Category Archives: Children’s Literature

Then I woke up, and it was all a dream!

I don't sleep

I’ve recently been taking some magnesium supplements which is supposed to send you to sleep, and it does indeed. For me it also leads to vivid and lengthy dreams. I’ve been on some adventures, I tell you. This week I’ve even been stranded in a desert after my frat friend’s aeroplane crashed. (I have never been in a fraternity. I’m neither male nor American.) I’ve had kebab shops and beach walks and chickens murdered.

All of this has had me thinking about dreams, and their use in fiction.

I had a teacher at school who forbade any ending of stories with dreams. Some years later when I was an English teacher myself, I was introduced to an extant Department Policy borne of bitter experience of evenings reading wads and wads of creative writing assignments:

No babbling brooks

and

No chirping of birds.

I never had any reason to argue with either of those. The woman who executed those rules — a high school English teacher of many years’ experience — walked out of her first yoga session after it turned out the instructor asked them to imagine ‘babbling brooks’ at the end of their ‘proper yoga’… Oh, if only the yoga teacher had been primed!

In hindsight I would add two more topics I never want to read about again:

Birthday parties

Childhood Injuries

I don’t know why those two topics cropped up so often, but I think it was because I encouraged students to write about events which happened more than seven years ago, because I read something somewhere which made a good case for allowing adequate time for reflection between experiencing an event and then writing about it. The trouble is, I was teaching 14-year-olds, so memories prior to age seven were limited to birthday parties and injuries, especially those which necessitated a trip to emergency for stitches. Oh, so many stitches and grazes and broken arms!

Then there’s the Dream Ending.

I know several people who have told me as adults that when they discovered they could end a creative writing assignment by waking up from a dream they genuinely believed they had come up with the Best Thing Ever. English teachers and the judges of short story competitions would say otherwise.

Maria Nikolajeva writes about the dream ending and similar tidy conclusions in her book Children’s Literature Comes Of Age:

Children’s books with ready solutions bind the child’s imagination and free thought. It is treachery towards the modern sophisticated child reader to offer a “rational” explanation at the end. “And then he woke up and it has only been a dream.” We should not think that this ending is a thing of the past, for we remember it from Alice In Wonderland. It is repeated in much later texts, and one discovers it somewhat reluctantly in Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning book Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang (1975) and in a many even more recent texts. Critical and creative authors find such resolutions very unsatisfactory, and regard the open ending as the only possible way of appealing to modern young readers.

**

So it is clear that the dream technique is not dead, but writers after good reviews do their utmost to avoid it.

OTHER USES FOR DREAMS IN FICTION

Whatever your thoughts on Freud, dreams can play a useful role in plots and we fancy dreams give an insight into someone’s subconscious. Whether this works in real life, I’m not so sure, but as literary convention… It’s pretty much accepted, I think.

Here are some effective uses of dreams that I have seen of late. As in all things, there will still be readers with a very low tolerance for dreams, because everyone’s dreams are weird.

1. SNEAKY DREAMING

At the conclusion of Chapter 4, ‘Magic Phenomena’ of The Men’s Room by Ann Oakley (I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that book) is a dream scene. After a space break, the sequence begins:

There was a nail in the bed. It had cut into her face and made it bleed.

And the reader thinks, ‘Oh god, what has the man done to her?’ and then it gets more and more ridiculous, but it’s kind of sexual so I won’t quote it here because I don’t want that kind of spam.

Anyway, by the end of the scene the reader is left in no doubt that the protagonist is mid-dream. This technique works because it only happens once in the entire novel (after which it may get tiresome). The dream/nightmare gives the reader insight into the protagonist’s greatest fears. (I’m not sure that dreams really do indicate a person’s greatest fears — I’m not much of a Freudian — but nevertheless, I accept that this is the case in fiction.)

If you’ve seen Six Feet Under you’ll be familiar with the sneaky dream technique. Once you’ve seen a few episodes of Six Feet Under you’ll learn to expect dreaming, especially when something weird is playing out. That series also makes much use of tripping to achieve the same effect, as well as Nate’s illness. The technique has since been used in The Sopranos, and in many other things I haven’t seen, no doubt.

2. DREAMING AS PART OF THE PLOT

John Irving’s short story Other People’s Dreams is a prime example of that. It’s about a man who has never dreamed in his life, but then he discovers that by sleeping where others have dreamed, he can dream what they have. He learns a few things along the way, including a few surprises about his own mother.

So these kind of stories aren’t using dreams as a device, they just happen to be stories whose plots somehow involve dreams. The reader therefore doesn’t feel tricked.

Maria Nikolajeva writes in The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature:

Some of the best children’s novels and picturebooks are dream narratives, in which dreams are not merely a parable used to illuminate the main plot, but constitute the plot itself. Sometimes the narrative is explicitly stated to be a dream, as in Alice In Wonderland; more often it is implied, as in Tom’s Midnight Garden. While Alice, on waking up, is comfortably relieved of the necessity of taking responsibility for her actions in the dream, the character of Marianne Dreams finds that there is a significant connection between her dreams and her real life. Picturebooks allow vast possibilities in the interaction of word and image to create ambiguity of meaning in dream narratives… in many cases [the dream narrative] is also more inventive and imaginative than most of the mainstream dream narratives.

