to let the brain go on autopilot.  They often feature simplistic characters and repetitive plots -- think of The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  These are sprawling series books that could be read in any order because, ultimately, nothing ever happens in them.[1. To hear me dump on more of your childhood, click here.]  And that's okay; such books provide an essential service to young readers:  they deliver a massive amount of unchallenging yet engaging content that equips readers to move on.

These kinds of books remind me of something Neil Gaiman said at ALA in January about parenting: "It's odd, because you spend all this time creating this brilliant, fascinating person ... and if you've done your job right, at the end of eighteen years they leave you."[2. My notes from ALA were particularly scribbly, so this is actually more of a reconstruction than direct quote.]  Similarly, if stage two books have succeeded, then a reader need never go back to them -- and if they do decide to return, they might not like what they find.[3. Thanks to Betsy Bird for the link!]

I think it's appropriate that so many of these series books are mysteries.  Mysteries are, by and large, not much fun to read once you know whodunit.  Put the two things together and you've got a perfect marriage between form and function.

So what does all this have to do with "Unlocking Literacy 2.0?"  Well, I tend to wonder whether an e-reader is a perfect device for disposable books -- especially if young readers are able to pay for a subscription service that gives them access to all the Magic Tree House (or Tom Swift or Goosebumps or Boxcar Children) they can handle without burdening them with the physical remainder.

Then again, what's the fun of reading a book if you can't put it on the shelf when you're done?

*     *     *

That's it for me.  If you want to read more about Literacy 2.0, go visit Danielle Smith at There's a Book.

Conversations with Ray

As some of you know, this week marks Share a Story - Shape a Future 2011.  Each day bloggers around the world will write on a specific topic related to literacy.  Today's topic is "The Gift of Reading" -- a subject that just happens to coincide with a post I've been planning for a while now, ever since I stumbled across this old photograph ...

That is my father, John Wheeler Auxier.[1. Please note that he is John and I am Jonathan ... a  difference I cling to when accused of being a “jr.”]  He’s reading Doctor DeSoto to me and my sisters.  This was one of hundreds of books he read aloud to us, always using voices, always willing to indulge us with “just one more.”

All through elementary school, my father made regular visits to our classes to read aloud.  He did this every week from first to sixth grade.  This was not a luxury of time;  during many of these years he was working two or three jobs to keep the family afloat -- all while trying to complete graduate school.  Still, he always made time to read.[2. In fact, I would argue that reading aloud is one of few "advantages" a parent can give their child that doesn’t cost money.]

When I think about "the gift of reading," I picture my father standing before my class, caught up in a terrifying impression of Blind Old Pew or Jadis, the Last Queen of Charn.  I remember watching him, proud and hopeful that I might one day be able to orate with such passion.  I suspected then what I know now:  it is not enough just to buy a kid a book.  It is not even enough to let kids see you read.  Reading must be relational.  The difference between reading a stop sign and reading a book is that the latter is a conversation between the audience and storyteller.  Everything else is just words on a page.

Even after I reached "reading fluency," my father continued to read aloud to me -- sharing books that were otherwise just out of reach.  I was in fifth grade when he read  Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.   Anyone who knows this book knows that it is a story meant to be handed down from father to son.  The copy he read to me was a tattered first edition, stamped inside and out with the words "Property of John. W. Auxier" from when he was a boy.  Of course, I didn’t understand everything I heard, but I understood enough to be thrilled.  When he finished reading it, he gave the book to me, and I have re-read it every October since.  Often aloud.

Ray Bradbury soon became my favorite author, and a few years later, my father took me to a writing convention to meet him in person.  I only remember two things from that busy day.  The first was when my father mentioned -- almost in passing -- that he thought I should be a writer.  The second was something that happened at the end of the day:

Bradbury had finished his keynote address and was now signing books, battling off hundreds of eager fans all clamoring to meet him.  My father, who had gone to the washroom, returned from the hall a moment later with a bemused smirk. "I just peed next to Ray Bradbury," he said.

A million things rushed through my mind -- among them the realization that Bradbury was, in fact, bound by the laws of nature.  And imagine the luck!  Hundreds of people were waiting in line for this man's signature, and my father got a private audience.  "What did you say to him?" I asked, imagining what question I might have chosen.

He shrugged. "I told him 'Your signing-hand must be pretty sore.'"

I remember being in total awe:  when faced with his childhood hero, my father had remained completely calm -- casual even.  But looking back on that day, his reaction seems less shocking to me now.

