Archive for Classic Children’s Lit

Innocence Lost

Posted in Books, Publishing with tags , , , , , on August 8, 2014 by Jessica Crichton

So the internet is all up in arms over Penguin’s new design for Roald Dahl’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In case you haven’t seen it, here is the cover: what Penguin maintains that the cover was designed in an effort to, “look[s] at the children at the centre of the story, and highlight[s] the way Roald Dahl’s writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life, ready for Charlie’s debut amongst the adult titles in the Penguin Modern Classics series.” In other words, the idea behind the cover is to give it more of an adult style so it matches with the other — predominantly adult — titles in their Modern Classics series. The problems with this are many, but I’m only going to touch on the few that hit my brain the instant I saw the cover.

1) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is NOT an Adult Book.

Don’t get me wrong. I am SO happy Penguin saw the greatness in this book in such a way as to honor it with a place among their Modern Classics series. Other books in this series include 1984 by George Orwell, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. These are amazing titles and authors, and it’s a great honor for Roald Dahl’s beloved story to be included among them. My master’s thesis was entirely centered around my belief that children’s books can be as great a literary contribution to society as any Shakespeare or Hawthorne, so this elates me to no end.

The issue isn’t that Penguin has included a children’s book in its Classics series, it’s that Penguin is trying to pretend it’s NOT a children’s book. Of course, this is erroneous at best, because… well… it IS a children’s book. One hundred percent kid-approved. To emphasize this point, here are a few lines from the actual book:

“I’ve heard tell that what you imagine sometimes comes true.”

“The snozberries taste like snozberries!”

“Rainbow drops – suck them and you can spit in six different colours.”

“Oh, my sainted aunt! Don’t mention that disgusting stuff in front of me! Do you know what breakfast cereal is made of? It’s made of all those little curly wooden shavings you find in pencil sharpeners!”

“Yippeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” And at the same time, his long bony body rose up out of the bed and his bowl of soup went flying into the face of Grandma Josephine, and in one fantastic leap, this old fellow of ninety-six and a half, who hadn’t been out of bed these last twenty years, jumped on to the floor and started doing a dance of victory in his pajamas.”

If these sound childish to you, that’s because they’re from a children’s book. “But,” you may argue, “there are many deep and even dark passages in there as well”. I agree and if I ignored them I wouldn’t be much of a literati would I? For contrast, here are a few of those:

“Whipped cream isn’t whipped cream at all if it hasnt been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn’t poached eggs unless it’s been stolen in the dead of the night.”

“Everything in this room is edible. Even I’m edible. But, that would be called canibalism. It is looked down upon in most societies.”

These are only a couple of examples, of course, but they work to illustrate the point. We can see that the first plays on words in a way that a child would most likely not understand, and both are a bit dark to say the least. However we also must also note that even these passages are written in a childlike narrative voice because Roald Dahl meant it as a children’s book. Even if adults CAN find deeper themes within, (and I maintain that this is definitely the case) creating a cover that alludes that the story is entirely adult-themed is ridiculous. As the author himself said of his work,

“I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.” Roald Dahl

Books shouldn’t be daunting? I’d say that cover certainly is!

2) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a Beloved Modern Classic BECAUSE it is a Children’s Book

Adults love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because it reminds them of their childhood. As they will tell you, almost all of these adults read it for the first time as children. Children love the book, of course, because it’s written for them. Neither of these fans would get what they loved about this story from the cover. In fact, it’s raised an awful lot of fuss for this exact reason 

But you may say, “this isn’t for fans of the book, it’s for adults who have never read it before.” In that case let’s look at the two kinds of adults who fit into this category:

1) Those who know what the book is from movies and/or basic pop culture.

2) Those who don’t know anything about it because they’re simply not interested in knowing.