3. SNIPPETS OF DREAM INTERSPERSED THROUGHOUT NARRATIVE/DIALOGUE/ACTION SCENES

In this case, the dream snippet functions like backstory snippets, and in fact a snippet of a dream seen in the past is kind of a subcategory of backstory. This works on the presumption that dreams mean something, be it in a supernatural way, or simply because the protagonist’s mind has been playing something out, thereby highlighting its significance.

Robert McKee, in his scriptwriting guidebook Story, likens dream sequences to montage sequences:

In the American use of this term, a montage is a series of rapidly cut images that radically condenses or expands time and often employs optical effects such as wipes, irises, split screens, dissolves, or other multiple images. The high energy of such sequences is used to mask their purpose: the rather mundane task of conveying information. Like the Dream Sequence, the montage is an effort to make undramatized exposition less boring by keeping the audience’s eye busy. With few exceptions, montages are a lazy attempt to substitute decorative photography and editing for dramatization and are, therefore, to be avoided.

I think McKee is a little harsh on montages and dream sequences — we each probably have our own tolerance level and he has no doubt been more attune to the bad ones than I have as an armchair movie critic. (The book was written before Six Feet Under was produced, which took dream sequences to a new level.)

In The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier describes Jerry’s dream a moment before he wakes up:

He’d been dreaming of a fire, flames eating unknown walls, and the siren sounded, and then it wasn’t a siren but the telephone.

Since we know from the first sentence that Jerry dies, this nightmarish start to the day is foreshadowing events to come. A dream can also indicate worry and trauma from the previous day. In Jerry’s case it’s the prank calls:

In bed once more, small in the dark, Jerry willed his body to loosen, to relax. After a while, sleep plucked at him with soft fingers, soothing away the ache. But the phone rang in his dreams all night long.

4. DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN, OR DID IT NOT?

Contemporary children’s literature makes much use of this technique: all sorts of fantastic/marvelous/uncanny things happen, and then by the final page the world has been restored to realism, and the reader is led to wonder, “Did that really happen, or was it just a dream?” Often in picturebooks there’s a small clue in the picture — something from the fantasy world appears in the ‘real world’ of the story, to make the reader wonder.

What do you think of this technique? I really like incomplete or ambiguous endings, but I’m not a huge fan of bringing something from the imaginary world into the real world of the story. That seems to have the opposite effect, of telling the reader, “Yes, it really did happen”, when they’d be better off truly wondering.

5. DREAMING ABOUT A LOVE INTEREST

Nothing says, ‘I’m falling in love with him’ like a dream. Pearl Cleage manages to avoid the saccharine by breaking other worn-out romance writers’ tricks: this protagonist ain’t white, ain’t virginal and ain’t clean-talking:

I dreamed about walking in Eddie’s garden. I’m wearing a long, white dress and I’ve got on this big-ass straw hat and I’m holding up my skirt so it won’t get dirty.

- from What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day

And those two sentences pretty much sum up the voice of this book, in which the romantic lead woman has already got AIDS.

6. FORESHADOWING THE FUTURE

Can the subconscious mind alert us to the future? from Psych Central

Taxonomy Of Dreams

Obviously I have been interested in creating a taxonomy of dreams, and haven’t quite got my categories sorted.

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast Episode 18 April 2014 is about Orphan Black and then it is about Dream Sequences. Here are some notes from that (starting at 19:30), in which several different ways of classifying fictional dreams are discussed. The discussion is also interesting in that it encourages the listener to consider what we do and don’t like about fictional dreams.