After all, my father had been having conversations with Ray his whole life.

*     *     *

For those interested in other "Gift of Reading" stories, I highly recommend you check out BookDads, where Chris Singer has brought together dozens of bloggers to tell stories about fatherhood and the Gift of Reading.  Then pick up a copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes and read it to someone.

PETER PAN WEEK Day 5: Loss and Exclusion in Peter Pan

Hey, folks!  For the final of day "Peter Pan Week," we've got a special treat:  Barrie scholar Kerry Mockler has written a post.  Readers of The Scop might know Kerry better as "Kbryna," a regular commenter on this here blog and the woman behind The Moving Castle.  Kerry wrote her master's thesis on The Little White Bird and is currently finishing a dissertation on Mr. Rogers at the University of Pittsburgh.[1. For those who have never been to Pittsburgh, it is worth noting that locals take their Fred Rogers very seriously.]   Today she's agreed to share her thoughts about the most enigmatic character in all of Peter Pan ... the narrator!  Take it away, Kerry:

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We're used to thinking of Peter Pan as a symbol of perpetual childhood, of carefree innocence, joy, adventure, and freedom ... but Peter Pan also has nightmares.  What we forget, or never knew in the first place, is that at its heart, all of Barrie's versions of Peter Pan are about loss and exclusion.  That famous first sentence – "All children, except one, grow up" – sets up these themes, which also serve to close the novel.  The loss of childhood (of one's own childhood and of one's child) finds expression throughout the novel, largely through the peculiarly ambivalent and enigmatic narrator.  Exclusion and longing form -- for me, at least -- the strongest themes of the book, which make it one of the most melancholy stories I know.  All those children, growing up, leaving behind Peter Pan who cannot grow up, and who masks his inability to grow up with the illusion of a defiant choice to remain a child.

Peter is not captain of the Neverland by choice, though he initially presents himself as an intentional runaway, defying the world that would have him grow up to be a man.  Instead, he is marooned;  when he tries to return to the home from which he has run away, "the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed."  Thus he moves on to the Neverland, where he deals with lost children who all eventually outgrow their trees and their boy-leader.  Peter's memory, a continual tabula rasa, prevents him from forming lasting relationships with anyone;  even Tinker Bell, even Hook, are forgotten by the novel's end -- but the loss of that mother and that home are always with him.

The narrator of Peter Pan poses one of the biggest challenges to any reader;  he attempts to identify with both child and adult, leaving us as readers in a linguistic and psychological muddle.  The narrator’s inconsistency in using the first-person singular and first-person plural create confusion about his position in the text, and to whom he speaks:  is he an adult addressing adults?  or a child addressing adults? or an adult addressing both adults and children?  He is never clearly one or the other, and never seems to manage to merge both into one adult/child hybrid;  like Peter himself, the narrator is a "betwixt-and-between," neither one thing nor any other.[1. Upon returning to the Gardens in The Little White Bird, Peter is shocked to learn from the crow Solomon Caw that he is not still a bird, but more like a human — Solomon says he is crossed between them as a "Betwixt-and-Between."] The narrator's bitterness and unhappiness at his position is made clear at the end of the book, when the Darling children return home. Anticipating the reunion, the narrator says:

"However, as we are here we may as well stay and look on. That is all we are, lookers-on. Nobody really wants us. So let us watch and say jaggy things, in the hope that some of them will hurt.”

The narrator’s exclusion from the homecoming scene echoes Peter’s exclusion from his own nursery.  The narrator’s looking on from outside of the text recalls the image of Peter flying up to his old nursery window and finding it closed and barred. Watching the reunion of the Darlings, the narrator tells us:

“He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred."

Peter, of course, is not the only one to see the reunion;  the narrator looks on as well and speaks for them both as he narrates the one joy from which both he and Peter are barred.  As Hook and Mr. Darling are twinned, so too are Peter and the narrator.   At the end, they are the only two who remain:  Wendy grows up and Mrs. Darling dies, forgotten.  The cycle of little girls to do the spring-cleaning goes on and on, but Peter and the narrator remain alone, excluded, untouched by time.

*     *     *

On that poignant note, we come to the end of "Peter Pan Week."  While researching topics, I came across some great stuff I couldn't fit into posts -- including a few pretty hilarious Pan-related image macros, an incredibly disturbing headline, and a scathing review of Lars von Trier's offbeat movie adaptation.  You should all count yourselves lucky that I didn't make it "Peter Pan MONTH."  Now that would be an awfully big adventure.

