Children’s Fiction: My Pet Hate

Literature is a form of escapism for most of us. We reach for a novel and instantly forget those pending bills, those emails we need to send and what’s on the agenda for tomorrow. Children are no different. They might not have the same worries as us but they have problems none the less. Children use literature to escape from reality just as we do, which perhaps is the reason fantasy is such a popular genre when it comes to little readers. Who wants to be thinking about tomorrow’s maths class when they could be knee deep in snow in Narnia or on adventures with their daemons? The books of C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman have to be some of the greatest kids books around; their creativity is unparalleled.

The lack of creativity is my problem with writers like Jacqueline Wilson. I hated her books as a child and nothing’s changed since. Jacqueline Wilson wrote books about school, bullying and eating disorders. These were aspects of my life that I wanted to escape, I did not want to spend hours face to face with them on the page. I already spent 8 hours a day in school, why would I want to read about school? However, I had very little choice. A Secondary School library is FULL of these types of books because writers of children’s fiction like to include things a child can relate to, which (and I’ll give them this) only really leaves them with school because at the age of 13 you haven’t experienced anything else.

I remember reading one Jacqueline Wilson book (I’ve googled it and found its name to be Girls Under Pressure) where the protagonist mentioned her dislike of her fat nose every few pages. I’d never considered before that the facial features you were born with could be considered ugly, I just thought my face was my face. This book taught me to judge my own appearance – and what worse message can you send a pre-teen? To start body shaming yourself at such a young age (or at any age in fact) is a dangerous thing to mess around with. Then there was the binge eating and purging involved with one of the character’s bulimia. This was something I’d never come into contact with before and to this day I believe it’s something that should be discussed in a science class and not in children’s literature. The problem with fiction is that it doesn’t often address problems neutrally or factually. By convention fiction is a matter of interpretation; these stories can plant ideas in children’s heads that are perhaps not what the author intended.

Girls Under Pressure

I think it’s far safer, and far more entertaining, to stick with the abstract – to explore the incredible world of fantasy and magic, even if it is rooted in a realistic setting like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. These combine school with magic in such a way that, for me at least, they are still included in the category of escapist literature. I can open a Harry Potter book and be transported to the corridors of Hogwarts that in no way resemble my old school halls and yet I still get it. I can still relate to the characters and their dramas but the portrayal of them is creative. I can only conclude by saying that children are some of the most creative among us and therefore inherently going to enjoy creativity in their books.

Hogwarts

What do you think? Did you prefer fantasy or realist literature as a child? And in hindsight, did you ever read anything that wasn’t totally appropriate to your age? Are there any subjects that just shouldn’t be included in children’s books at all? Post your comments down below!

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Fairy Tales: Disney v History

I thought I’d push the boat out and write a rather controversial post for a change.

Everyone seems to be more in love with Disney than ever right now. Remakes are being made left, right and centre (Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast), and let’s face it, no-one ever really got over the hype that is ‘Frozen’ – the animated musical inspired by the story of ‘The Snow Queen’ written by Hans Christian Andersen.

Frozen Anna and Elsa

Everyone loves Disney. Everyone except me. I was never a fan of the movies (or books) as a child and I’m not a fan now. As a child cartoons just bored me – so it’s not just Disney I don’t care for, it’s Pixar and the rest of children’s films too. I remember playing a child-appropriate version of Trivial Pursuit at a friends house once when I was probably about 8 or 9. Loads of the questions where about Disney movies and I didn’t have a clue.

I’ll admit that I never truly understood this before studying the fairy tale for my dissertation, but Disney is ruining them. If you strip away the blood and gore; the sexual references; the cannibalism; the incest, you don’t have a story left. These tales are based around these frightful acts and since when did they ever do children any harm anyway? Don’t children and teenagers spend all day playing violent video games? Why do children need to be spared from these things and given happy musical songs instead? Surely children are too young to really understand concepts like incest and so it goes over their heads anyway. As J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, ‘I do not think I was harmed by the horror in the fairytale setting, out of whatever dark beliefs and practices of the past it may have come.’

Fairy tales were never intended for children. These improvised tales were a formed part of the salon culture in Paris and then later over dinner in bourgeois households in Germany; they were shared amongst adults for entertainment purposes. I do not understand why Disney feel the need to strip them of their original concepts and fill them with happy-clappy musical numbers in order to make them child friendly. They’re essentially not the same stories. I suppose that’s why I can excuse something like ‘Frozen’. It’s not given the same name. It’s not pretending to be ‘The Snow Queen’ in the same way that the 1991 ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is pretending to be ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with added talking teacups.

Beauty and the Beast

There’s nothing wrong with change and nothing wrong with adaptation but most Disney films have barely any resemblance to the canonical tales. Charles Perrault, Giambattista Basile, Hans Christian Andersen, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (amongst so many others) would be turning in their graves if they knew what Disney had done to their stories.