  • Glen collected numerous examples of dream sequences in modern stories and could probably have come up with a ‘taxonomy of dream sequences’ but found that a lot of the dream sequences were getting quite old and this is a narrative crutch that writers aren’t taking advantage of as much as they used to. The dream sequence has been around so long that it already has all the cliches associated with. The Simpsons is one show which makes fun of the cliches. Glen responds better to dream sequences when they do some emotional work as opposed to narrative work. When dreams are used to foreshadow or explain plot, they seem like more of a crutch than for example when a dream sequence is used to offer an insight into what a character is thinking/worried about. So there’s the taxonomy.
  • A writer who knows how to connect things emotionally via dreams is David Lynch. Everything Lynch makes has some surreal dream sequence. But ‘surreal’ doesn’t equate to throwing a ton of crazy crap in. There’s an internal emotional logic.
  • Stephen says that dreams can probably be divided into taxonomies in all sorts of different ways but another way of classifying dreams in fiction is according to their function.  There’s the ‘red herring’ or the ‘what, it was all a dream!’ and ‘dream sequence as fantasy’, but a common way dreams are used these days is to mete out little bits of backstory, especially in very convoluted stories like Captain America in which the mystery is ‘what the hell’s going on.’ (This is also true of Orphan Black, in which visualisations are used, even if they’re not technically dreams.)
  • Dreams, daydreams, visions, prophecies, processes of memory… all of these count as ‘dream sequences’.
  • In fantasy, dreams are almost always plot advance tools. They’re Jungian rather than Freudian; they’re messages to the reader, not about him. They’re there to give you some cryptic information about what’s going to happen.
  • Diana Wynne Jones wrote a fantasy satire called The Tough Guide To Fantasyland which is a parody tour-guide: “While you are on tour, your psyche is in the care of the management who will, when necessary, provide you with dreams. You should always attend to these, particularly when they are repeated the next night in the same form. They occupy the same slot as legends. They will be telling you something you need to know for the next phase of your tour, but they will not be doing so very clearly. You will need to think a bit.”
  • It’s surprising that dream sequences aren’t done better. Dream sequences feel more true when different scenes are blended, populated by characters who shouldn’t be there. Everybody knows that experience of having dreams where you can only describe it by saying, ‘Well, it was my bedroom, but it was also school’, and in the dream you knew that. It’s so rare for cinematic dream sequences to achieve the constantly shifting sense of place.
  • There’s an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer that conveys this disconnectedness of dreams particularly well where they’re rambling from room to room through various tunnels. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another example of this done well. [I would add Big Love Season 5 in which Bill Henrickson dreams of meeting Emma Smith. His mother is also in the room. Cabin in the Woods could perhaps be considered a good example of this too.]
  • The thing that makes a dream sequence creepy is that there’s a difference between a stimulus and a response.
  • All that said, sometimes dream sequences are there just because they’re cool. Buster Keaton is a master of the dream sequence.  (The Playhouse, Sherlock Junior.)  In 1924 his techniques were quite revolutionary. [By coincidence(?) today marks an anniversary of this film and it is discussed by Film School Rejects. “Although Woody Allen claims Keaton’s film wasn’t an influence, his 1985 comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo employs the same conceit of people moving through a movie screen like it’s a gateway between worlds. This time, though, it’s a character from the film-within-the-film that exits out to the theater auditorium and real world. The address of escapism is still there even if the movie universe is doing the escaping. It’s a blurring of the border between cinema and reality.”]
  • Dream sequences used to be used as a way to do things which were experimental without needing to say that you had broken the rules of narrative storytelling. For example, that’s how you can have Dorothy go to Oz and say, ‘No no no, it’s not really a fantasy movie. It’s still in reality. It’s just a dream, because anything can happen in a dream.’
  • Some of the musicals of the 40s and 50s had dream sequences. An example is Oklahoma, which has a dream ballet. It’s a way to incorporate a huge ballet in the middle of a Broadway musical.
  • One of the most famous dream sequences in history occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Designed by Salvador Dali, a lot of crazy crap happens. The film has a disturbingly literal understanding of Freudian psychology. There’s no ‘mesh’. The audience is more likely to remember the dream sequence of this movie rather than plot.
  • There have been a number of romantic comedy shows with a ‘will they or won’t they plot’ in which characters kiss, but it happens in a dream. That way the audience gets to have it both ways: You get to see the people kissing but the high sexual tension of unrequited love gets to continue. People didn’t used to be quite so embittered about that, but once the Dallas thing happened, in which a dream sequence wiped out an entire season of the show, audience started to think, ‘Boy if this turns out to be a dream I’m going to lose it.’ That was always on the table in Lost. Surprisingly, students of creative writing are still using it.

ANND, sort of not related is the effervescent Natalie Tran, in which she wishes she could insert the movies into her dreams rather than the usual way around.

dreaming and doing

More On Dreams In General:

What is metafiction, anyway?

  • Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.
  • “Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic and regulated by convention.” (I like that phrase ‘phenomenal world’ to what I’ve always problematically referred to ‘the real world’)
  • Why do we need words for talking about metafiction? To distinguish between the world within fiction and the world outside it.
  • This distinction is more important now that more and more writers are deliberately violating logic and using language for its own sake.
  • Although metafictional elements can be found in pretty much any work of fiction, metafiction as a literary device is relatively new in Western literature — perhaps 40 years old. (I adjusted from 20 years in a book which is 20 years old.)
  • Examples of metafiction in children’s literature first occurred from the 1980s.
  • There are two main types of metafiction.
  • The first is to parody a well-known work of literature.
  • The second is to consciously discuss the art of writing.
  • Metafiction is prevalent in experimental post-modern literature, but shouldn’t be regarded as only an experiment for experiment’s sake.
  • The message of a metafictional story is often that the world itself is artificial, constructed, man-made. It asks the question: What is the boundary that delimits fiction and reality?
  • In books for young readers, polyphony is one example of a metafictive device. Polyphony is “multi-voicedness”.
  • Metafiction isn’t a genre. It’s a trend within a genre.
  • Metafiction in children’s books is different from metafiction in books for adults. This is because metafiction always relies on past experience of the reader. Young readers don’t have much experience.
  • In children’s literature, metafiction is sometimes obvious to both the child and the adult co-reader, but often it is obvious only to the adult co-reader, resulting in a story which can appeal to all ages.
  • Daniel Handler is a good example of a modern metafictive children’s author. His books are written by ‘Lemony Snicket’, and he even continues this gag with him to his stage presentations. Adult readers know that the Series Of Unfortunate Events wasn’t written by one of the characters from inside, that a publishing world exists, with a real-world author behind the name. As for picture books, Mo Willems is a good example.
  • A Pack Of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean, Fade by Robert Cormier and Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers are also metafictive in that their endings make the reader wonder how much of it is really true. The Monster At The End Of This Book is another example for younger readers. (You can read that here.)
  • Directly addressing the reader is a type of metafictive narrative device. Maria Gripe used it in her books about Elvis, and it has been developed by many modern Scandinavian children’s writers in particular.
  • A metafictional work has: the writer (e.g. Daniel Handler), the implied writer (e.g. Lemony Snicket), the narrator (the “I” of the novel), the implied reader (“you”) and the real reader. Other (non-metafictional) works might have the writer, the narrator and the reader. Simple.
  • “As long as anything can happen in a book it can also happen in real life, since it always happens more in real life.” – Tormod Haugen, “A Novel About Merkel Hanssen, and Donna Winther, and The Big Escape (1986), a metafictional YA Norwegian book
  • It could be argued that adult fantasy is by default metafictive, since the reader is aware of entering a different kind of world. But in children’s fantasy, that awareness is not necessarily there on the part of the child reader, so it’s hard to argue the same case.

Reference: Maria Nikolajeva’s Children’s Literature Comes Of Age and The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, with a couple of more up-to-date examples of my own.

Intertextuality in Children’s Books vs Books For Adults

In children’s literature, intertexuality is often apparent in the use of

  • allusions
  • irony
  • parody
  • literary allusions
  • direct quotations
  • indirect references
  • and the fracturing of well-known patterns.

Intertexuality makes use of the literature which has come before, often building on it, at the least inspired by it. That Bakhtin fellow prefers the term ‘dialogics’. Whatever it is called, the meaning of a text is revealed for the reader/researcher only against the background of previous texts. Whereas ‘comparative literature’ is concerned with how one text has ‘influenced’ the other, an intertextual study considers the two texts as equal.

Intertexuality is one of the most prominent features of postmodern literature for adults, and critics have proclaimed it both welcome and indispensable. In children’s literature most intertextual links are often approached as imitative and secondary.

- Maria Nikolajeva, Children’s Literature Comes Of Age

Celebrating Picture Books: Not just for kids, from SLJ

The Treatment of Time in Books for Boys, Books for Girls

This is a fascinating concept, and something I’d not noticed until it was pointed out, by Maria Nikolajeva in Children’s Literature Comes Of Age. Earlier in the book she defines books for boys (often adventure) and books for girls (horse stories etc, and those starring girls) which these days tend to have pink somewhere on the cover. In an ideal world there’d be no such thing as sex differentiation in books. Because gender is not genre. But I’m quite radical like that.

One Swedish essay on narrative differences in books for boys and books for girls stipulated that male time is linear, while female time is circular…. Time in books for girls and in books for boys is closely connected with place. Not only is male time linear, but male space is open, as books for boys take place outdoors, sometimes far away from home in the wide world. Male narrative time is structured as a series of stations where an adventure is experienced, a task is performed, a trial is passed. Time between these stations practically does not exist. The text can say something like “after many days full of hardships they reached their destination…” The male chronotope is thus corpuscular, discontinuous, a chain of different separate time-spaces (“quants”) which are held together by a final goal. These separate chronotopes may also correspond to chapters in adventure boos: each chapter is self-contained, even if some threads can run from one chapter to another. It is easily observable in classic stories such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer (1876) or Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price (1943).

The chronotope in books for girls is completely different. The space is closed and confined. The action mostly takes place indoors, at home (alternatively at school). Time is cyclically closed and marked by recurrent time indications: (“It was spring again,” “It was Christmas again”). Three classical girls’ books, Little Women (1868), Anne Of Green Gables (1908) and Little House In The Big Woods (1932), are very good illustrations. Any gaps in time can be easily filled by the reader, who knows that it takes time for plants to grow or for snow to thaw, that the school year is full of homework, that housework is the same year in and year out. Female narrative time is often extended to several years with certain recurrent points. The chronotope is continuous both in time and space. Spatial movement in girls’ books means merely a change from one confined space to another likewise confined one — for instance, from the parents’ home to a boarding school, from the heroine’s childhood home to her husband’s home, to “the doll house,” an image often used by contemporary writers trying to break this pattern; one example is Maud Reutersward’s A Way From Home (1979), the Swedish title of which is “The Girl and the Doll House.”

The female narrative chronotope is also based on our conceptions of male and female nature…Female time is circular, follows the cycle of the moon, and consists of recurrent, regular events of death and resurrection, seasonal changes and so on. … Linear male time is a product of enlightenment and is the spirit of action and progress.