To be honest, Charlie is such an icon of kidlit I’d wager it would be difficult to find the latter subcategory anywhere. Still, for argument purposes let’s assume they exist. One of these people is walking along in a bookstore, looking for something they will enjoy (which, we have established, is NOT kidlit), and they see this cover. Now, I’m not going to argue that my instant translation of this cover is the same as anyone else’s but the general feel I have gotten from Facebook comments and in-person discussions is the same: this cover says that the story within is a drama about child pageants or some dark memoir written by a lady who went through horrible emotional and mental abuse as a child. The titles of Lolita and Valley of the Dolls have also been going  around, and I have to agree with those as well. So this random bookstore customer who doesn’t know the title sees this cover and thinks, “hey, that looks interesting”, because maybe they like that sort of thing. They then either pick it up and read the back (like most sane people), or they just buy it. In the former instance this person would find soon enough that it’s a children’s book and put it back down, thus not buying it. In the latter instance they would take it home, begin to read it, then take it right back to the store, possibly in anger for being duped. In either case this person does NOT give the bookstore any business.

In the end, this cover only serves to confuse and frustrate pretty much everyone. And why? Because Penguin chose it as a Modern Classic based on its own merits… then decided those merits weren’t good enough.

3) Different Themes Within the Story Could Be Used to Greater Effectiveness and More Validity

According to some critics, Penguin made this cover with the theme of the book in mind, which they state is “the loss of childhood innocence”. This theme could really be put on just about any children’s book ever conceived (except maybe The Wizard of Oz, though I’m sure there are those who would try), and I am a big proponent of freedom in literary criticism, so I won’t argue against that point. What I WILL do is argue that there are other themes Penguin could have gone for instead, which could be more effective in marketing and more valid to the story.

Let’s start with a short synopsis. I’m assuming most of you have read it (or seen one of the movies; I won’t judge as I’ve done both), so this will be simple review. However I feel it is warranted due to the subject at hand, so please humor me.

Charlie is a very poor boy living with his washerwoman mother and four invalid grandparents in a tiny shack. The one thing he loves the most in the world is candy, but he hardly ever gets any, and when he does it’s usually very small. One day, the mysterious owner of the local chocolate factory, Willie Wonka, sends out news that he will allow five, and only five, children into his factory to see its wonders. Those children will be chosen at random by way of a contest — five golden tickets hidden inside Wonka’s most popular chocolate bar. There’s a flurry of excitement as the five are found: Veruka Salt, the spoiled, selfish daughter of a millionaire; Augustus Gloop, a German boy who never seems to stop eating; Violet Beauregarde, a girl obsessed with competition — and gum; Mike Teevee, who you can probably guess cares for only one thing in the world — television; and… Charlie. These five are given a fantastic tour through the factory with their parents, and one-by-one learn the hard way that their personalities aren’t exactly the best: Violet blows up into a blueberry after eating gum that Willie Wonka tells her repeatedly not to chew, Augustus finds himself trapped inside — then shot out of — an exit pipe from the chocolate river because he can’t stop himself from trying to drink the whole thing and falls in, Mike is zapped into a tiny version of himself because he can’t control his excitement over the possibility of becoming television himself, even though Willie tells him they haven’t tested it on people yet, and Veruka falls down a garbage hole after trying to steal a golden-egg laying chicken that Wonka tells her is not for sale. In the end the only one left is Charlie. Willie Wonka tells Charlie that he is the winner of another contest — one nobody knew about — and the prize is the factory itself. He then names Charlie his successor, and Charlie, Wonka and Grandpa go home in the great glass elevator to tell the family the good news (and destroy the roof while they’re at it). The end.

Okay, so the initial obvious theme here is “don’t be a douche”. All of the other children are greedy and selfish and they pay for it not only by way of humiliation, but also losing the chance to be the next Willie Wonka. Dahl’s theme of self-morality is obvious here, especially since in the book (unlike the original movie), Charlie does nothing wrong and is just happy to be there and experience such wonder. This is a theme that adults don’t tend to like, however, as it can be seen as condescending to those who are supposed to have already learned the basic lesson of being a decent human being. Telling someone not to be a douche isn’t exactly a selling point, but it can certainly be used for a more valid cover design. How many villains have sold stories? Darth Vader, for one, has been a huge moneymaker. So show Violet being a selfish brat. Show Augustus with his mouth full of chocolate. Heck, make it into a “Seven Deadly Sins” style of imagery. This can be done both in a way adults will be drawn to, AND still in keeping with the obvious theme of the book.