Grimm Brothers’: The Juniper Tree

This fairy tale was passed on to the Grimms by Philipp Otto Runge, a German Romantic painter, who also shared with them ‘The Tale of the Fisherman and His Wife’. Neither are particular well known in comparison to the Disney favourites – ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow-White’, ‘Rapunzel’, etc.- but nevertheless, it is a classic. ‘The Juniper Tree’ is a more literary tale than most of the Grimm’s stories, unlike some of the simpler stories, the writing in this one has a poetic flare.

The Juniper Tree

The story goes as follows:

A wife struggling with conception wishes that she could have a child ‘as red as blood and as white as snow’. Miraculously she falls pregnant, but come the ninth month, she dies in childbirth. It’s a beautiful bouncing baby boy and the mother is buried beneath the Juniper tree.

A while later the father remarries a woman who has a daughter of her own, Marleen. The typically evil stepmother despises the sight of the little boy so much she plots to kill him. She offers him an apple but just as he reaches into a wooden chest to get one she decapitates him by slamming the lid closed on his neck. In an attempt to hide what she has done, she ties a kerchief around his neck and places his head back on. When Marleen comes home the stepmother says to her to go and offer him an apple. When he doesn’t respond she pushes him and, seeing his head rolling across the floor, believes she has killed him. It is in this way that the stepmother shifts the blame from herself to her daughter. Marleen is very upset that she’s killed her stepbrother and so they agree not to tell the father. The stepmother tells him the little boy has gone to stay at a relative’s and that night cooks up a huge stew. The father expects nothing and yes, eats his son.

Marleen buries the remaining bones beneath the Juniper tree alongside his mother but ho and behold, he is reincarnated into a phoenix. He flies over the village and sings the song:

‘It was my mother who butchered me,
It was my father who ate me,
My sister, little Marleen,
Found all my little bones,
Bound them in a silken cloth,
And laid them under the juniper tree.
Peewit, peewit, what a beautiful bird am I!’

The first listener is a goldsmith, who gives him a gold chain for repeating the song. The second listener is a shoemaker, who gives him a pair of red shoes for repeating the song. The third listener is a young miller lad, who gives him a millstone for repeating the song. The phoenix then gifts the chain to his father and the shoes to his stepsister before dropping the millstone on his stepmother’s head and squashing her flat. The bird-boy has gotten his revenge. He turns back into a boy and the three of them go back into the house to enjoy supper together.

There are so many creepy elements to this story, but maybe that’s why I like it so much. Though it’s not surprising Disney didn’t deem it suitable for a children’s movie. First there’s the murder of the little boy. Then the cannibalism. Then another murder. On top of this there’s the chilling fact that no-one seems to care about the morality of any of it. Everybody apart from the stepmother seems immune to hearing the words of the phoenix’s song, and the father and his two children are happy to resume their banal lives at the end of the story as if nothing ever happened. It’s a strange one if you ask me.

The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights, formerly known as One Thousand and One Nights dates back to the 10th Century, although its exact date is difficult to prove, as is its exact origins. Some argue the tales have Iranian roots, some Indian, some Chinese, and some that the collection is likely to be a mixture from all different parts of the Middle East.

the arabian nights

The Arabian Nights is a frame story. This simply means it is a story within a story. In this case there are meant to be one thousand and one stories within a story – although this varies depending on the edition.

The frame story tells the tale of two brothers, both of whom are disillusioned by their cheating spouses. One murders his wife and her lover but the other spares his wife. Together they leave their homeland in order to find a man more wretched than they. Eventually they stumble upon a demon. Whilst the demon sleeps, the demon’s woman seduces both of the brothers, taking their rings as mementos to join the other 98, from 98 previous lovers. After discovering this the brothers decide they have found a man more wretched than they. Upon returning home the second brother orders his wife to be killed and swears to marry a new woman every night, purely to murder her in the morning as an act of hate against all women. One day a King’s daughter decides she wants to put an end to the relentless killing. She asks her father to marry her to the second brother in the hope of breaking the cycle. She does this by beginning a story. The brother cannot bring himself to kill her before he knows the end so he lets her live a day longer. The next day she finishes the story before embarking on a new one. And so the cycle begins, for one thousand and one nights. By the end of that time the brother’s rage has subsided and he decides to keep her as a wife.

The Arabian NightsThe Arabian Nights

For me, this was a wonderful way to structure a series of what are effectively short stories. Although in a way The Arabian Nights is considered to be the beginning of fairy tales, they are not fairy tales in a classic sense. They are tales of mystery and magic, sex and crime, but they are a much closer relation to the folk tale than they are to the fairy tale. This framing technique draws you in with a good story right from the beginning and the cycle is clever, really clever.

It’s amazing how much you miss when you read these stories as a child. They’re definitely worth a reread in adulthood!

The History of the Fairy Tale

So I’m choosing to write about fairy tales for my dissertation – and no I don’t mean Disney – I mean the true fairy tales, the ancient stories improvised as a part of after-dinner entertainment in the royal courts, and later written down by the likes of Giambattista Basile, Charles Perrault and, even later, the Grimm brothers.