…there are many deviations… As in all other areas, in chronotope structures of children’s books of the past ten to twenty years there is also a merging of male and female, a disintegration of the epic chronotope, and some bold innovations.

Nikolajeva’s book was published in 1996, so another 10 or 20 years have passed even since then. I’d be interested to know what has happened. Are stories for girls still mostly set inside? Do books for girls run by the moon?

 

Gingerbread and Lamingtons

What is it about picturebooks? Sometimes the repetition drives you batty and as the adult reader you skip entire pages because you can’t face the thought of reading the same repetitive phrase another single time, even though you’ve heard that repetition is exactly what makes kids’ books so good for kids. Yet other picturebooks have the same amount of repetition, and yet you enjoy reading those ones. Each time you get to that repetitive bit you are motivated anew to put on your funny voice and you enjoy the theatre of it.

stunning fox photography is by Roeselien Raimond

stunning fox photography is by Roesalie Raimond

The Gingerbread Man is one of the latter examples. I enjoy reading good versions of that story and my daughter is spellbound by it. We have the Little Golden Book and the Ladybird versions.

Which version do you remember? My favourite illustrations of The Gingerbread Man are the lavish kind, in which grandmother’s kitchen feels safe and homely and you can almost smell the gingerbread baking. This isn’t a story that lends itself well to block colour. The gingerbread has to look delicious.

RETELLINGS

The very attractive ‘Run, run as fast as you can’ catch-phrase has been repurposed in a variety of new works. Stephen King even wrote a short horror story about a woman who loved long-distance running. I won’t spoil it for you, but it doesn’t end well.

Then there’s the Australian retelling of The Gingerbread Man. It’s called The Lamington Man, naturally. Lamingtons are a traditional cake — a square of sponge covered in icing (pink or chocolate) then covered in dessicated coconut. I’m not a fan. At least I wasn’t, until I tried homemade lamingtons, which are quite different from the dry sponge you get from the supermarket, although supermarkets have started selling mini lamingtons, which are much improved, not because their sponge is any less dry, but because mini lamingtons have a lower ratio of icing to sponge. (Here I am reminiscing, because after giving up sugar entirely, I have absolutely no intention of eating another darned lamington no matter how many country fairs I attend.)

THE LAMINGTON MAN BY KEL RICHARDS ILLUSTRATED BY GLEN SINGLETON (2009)

This is what a lamington looks like.

I really like this Australian retelling of The Gingerbread Man — first of all, the old woman screams when the lamington comes to life. The artist has to be careful to get this right, because even in fairytale world, I’m sure anyone would be surprised if their baked goods up and left. This woman has a great surprised look. We can see straight down her throat.

I also like the phrase, ‘And sprinkled him with coconut, to finish him off of course.’ ‘To finish someone off’ has another meaning and indeed that’s what will happen.

This Lamington Man is a cheeky little bastard, insulting everyone he encounters. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see him eaten by a croc. He calls the dog lazy, insults the postman’s hat and makes a ‘mocking salute’ which I can only imagine is the middle finger, except the lamington man hasn’t actually got fingers, which is why it’s funny.

There’s also a pretty good joke at the end, but I won’t spoil it.

*There are people for whom Gingerbread will never be quite the same, because their children were making gingerbread houses the day a boy with a gun shot entered Sandy Hook Elementary School. Although I’m not American, and our gun laws are as good as they’ll ever be, that was an event which affected the world, and in fact gingerbread will never be quite the same for me either.

Stories With Pirates In

I’ve never experienced the allure of pirates. The celebration of pirates (for boys) is about as ridiculous as the celebration of princesshood (for girls). Pirates aren’t heroes; they’re criminals.

Marjery Hourihan breaks down the difference between pirates and heroes in her book Deconstructing The Hero:

gentlemen–pirates

neat–dirty

sober–drunken

rational–irrational

honest–deceitful

self-controlled–violent

law-abiding–criminal

England–island

Nonetheless, I can understand (intellectually, at least) the allure of sea adventure. (I’m scared of water, sharks and drowning.)

Perhaps when kids develop obsessions with pirates, it’s the adventure they crave.

Picturebooks

FORTUYN’S GHOST BY MARK GREENWOOD ILLUSTRATED BY MARK WILSON

This book isn’t about pirates per se, though pirates make an appearance at some stage. The story is set on the Shipwreck Coast, well known for supposed hauntings. There’s an explanation at the beginning of the book, since the story relies on basic knowledge of this history, then launches into a narrative about a real-life mariner, Pieter Westrik. The story takes place in 1723. Young readers taken with sea stories will no doubt be spirited away by this story, with its atmospheric illustrations and real, historical backdrop. A touch of paranormal helps to spin a story, too, even if you stop believing in paranormal events as soon as the story is over. (This is what I do.)

The ship vanishes, of course. Parts of the wreckage may have been found. This is all explained on the last page, and feels like a damn good episode of Aircrash Investigation.