For those who missed the other "Peter Pan Week" posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

Day Two: The Problem with Peter

Day Three: Tink or Belle?

Day Four: The Neverland Connundrum

Also, you can also read my ham-fisted attempt to connect Peter Pan to The Hunger Games here.

PETER PAN WEEK Day 4: The Neverland Conundrum

While discussing Peter Pan with my students last week, we found ourselves in a debate about the nature of magic in the book.  On one hand, it seems like all magic comes from Peter Pan -- he seems almost able to control the island and its inhabitants with his very thoughts.  On the other hand, the Neverland[1. I love that Barrie uses an article in front of "Neverland" ... I just sounds cooler.] occasionally seems to operate with an intelligence and power all of its own.  There's a chilling moment as they approach the island that speaks to this disconnect:

"They had been flying apart, but they huddled close to Peter now. His careless manner had gone at last, his eyes were sparkling, and a tingle went through them every time they touched his body. They were now over the fearsome island, flying so low that sometimes a tree grazed their feet. Nothing horrid was visible in the air, yet their progress had become slow and laboured, exactly as if they were pushing their way through hostile forces. Sometimes they hung in the air until Peter had beaten on it with his fists.

'They don't want us to land, he explained.

'Who are they?' Wendy whispered, shuddering.

But he could not or would not say.

So who's in charge, Peter or the Neverland?  People who have been reading The Scop all week may have a guess as to where this is going:  I think Barrie's refusal to answer that question is a part of what makes Peter Pan so wonderful.  When a writer chooses ambiguity, he places the task of knowing The Answer on the reader -- and instantly turns the book into a conversation.

At least, that's usually how it works.  But I'll admit that there's something about this contradiction that feels more frustrating than others in the book.  I think that's because it has to do with the rules of the world.  By all means, make your characters and events ambiguous, but please be specific about the spaces those characters inhabit.  I'm reminded of something screenwriter Blake Snyder talks about in his book, Save the Cat! He mentions the problem of "Double Mumbo-Jumbo" -- the idea that audiences will only accept one piece of magic per movie.  (Or, as Snyder puts it: "You cannot see aliens from outer space land in a UFO and then be bitten by a Vampire and now be both aliens and undead.")[2. Obviously, this rule does not apply to Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier.]

This "double mumbo-jumbo" is something I see in a lot of books and movies, and it bothers me quite a bit.  I've read  Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes every October for the last fifteen years;  over that time, I've become aware that the book contains, not one, but two magical forces:  the Dust Witch and the carousel.[3. While we're talking about magic carousels, I've always thought Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord commits this very same infraction ... only in that case it's less a question of "double mumbo-jumbo" than "double plot convenience."]  The problem with these competing forms of magic is that they ask too much of the audience too late into the story.  Even worse, the lack of clarity about the world erodes our faith in the author, meaning we do not engage the way we should.

So here, at last, may be an honest to goodness flaw in Peter Pan.  I have to admit that part of me feels relieved.

*     *     *

For those who missed the other "Peter Pan Week" posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

Day Two: The Problem with Peter

Day Three: Tink or Belle?

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.

PETER PAN WEEK Day 3: Tinker or Belle?

While re-reading Peter Pan, I had in my mind something Mary recently said about Tinker Bell:  she is decidedly low class.  The very fact of her being a tinker condemns her to the bottom rung.  Also, by the time Barrie was writing, the word "tinker" had become shorthand for someone of Irish, Scottish, or Gypsy descent.  Add to that a foul mouth[1. She only opens her mouth to shout "Silly ass!"] and you've got a pretty damning portrait. So where did our culture get its image of Tinker Bell as a coquettish pixie?  From the book, you silly ass!

For every classed description Barrie gives of Tinker Bell, he writes another that contradicts it.  He goes out of his way to establish her delicate femininity:  "Tinker Bell, exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint."[2. "Embonpoint" is defined as either "plump" or "bosomy," depending on your dictionary.] Later on in the book, he describes her dressing room in terms that confirm her as a lady of refined taste:

"No woman, however large, could have had a more exquisite boudoir ... The couch, as she always called it, was a genuine Queen Mab, with club legs; and she varied the bedspreads according to what fruit-blossom was in season. ... Tink was very contemptuous of the rest of the house ...  and her chamber, though beautiful, looked rather conceited, having the appearance of a nose permanently turned up."

So which is she, crude pot-mender or elegant sylph?  Of course, the answer is that she's both ... and maybe that's the part of the reason she's so compelling as a character?