Still, you may argue that adults don’t want the obvious. We’re pretty good at looking into things and finding far deeper meaning than sometimes is even considered by the author. (Mark Twain had a few things to say about that!) What if the goal of Penguin here is to show adult readers that there is more to this children’s book than meets the eye? This is a perfectly acceptable goal as far as I’m concerned, but I believe they have gone about it all wrong.

I feel that one possible buried theme within Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that of human companionship. Willie Wonka lives in a huge, wondrous factory… all alone. Of course there are the  Oompa Loompas, but they’re more like sentient pets than friends for Wonka (we won’t discuss here the inherent racism that they could very easily represent). Wonka is extremely wealthy and successful… but he’s also very lonely. Charlie on the other hand has nothing… except his family. He lives in a shack with five — five — adults who adore him. He is not lacking in love or companionship for certain! In the end, Wonka invites Charlie and his family to move into the factory as he teaches the boy everything he needs to know to run it. Why would he do that? (Other than the fact that the Buckets live in a shack, I mean.) Because he’s lonely! One of my favorite quotes from the book is this:

“Mr. Wonka: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.” Charlie Bucket: “What happened?” Mr. Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.”

It’s more than possible that Wonka isn’t just speaking of Charlie here but of himself as well. Charlie got a chocolate factory and a bright future. Wonka… got a friend. This theme could also be incorporated into the cover in a more adult-style by simply showing Wonka standing starkly alone in front of his factory. This is only one example, of course. I’m sure Penguin has plenty of real artists who could do a far better job.

4) The Cover is Pretty Much Everything the Book is Not

Speaking of Penguin’s artists, let’s wrap this up by discussing the cover as it is, and its assumed theme. This theme of “childhood lost” isn’t a unique one as I earlier pointed out, but it is special in that adults can perhaps relate to it better than some other themes within children’s books. Alright, that is understood. Yet even working with this theme, and even adding in the darkness that Penguin mentions (which I won’t dispute exists; the boat song is in the book, and Dahl was known to have written adult horror before he began his children’s books), I still maintain that it could have been executed far better.

First and foremost, Charlie is not a girl. I’m all about transgenders and supporting their right to be who they are, but Charlie Bucket isn’t even close. He is a boy. Period. It’s pretty simple that way. Yet this cover depicts a girl. Why? Why doesn’t it depict the main character, or at least someone who could possibly be him? This image is very misleading, giving the impression that the main character is female when nothing could be further from the truth. If you want to depict the loss of innocence with dark tones, fine, but for the love of God do it with a boy so the cover is at least somewhat relevant to the actual story! Sure, depicting the loss of innocence for a boy may be more difficult but it’s far from impossible. Soldiers come directly to mind. A dead-eyed boy in dirty combat gear perhaps? That’s one of many scenarios which could be explored that, while still not completely relevant to the story within, would at least have some relevance to the main character.

Secondly, the book has no characters who could even match the girl on the cover in the first place. Some have mentioned she could be Veruka, but Veruka would never allow herself to become this automaton; however bratty she was, she was certainly self-aware and vibrant. The character on the cover depicts nobody from the actual story, nor any scene that happens in it. Sure, sure, I understand that Penguin is going for metaphor here but there’s such a thing as too vague, especially for the general public. Include something relevant. Anything! Come on, Penguin, throw us a bone!

Third, and perhaps the most damning, is the blatant sexualization of the girl on the cover. Strike one: she’s a little girl. Strike two: it’s a children’s book. Strike three: this assumes that adult readers are really only looking for one thing, which is pretty damn insulting.