AN ABC OF PIRATES BY CAROLINE STILLS, ILLUSTRATED BY HEATH MCKENZIE

This is an ABC book for pirate enthusiasts, introducing children to words such as doubloon, zephyr, buccaneer and azure. I don’t know half of these words, being a bit of a landlubber myself. That’s why I appreciate the glossary at the back.

But the text is only a small part of the treasure in this book: at the back we also have a double page spread of words with ‘Did you find all of these objects in the pictures?’ The illustrations are lively and comical and with this Where’s Wally sort of gaming included, a middle grade reader would find many minutes of entertainment. I also like that this story includes female characters, catering for the little girls out there who are enchanted by Pirates of the Caribbean culture. (It’s fitting, perhaps, that the illustrator’s name is ‘Heath’.)

CAPTAIN FLINN AND THE PIRATE DINOSAURS SMUGGLERS BOY BY GILES ANDREA ILLUSTRATED BY RUSSELL AYTO (2010)

This title had me wondering how many Smugglers Bays there are around the world because I grew up in New Zealand, where Smugglers Bay is a real place, in the Waikato. I’ve always thought that place has a wonderfully evocative name, though sadly, I’ve never been there. A quick google search and I can’t find any other instances of real bays of the same name, but I don’t think there’s any deliberate New Zealand connection. I was ever so slightly disappointed by that, especially since it starts with a child character asking the teacher, ‘Why is it called Smugglers Bay?’ which had me thinking this story was based on a real place. It may be about Cornwall but, not being a pirate fan, I can’t tell. If anyone knows, leave a comment.

The illustrations are done Charlie and Lola style, though I’m not sure if this is a fair term I’m using there, since I don’t know who first popularised that style of picturebook art. For all I know, it could’ve been this illustrator.

I do like my genres pure, even when I’m no particular fan of the genre, so sighed a little when the pirate dinosaurs made an appearance. I suppose this story may doubly appeal to children who are obsessed by both pirates AND dinosaurs — two scary things in one! — so if you have a little person by that description in your life, definitely gift them this book.

As for me and mine, we failed to be particularly engaged by this story, which tried too hard to be adventuresome and scary and failed on both counts. True scariness takes a slightly different shape.

On the upside, I do like that the imaginative protagonists of this pirate/dinosaur adventure comprise two boys and two girls — showing, I hope, that the more modern picture book creators are more naturally gender inclusive, or are making an effort to be.

***

Pirates wore eye patches to keep one eye accustomed to the darkness below deck.

Here is a list of kidlit about pirates from CLCD, including books for older readers, not just picturebooks.
***

Film

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)

It is 2012 and there is no excuse for these kinds of movies being made. Of course, I say that with the assumption that in regards to female representation we can only move forwards, but this film is another example of why many feminist commentators conclude that we’re going backwards.

I wrote copious notes on why I hate this film so much, and before ranting about it here, checked it past my husband. I asked him to watch it first, for a repeat screening with the four-year-old, who I should mention up front — loves this film.

“What did you think?” I asked, knowing he knew I hated it.

“Um, I thought it was pretty good…?”

“But you can see why I didn’t like it, right?”

“Um… not really.”

So I read him my notes (which took some time) and then he got it. He said, “I honestly didn’t pick up any of that.” And I don’t think he said it just for a quiet life, but he agreed with me that this isn’t the sort of film we should let the four year old watch over and over again. Kids do that, you see, and I definitely see the influence of a few films in her imaginative play, which is why I’m so careful about these things.

This feminist-commentary/blissful-ignorance thing is a familiar dynamic in our living room. After coming out with a feminist critique of an episode of The Walking Dead the other night (even though I do try to keep my editorial inserts to myself, for enjoyment’s sake), my husband said, ‘Doesn’t knowing all this feminist stuff ruin stuff for you?”

(Totally not related: 7 Scientific Facts That Will Ruin Movies For You from io9)

“Yes!” Absolutely it does. Absolutely. I am in no doubt that my thinking deeply about inequalities enhances my enjoyment of not a single little thing, least of all Life In General, but in fact, these kinds of films annoyed me long before grew the vocabulary to explain how.

I’ll say upfront that this film met with very good reviews from the critics and as I mentioned above, I have long been baffled with the enduring popularity of pirates. Pirates are criminals, yet they have entered the common consciousness as heroes. If it’s sea adventure we’re after, we could easily glamorise the lives of common seafarers, yet we glamorise the lives of 19th century pirates.

The mood of this film reminds me a lot of The Boat That Rocked — a film for adults which I really enjoyed. Aardman have married stop motion animation with computer generated effects to create something visually stunning. What a shame the gags don’t live up to the vision.

This pirate story opens with Queen Victoria, a formidable character — yay!, a strong female character I think — followed not long after by blokey jokes about “scantily clad mermaids” and I realise that it’s only going to go downhill from there.

The token female saunters into a room full of hapless male pirates announcing that she is just as deadly as she is beautiful. The men stare at her with their mouths agape, stunned by her beauty, or perhaps from the unexpectedness of this.

GENDER-BENDING, NOT REALLY

Female pirates? At this point I would like to quote Shattersnipe:

What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate.