The earliest European anthology of fairy tales was written by Basile and published posthumously in two volumes in 1634 and 1636. However, they were written in a Neapolitan dialect, which takes a two-step translation (from Neapolitan to Italian and Italian to English), hence why no-one has really heard of them – until recently there wasn’t really a good translation. However, although he receives none of the credit, this was the first text to include stories such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Puss-in-Boots, Snow-White and Sleeping Beauty. Perrault then retold and adapted these stories at the end of the Seventeenth Century for a French audience. The Grimm brothers did likewise, although with the aim of gathering stories that were purely German in origin – hence them dropping some of Perrault’s stories such as Bluebeard in later editions of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) for not being German enough. In total the Grimm brothers collected more than 200 stories.

We think we know what all these tales are about – the castles, the fairies, the magic and the witches, the girls who prick their fingers and the pumpkins that turn into coaches – but do we really?

Fairy tale, castle

What I’m beginning to learn is how much is implied, the in-between-the-lines messages and symbolic references. These are not tales for children – in fact children were not the intended readers until the time of the Grimms (1812 onwards). There is so much more substance to them that can be overlooked. For instance:

When you read a tale from a gender point of view you realise that the women are often the oppressed characters – Cinderella spends her days sweeping ashes, Snow-White is in hiding from the evil Queen and Rapunzel is locked in a tower. Yes it’s exaggerated but this is showing how oppressed women were in society.

When you read a story from a psychoanalytic point of view it becomes obvious what morals are being construed – the good are rewarded and the bad are punished – take Cinderella as an example – she’s hard-working, good, and pious, and gets to go to the ball and marry the Prince at the end of the story, whereas her ‘ugly stepsisters’ get their eyes pecked out by birds.

And finally, there’s the historical contexts. As distant from reality as they seem, set in deep, dark forests and fabulous castles, fairy tales are rooted in the everyday. A girl wants to go to a ball but is too poor to afford a dress. Hansel and Gretel’s mother and father are having monetary issues and worry about the cost of feeding their children. A pretty girl wants to marry well and live prosperously. Is all of that really so far-fetched? So unbelievable? So fantastical?

Roald Dahl vs David Walliams

This is the first time I’m choosing to write about an issue that actually bothers me. Usually I post about a really great book I’ve just finished or a sneaky little writing tip I’ve come across, but this, I feel, is an issue worthy of complaining about. In fact, it really upset me when I saw it, a proper ‘childhood meltdown’, if you know what I mean.

The other day I was browsing the bestselling books section of my local Sainsburys and I couldn’t help but noticing a new series of front covers for Roald Dahl’s children’ books. However, upon closer inspection I realised they weren’t the works of Roald Dahl at all, but those of David Walliams, who we all know is a great admirer of Roald Dahl, as are many of us. I for one absolutely adore his tales.

dahlroald15

Most of us will have either grown up reading Roald Dahl or perhaps have read them to our little ones. His stories, and the drawings of his illustrator, Quentin Blake, are iconic. For me, he’s a huge part of my childhood. The first book I was ever read at school (you know the type, when the teacher reads for ten minutes at the end of every school day so that it takes you a whole year to finish a book) was The Twits. At the end of the day, all sitting on the cross-legged on the carpet in silence, we would listen to his marvellous words and when the bell rang we would actually moan, not wanting to go home, but wanting to continue with the story. I don’t remember another book that ever caused such a reaction in class. A few years later I remember tuning in to Blue Peter when one of the presenters was visiting the writing shed at the bottom of Roald Dahl’s garden. He or she (I can’t remember who it was now) explained how he only ever wrote in pencil, one of those yellow ones with the eraser on the tip and always had six spares sharpened at the ready. He also was very particular about his paper choices, he used only American yellow legal pads that were sent to him from New York. This writerly process was all fascinating to me. Then later, at Secondary School, our class read Boy and learnt all about his childhood at that fateful school, where he and his friends were caned for putting a dead mouse in one of Mrs Pratchett’s gobstopper jars. This I suppose, contrary to my Never Have I Ever post, was my first biography. The idea of one’s life being made so exciting hooked me. Needless to say, I’m an avid Roald Dahl fan.

DavidWalliam7bks

As you can see David Walliams has used Quentin Blake as his illustrator, and this is fundamentally my issue. By doing this, using the same bold colours, the same style of drawings and even similar titles, he’s basically impersonating the original books. I can’t comment on the content because I flatly refuse to read one. I dislike them even before I’ve opened one. They are so in-keeping in style with Roald Dahl’s tales that I have no idea how they even got past copyright. I feel it’s unjust and wrong that the likes of George’s Marvellous Medicine, The BFG and The Witches are no longer fabulously unique. The niche has been infiltrated by this imposter. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with David Walliams writing children’s fiction, it’s the fact he’s trying to be the new Roald Dahl that I have a problem with.

Come up with your own ideas Walliams, don’t copy one of the highest esteemed children’s writers ever and expect to get away with it.

Over and out.