Yes, I understand that the sexualization of this girl is what depicts the loss of childhood innocence. I’d have to be a total dolt not to know that, and I’m just above that classification, thank-you-very-much. Yet I can’t help but wonder if Penguin had ulterior motives in using that particular brand of innocence lost. There are other ways to lose one’s innocence. Heck, Penguin could have used some of the themes they maintain are in the book itself. (I know, novel idea.) But no, they went with the lowest common denominator, going so far as to sacrifice any actual relevance to the story in order to make the cover “sexy”. And why?

Because it sells.

Penguin, you lost quite a bit of my admiration. That was a dick move.


On Generationalism: A New Literary Theory for Children’s Books

Posted in Books, Fiction, Kid Lit Reviews, kidlit, Literature, Scholarly, Writing with tags , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by Jessica Crichton

This is the beginning of my master’s thesis on children’s literary theory. I will be putting the entire thesis up as a static page once it is 100% ready. Until then, I have decided to post it in-parts, for your scrutiny. Here, I cover the definition of “good literature” and outline the new literary theory, Generationalism. I will post examples of use later. If you wish to use any part of this thesis in your own work, please use proper citation. Although I retain all copyrights to both the following work and Generationalism itself, I very much encourage its use by any scholars, writers, and other literati as-needed. ~ JR


“We need a critical method which takes account of the child-as-reader; which will include him rather than exclude him; which will help us to understand a book better and discover the reader it seeks. We need a critical method which will tell us about the reader in the book.” (Chambers 34)

To study literary fiction is, in essence, to study the human condition. In Poetry in a Scientific World, Morris Sweetkind states that in ignoring the study of literature, society “turns out one fourth of a human being”. (Sweetkind 360) He goes on to say that, “[t]he modern student enamored of science clings to the fallacy that what he learns in his textbooks is eternal truth… However, my copies of Oedipus Rex, Hamlet and Leaves of Grass, today still have validity for my grandchildren”. (360) The famous mythologist, writer and lecturer Joseph Campbell echoes this declaration in his introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “… myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.” (Campbell I) And award-winning children’s author Aidan Chambers asserted, “I hold that in literature we find the best expression of the human imagination, and the most useful means by which we come to grips with our ideas about ourselves and what we are.” (Chambers 16) The basic building blocks of humanity which literature mirrors never change; people will always be at once evil and good, cruel and kind, greedy and compassionate. These facts are as relevant today as they ever were and ever will be.

One could argue the above of all literature both past and present, yet there exists an unwritten, ever-changing list of specific titles that outshine all others. These are tomes that have so perfectly defined the human condition that they have changed a myriad of individual minds, inspired great thinkers and revolutionaries, and even deeply affected whole societies in modern history. These books are read, studied and taught by generations of scholars and professors. This coveted list is most often termed “the English canon”, “the literary canon”, or simply “the canon”, and it defines everything literature stands for – a study in humanity itself.

Yet one vital aspect that has been continually overlooked in this ongoing study of humanity is the very root-beginnings of who we are. All human beings start our lives as children, yet we insist on dismissing this so very important phase as beneath our interest. But when do the roots of humanity — the beginnings of questioning and questing — begin? In childhood. To leave out the scholarly study of children’s literature is to leave out the very beginning of our lesson. It is akin to starting the experiment without the very hypotheses that experiment means to solve. If we are to ever truly understand humanity, we must start at the beginning.

Until we accept that literature written for children can be as worthy of canonical study and criticism as that written for adults, we will be missing a vital aspect of literary studies as a whole. Thus, this paper will seek to look at children’s literature through the established lens of scholarly conversation, revealing its worth to the study of literature as a whole. This will be done by first defining what makes a work “canon”, then forming a literary theory to be used in analyzing children’s literature based on already established theories, and finally using that theory to critique a specific list of uniquely superb children’s titles both past and present.