I'm not blowing anyone's mind when I observe that Peter Pan is ripe with these sorts of contradictions:  Peter is at once a innocent and heartless,  Neverland is both a dream island and a nightmare space (more on that tomorrow), Wendy is equal parts child and mother, etc ...  Pretty much every element of the story contains this sort of discrepancy.  I wonder if that's part of what makes the book so re-readable --  you'll never be able to "get" what Barrie's talking about.[3. One million blog-points goes to whatever reader can explain to me, in precise terms, what exactly Mrs. Darling's "kiss" is.] When I think back on Great works of literature, from the Bible to Beowulf to Alice in Wonderland, I notice similar inconsistencies;  it makes me wonder whether these gaps are part of their greatness.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with my favorite musician, Andrew Bird.  At the time, he had just broken from his jazz roots and was starting to write more traditional pop music.  He mentioned having some anxiety over whether his new songs would be too "exhaustible."  I think he was expressing a desire to do in his music what Barrie does in his book:  create a riddle without an answer.

*     *     *

For those who missed the other "Peter Pan Week" posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

Day Two: The Problem with Peter

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.

PETER PAN WEEK Day 2: The Problem with Peter

For years, I have had one simple belief about portraying Peter Pan on film:  it can't be done.  More specifically, it's can't be done by an age-appropriate actor.  There's a general consensus that Peter is supposed to be about six or seven years old.[1. Though Barrie does not specify an age, he does describe Peter as still having all his "baby teeth".  Also, Barrie asked that the Kensington Gardens statue of Peter be fashioned after photographs of a six year-old Michael Llewelyn Davies.]  This is understandably young for such a complex roll, and so the part usually goes to a woman (as it did in Barrie's original stage production) or, in the case of the 2003 movie, to a fourteen year-old from Dylan, Texas.  Critics were quick to condemn the liberties that the 2003 screenplay took with the plot (the ending involves a flying Captain Hook) ... but none of them complained about how grown-up Peter was.  A few even applauded the daring choice to add a little sexy into this stale classic.

This shouldn't be a surprise.  Popular culture has been trying to age-up Peter Pan for decades.  Case in point:  despite the fact that Barrie states "the most entrancing thing about the boy was that he had all his first teeth," most students in my children's literature class still assumed Peter was around eleven or twelve years old.[2. I think another part of this confusion stems from the fact that Peter and Wendy are said to be the same age, and she seems impossibly mature for a six year-old.  My response:  Wendy is playacting romantic maturity, just as she playacts childbirth in her opening scene.]

I understand that filmmakers might feel they have no choice but to cast an older actor, but I still don't think it's right.  Peter as a character is defined by his complete lack of testosterone.  That's the point of the whole friggin' book:  he can't follow Wendy into adulthood.  Asking viewers to accept a Peter Pan with an Adams' apple is like asking them to accept a James Bond with a hillbilly accent[3. Actually, I'd totally watch something called "Jimmy-James Bond".] -- changing the character changes the character.

All this takes me back to loving the (traditional) non-traditional casting of a woman for the roll of Peter Pan.   In some essential way, Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan remain truer to the character of Peter Pan than any male actor with even one adult tooth in his head -- they may be "grown up," but they will never be men.

At least that's what I thought before this kid came around:

Last August, I had the pleasure of seeing a Ben Harrison stage production of Peter Pan that proved me wrong.  The show cast an actor named Nate Fallows who seemed to "get" just how young Peter Pan needed to be.[4. The show is still touring the country, for those interested. It's probably worth noting that the flying scenes made me cry.]  Every gesture and word was infused with an animal recklessness that disallowed any sort of heartthrobby nonsense.  Similarly, the entire production was about how young and violent he was.  Even Michael (played by an actor half his age) felt wise and mature next to this Peter.  It was the first adaptation I had ever seen that felt like the book I so loved.

While watching the show, I kept imagining what the production would have been like without this deliberate focus on Peter's youngness:  it wouldn't have been a show worth watching.  It would have felt no different than watching the (tame) musical, or the (boring) Disney cartoon, or the (sexed-up) 2003 adaptation -- just a string of fanciful set-pieces and sentimental Edwardiana.  Peter would not approve.

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For those who missed the other "Peter Pan Week" posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

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.

PETER PAN WEEK Day 1: Literary Dress Rehearsals

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. 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.]

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. 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.]  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. 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 .] 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.

Announcing PETER PAN Week!

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.