- from the blog post PSA: Your default narrative settings are not apolitical

I feel I should quote some more of that article, in which we learn that that there was such a thing as female pirates — writers don’t need to shove them in just for the sake of modern political correctness — it is entirely possible to make a movie with female pirates at the helm, rather than as a walk-on sexually objectified character, and she would be perfectly historically accurate:

…there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible.

Here’s another point, from author Scott Lynch, in response to a reader complaining that having a middle-aged female pirate is nothing more than political correctness. Quite rightly, Lynch says that middle-aged women are allowed some wish fulfillment in their fiction as much as the next person.

I can see that this film, however, is parodying the classic female roles with its eyes wide open, but what does this really achieve, apart from reinforcing those roles? I was slightly concerned when the four-year-old looked at me and said, “Girls are queens!” meaning, I thought, “What is this girl doing as a pirate?” A successful attempt at gender-role bending, perhaps. Then I worked out that the female pirate was acting so far out of her traditional female role — only her voice was feminine — and the four-year-old didn’t realise that the pirate was actually a female. Decent female characters do not equal male characters with boobies. To the four-year-old, even the bows in the hair was confusing to her, since male pirates are traditionally depicted wearing bows on their ponytails, unlike every other character on everything, and so hair-style is how little kids are conditioned to tell the difference between female and male caricatures/cartoons/characters in the first place. (There’s that and the colour pink, of course, to denote the token female in a group.)

So much for gender bending, anyway. I’m wondering now how female pirates did behave. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know, because their histories haven’t been recorded.

By the way, this alluring female pirate appears later in the sexually charged fantasy of the Pirate Captain. This time she’s the stereotypical gameshow hostess in which he wins pirate of the year, or something. She may have first appeared in pirate dress, but that is not how the audience is guided to see her. It would be a mistake then for the audience to conclude that this film is a good one for pirate-loving little girls, because a young woman in pirate-costume is… well, just that.

FATISM

In the week when American news anchor Jennifer Livingston responded on air to an email from a male lawyer asking her to lose weight in order to be a good role model on screen, I was already wondering where all the fatism comes from, especially when the overweight and obese look set to outnumber the rest. So I couldn’t help but notice the fat jokes in this film, too.

The Pirate Captain has the obligatory parrot on his shoulder, standing in as his ‘trophy wife’. The running joke is that the parrot is bigger than it should be. “She’s not fat — she’s just big-boned”, exclaims the captain defensively. This has the entire ship in fits of laughter, and is the turning event when the captain decides he must prove his worth as their true leader. This joke wouldn’t work, of course, if there were not the cultural assumption that powerful men must have beautiful women on their arms — or in this case, beautiful parrots on their shoulders. A man whose woman (or his female parrot companion) can’t possibly be fit to be leader unless he finds himself a female who fits the narrow constraints of acceptable body shape. A man’s status must match his woman’s beauty. Stereotype thusly reinforced.

Later, when Queen Victoria enters a room on a horse, the queen is exaggeratedly large (as she is always depicted) and the horse is ridiculously small: a visual joke about size which is as powerful as anything voiced. In another scene someone says, “A minute on the hips, a lifetime on the hips.” A ridiculous axiom in the first place. All it does is bring unhealthy messages about food guilt into a comedy designed for kids, who shouldn’t have to have to hear such rubbish.

TRADITIONAL FEMALE CLICHES

Much of the humour in this film come from anachronisms such as the appearance of a group of modern children on a geography field trip to the pirate ship, or the Pirate Captain performing the moonwalk, or the audience at the science awards eating popcorn and sucking down soda drinks.  Yet in that same audience, a woman is so taken aback that she faints. This often happened in those days, partly because it was expected of the weaker sex. It’s interesting to see which authentically 1800s parts are kept and which are ditched for comedy’s sake.

TOO SOON TO BE FUNNY

I am a big fan of the historical figure Charles Darwin — I think he did a lot to advance our understanding of the world — so at the risk of sounding way too precious, I take it a little personally when he is fictionalised as a rather hapless character. I wouldn’t mind so much if he were as untouchable as Queen Victoria, but here’s the rub: there are still plenty of otherwise well-educated people in this world who refuse to believe ‘The Theory Of Evolution’, so I’m not sure Darwin is quite up to the role of being ridiculed, not so long as his work is still being ridiculed for real.

I’d be interested to know if other adult viewers got an impression of Charles Darwin depicted as gay when he is first introduced in this film. Later, it turns out he is in love with Queen Victoria, which is meant to sound ridiculous, of course, but funny? Really? “You don’t get many women back here, do you Charles,” says one of the pirates when Charles takes them to his house. Because women exist as sexual conquests, to be impressed? Because a comfortable home takes a ‘woman’s touch’? I’m not sure, but I know I don’t like it. I think it’s because a man couldn’t possibly be attracted to an unattractive woman… in power. One of those attributes would be unappealing enough, but both at once, in the same woman? Impossible. Even today. Queen Victoria can see Charles’ infatuation for her and says, “I’ve always loved you Charles.” “Really?” “No!” Queen Victoria then hits him over the head with a frying pan. I wondered if this is how the male authors of this screenplay feel about women in general. Much of this humour felt like a catharsis of female rejection. Or maybe they’re just playing on how many other men feel about women, and the nasty business of being rejected when you’re acculturated into making the first move, as a real man.