Chapter 1

What is “Good” Literature? ~ Defining the Argument

As with every opinion, what is considered “good” literature is highly speculative. However there are certain parameters that must be met in order for a book to be considered good enough for inclusion in the canon. This chapter will focus on establishing those parameters. It will then go on to define the use of the term “children’s literature’ within this study, in order to set a precedent for the argument that literature written for children can, in fact, meet those requirements.

In The Making of the English Canon, Jonathan Brody Kramnick explains the traits that have traditionally defined canonical works: “What makes literary subjects literary is their alterity to ‘polite assemblages’ and ‘domestic familiarity’, their capacity to correct overly ‘polite’ and ‘domestic’ taste.” (Kramnick 1092) In Beginning Theory, Peter Barry expands on this: “… good literature is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks what is constant in human nature.” (Barry 17) Thus, canonical literature shakes things up — it changes humanity by showing us our own fallibilities and challenging us to overcome them. It is also timeless, relating to any reader of any age on the deepest levels of what it is to be human. No canonical work has ever been passive. In order to be considered one of the ‘greats’, a work of literature must change things, from the individual reader to society itself, in a deep and profound way.

While the canon does evolve in accordance with cultural, societal and academic changes, there remain certain writers who will always have a place at the top. According to Kramnick, “Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton… [were] first represented as a literary trinity and first described with consistency as ‘transcendent’, ‘sublime’, and ‘classic’ in criticism…” (1087) These three are generally considered the forerunners to modern canon inclusion, though this argument has been challenged based on their antiquity in-relation to the myriad of changes that the canon has undergone since. Changes that, according to Kramnic, “… emerged as a reversal of an earlier understanding of cultural change”. (1087) The major apex of this change can be seen in the transformative polarity between classes in the mid-eighteenth-century, when the canon was first emerging as an academic ideal. Earlier works that were once considered vital to literary and cultural study began to be challenged as not representing the whole of humanity, but only the elite. This brings us back to the idea that canonical works must be society-changing stories that go beyond their own time and culture.

The changes that the canon has undergone, then, have been evolutionary as well as revolutionary, reflecting the truest depths of the human condition through generations. But, at one time the influential adults of these generations were all children, and from as far back as the mid-1700’s, those children could read books written just for them. (Hunt 15) As Professor Emeritus in Children’s Literature at Cardiff University Peter Hunt says in his book, Understanding Children’s Literature, “[children’s books] are overtly important educationally and commercially – with consequences across the culture, from language to politics: most adults, and almost certainly the vast majority in positions of power and influence, read children’s books as children, and it is inconceivable that the ideologies permeating those books had no influence in their development.” (Hunt 12) Thus, works written for children have had a deep and profound effect on all aspects of humanity, just as Kramnick and Barry defined canon to do.

Yet despite this logic, books written for children have traditionally been seen as below the worth of notice to most literary scholars. Though some child-based literature has been studied as canon in the past, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, one can argue that the inclusion of these books into canonical study has been strongly supported by their intended audience: that is, adult readers. In fact, literary critics such as Adam Smykowski (“Symbolism and Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird “) and Jonathan Arac (“Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time”), discuss these titles entirely as adult literature. And in cases where they are considered children’s books, the study is not literary based, but instead based on themes such as education or race (ex. Tiedt; Camfield).

In fact, when one searches for canonical, literary-based criticism about children’s literature that has been written specifically for children, such as Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, one finds a distinct lack of documentation. In order to understand why this is so, we must touch upon the cultural significance behind the view of children’s literature within western society.

 The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines “children’s books” as, “… books specifically for children…” followed by genre-specific examples such as “school stories” like Governess by Sarah Fielding (1749), fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm, and adventure stories like The Coral Island by R.M. Ballintyne (1858). (129-131)

In Understanding Children’s Literature, Karin Lesnic-Oberstein states, “The definition of ‘children’s literature’ lies at the heart of its endevour: it is a category of books the existence of which depends on supposed relationships with a particular reading audience: children.” (26) In the same source book, Peter Hunt states that, “Children’s books are different than adult books. They are written for a different audience, with different skills, different needs, and different ways of reading.” (3)

Taking all of these definitions and classifications of children’s literature into consideration, we can see that in western society it is often defined not by who it is written about, but who it is written for. Children’s literature is directly connected with its intended audience, both by definition and reputation. Thus, in order to see why these books have not been traditionally viewed as “good enough” to make canon, one must only look as far as the adult attitude towards children themselves. This attitude has conventionally been that children are simplistic and shallow; therefore, the literature written for them must be as well. As we have established, “simplistic and shallow” is quite the opposite of what is looked for in canonical works. On the other hand, as established above, books written about children have been critiqued and studied on the scholarly level because they were written for adults, and therefore have the potential for depth and import to humanity as a whole.

However children’s literature, like the audience it is written for, is actually quite diverse in its complexity. The umbrella over the genre of children’s literature is extremely wide, with age-ranges from 0 to 18 and cultural subjects spanning the globe. In fact, it is far too broad a brush to accurately argue all types of children’s literature for canonical study within this thesis. For this reason, the focus of this study will be on chapter books for ages 8-12 from the Western cultures of America and Europe. Unfortunately, as these books have been highly underrepresented in academia, this age group has no official title for use in scholarly study. In studying books written about this age group, they are almost always referred to as “Young Adult” or YA, (Daniels 78) but that is still too wide a brush for this study, as books designated “Young Adult” can, and more often than not do, include those written for ages 13-18, which this study will be excluding. However, while academia has not established a separate term for books written for ages 8-12, the publishing industry has.

“From The Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors” is a website dedicated to literature for exactly this age group, maintained by a group of established professionals in the field of children’s literature. These professionals include elementary teacher and reading specialist T.P. Jagger, children’s writer and librarian at the Seattle Public Library Linda Johns, Middle Grade author and illustrator with Delacorte/Random House Publishing Rose Cooper, graduate literacy professor in the College of Education at Seattle University Katherine Schlick Noe, and pediatrician, writer and professor of children’s literature Dr. Sayantani DasGupta. On their website, they establish a specific term and definition of literature for this age group: “Typically, Middle Grade [literature] is intended for readers ages 8-12, with the protagonist at the higher end of the age range.” (Cooper par 5) Like the publishing industry, this study will use the term Middle Grade, or MG, in defining literature for ages 8-12.  But even in the publishing world, there is an understandable blur in the line between Middle Grade and Young Adult, especially in terms of the protagonist’s age, as books featuring younger teenage protagonists especially have been put into both categories for differing reasons by editors, publishers, librarians and educators. Thus, the defining difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult literature, according to “Mixed-Up Files”, is content:

MG readers are learning about who they are, what they think, and where they fit in. They do well with books they can relate to. They are still focused inward and the conflicts in MG books usually reflect this. The themes can range from school situations, friendships, relationships with peers and siblings, and daily difficulties that may seem ordinary to the rest of us. The parents are usually seen and have some sort of an influence. (Cooper par 6)

Unlike Young Adult literature, which features protagonists who are looking outward into the world and their place in it, Middle Grade literature is defined by protagonists who are looking inward, finding out who they are and what they think. Parents and other authority figures also play an influential part in Middle Grade literature, whereas they do not in Young Adult as a general rule, and content considered adult in nature, such as sex, drugs and swearing, are not generally included in Middle Grade, while they often make an appearance in Young Adult.

Therefore, a book must have been written for a child-reader, as well as fulfill at least two of the following four stipulations in order to be considered Middle Grade within this study:

  • Protagonist that is no younger than 8 years old, and no older than 14.
  • Exclusion of “adult” content, including sexual innuendo, adult language, and drug/alcohol use by the protagonist.
  • Inclusion of “inward” themes, such as self-exploration and family life.
  • Inclusion of parental / adult influence on the protagonist.