Small things, small things, I know. But they add up. Like when a canon ball smashes the head off a female figurine at the front of a boat. A model of Queen Victoria is sucker punched. An animated pirate movie will of course contain comic violence, sure, but when violent things happen to the male characters the male characters are there in person, to fight back. Maybe it’s not okay to depict violence against actual female characters, but using images of them in an indirect, subversive kind of way doesn’t work either, in my opinion.

Not when women are sexualised as it is. When a scientist presents his new invention (a blimp) he goes over all the ways in which it will be useful, then says, “but mostly it’s for looking down ladies’ tops.” This film may well be hilarious in a dirty-old-man kind of a way, and I might even expect this to come out of the mouths of ribald pirates, but this was from a character who was meant to be a scientist. In this film, no opportunity is lost for treating women badly. I should mention that (the real depiction of) Queen Victoria ends up being squashed by giant barrels of vinegar( though she magically reappears later, since she’s indestructible in a larger-than-life kind of way).

REAL MEN DON’T DO THAT.

The rolling credits at the end are accompanied by (omitted?) scenes, if you’re still watching. “It’s not about the treasure,” says one of the pirates, “it’s about how you feel inside.” The Pirate Captain responds dismissively with, “You’re not a man disguised as a woman, are you?” Also: “Grow yourself a beard. It’ll make your face look less lumpy.” Wrong on several levels. It’s not lost on me that stories which are not good for little girls are also not good for little boys. Gender roles, when presented in binary, are bad for everyone.

Something tells me the creators of this film weren’t thinking too hard about their script. At least they took out the bad-taste leprosy joke before the final cut. But where the hell was Germaine Greer?

And now the four-year-old wants a pirate party for her next birthday. She liked the ‘scary dolphin’ in it, and now this appears to be one of her most favourite movies.

For good claymation from the same people, watch Chicken Run instead. That’s what she’s getting for Christmas. But how the flying hell did this film get a rating of 6.7 on IMDb and avoid any feminist critique whatsoever from the top reviewers? I checked.

Related

Pirates didn’t actually talk like that.

Photos of a pretty cool pirate themed bedroom.

When Pirates Ruled America, a podcast

Pirate Jenny by Nina Simone. Excellent.

The lyrics are about a scrubber woman from the south who dreams of ruling the world by becoming a pirate and killing the people who keep her in her place. Her imagination helps her get through the day, where she is told to get on with her scrubbing.

Disney Is Finally Getting The Message That Parents Don’t Like It When Their Kids Are Fat Shamed from Mommyish

Interesting Collection Of Links About Children’s Literature

Once upon a more staid time, the purpose of children’s books was to model good behavior… Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein ignored these rules.

- The Children’s Authors Who Broke The Rules, New York Times

“If there’s anything missing that I’ve observed over the decades it’s that that drive has declined,” said the 83-year-old author… “There’s a certain passivity, a going back to childhood innocence that I never quite believed in. We remembered childhood as a very passionate, upsetting, silly, comic business.”

- Children’s books today aren’t wild enough, says Maurice Sendak, The Guardian

1. WHICH CLASSIC NOVEL WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE ILLUSTRATED?

Beautiful Illustrations for a Madame Bovary picture book

2. DAVID CARTER’S POP-UP BOOKS FOR ALL AGES

3. 3d illustrations

Gorgeous 3D Illustrations for Classic Children’s Books from Flavorwire

4. ON THE CREATION OF DR SEUSS BOOKS

Cat People: What Dr Seuss Really Taught Us from The New Yorker

5. THE ART OF SIMMS TABACK

You’ll have seen his picturebooks even if you don’t know his name.

6. PARENTAL SUPERVISION NOT REQUIRED

The Freedom Of Classic Children’s Fiction from The Guardian

7. FROM CAVE PAINTINGS TO MAURICE SENDAK

A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling, in The Atlantic

8. Research shows steady decline in natural world, wild animals in illustrated books for kids

Study: Increasingly, children’s books are where the wild things aren’t.

9.Parents A Liability?

In children’s books, yes.

10. 5 classic children’s books

with timeless philosophy for adults, from Brain Pickings.

11. CHILDREN’S BOOKS TO MAKE YOU LAUGH

curated by Tania McCartney at Love2Read

12. PICTURE BOOKS ABOUT RESOURCEFUL CHILDREN

from The NYT Sunday Book Review.

13. 75 BOOKS THAT BUILD CHARACTER

from No Time For Flash Cards

14. LOOKING AT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE FROM TWO PERSPECTIVES

available at the Wiley online library

15. WHY CHILDREN’S BOOKS ARE GETTING DARKER

from Sarah McDonald writing at Daily Life