These terms, currently established as standards for Middle Grade literature in the publishing industry, will help to narrow the focus of this study to manageable constraints within the massive umbrella of children’s literature studies.

Still, does the complexity of variance within the realm of children’s literature itself denote complexity within each individual book? No, of course not. As it is with adult literature, the canonical worth of children’s books must be judged on an individual basis, critiquing the worth of a story based on its own merits. The ultimate question that must be answered, then, is this: can any individual Middle Grade book stand up to the test of canon?

Chapter 2: Generationalism: Establishing Theory

Having established that Middle Grade literature meets the basic culture-shaping requirements for canon outlined by Kramnick and Barry, the next step is to test the best of this literature in the same way that canonical works have been tested in the past, to see if it holds up against established academic and scholarly scrutiny of canonical works. David L. Russell states in Literature for Children that, “…literary criticism is the discussion of literature undertaken in order to interpret its meaning and to evaluate its quality… [and] the purpose of criticism is to promote high standards in literature…” (Russell 48) Therefore, the established academic test for literary quality lay in literary criticism. Still, the quality of literature can be highly speculative. For this reason, its criticism has traditionally been undertaken by way of literary theory. According to Peter Hunt, “… the study of children’s literature brings us back to some very fundamental concerns: why are we reading? What are books good for?” (10) In using literary theory to critique books written specifically for children, one must take into consideration this question: what are books written for children (as opposed to written about children), good for? What, exactly, do they contribute to society?

As established above, though Middle Grade books have not generally been critiqued on a literary basis, there have been many studies on books written about children. Though these are not always the same books as those we are discussing, the theories used in these studies are a good place to begin building a sound theory for the scholarly study and criticism of books written for children. However, there remains an unexplored aspect unique to these books that must also be included in their study: child-culture itself. Peter Hunt stresses, “Just as children’s books are part of the ideological structures of the cultures of the world, so their history is constructed ideologically… a ‘childist’ approach… [waits] to be written…” (4)

It has been established that the scholarly worth of literature is deeply interwoven with its cultural influence, and so this influence must be explored when using theory to critique its academic worth. Though it could be argued that child culture is influenced by adult culture and not the other way around, the fact remains that as children become adults, each new generation is unique to the one before. Though adult culture certainly shapes child culture, so too does child culture become its own entity, which goes on to shape adult culture when those children become adults themselves. For this reason, the introduction of a new theory must be established in order to meld the traditional adult-culture-based literary theories used in classic canonical criticism with a unique child-culture base that will establish the scholarly and cultural worth of books written for a very particular cultural set. This new theory – based on Hunt’s ‘childist’ approach to literary criticism – will be called Generationalism.

In Understanding Children’s Literature, Professor John Stephens notes that “… the context in which children’s literature is… disseminated [is] usually dominated by a focus on content and theme…” (73) For this reason, the theories used to critique this literature have traditionally focused on these two aspects. Theories such as reader-response criticism , psychoanalytical criticism, and feminist criticism have all been used in the scholarly critiquing of children’s literature, as they each focus more on the content and/or theme of a story than, say, structuralism or narratology, which focus more on written format and structure. Content and theme, then, must be a strong feature in any traditional theory used in building Generationalism theory. However, as child-culture is a major defining guideline in Generationalism, any traditional theories used within Generationalism must be compatible with said culture. For this reason, child-culture must be defined before any traditional-based critical theory can be melded with it.

Karin Lesnick-Oberstein maintains in The Psychopathology of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism, that “… children’s literature criticism [is used] to help with an examination of the defining of the child.” (222) However, she goes on to add that, “… the whole concept of ‘the child’, or ‘childhood’ is inherently problematic: it is neither agreed upon, in terms of definitions or characteristics within one period or culture, nor is it consistent through history or across cultures and societies.” (224) This is quite true, as childhood has been defined very differently across the span of human history on this diverse planet. For this reason, the child-culture base of Generationalism must be as basic to childhood as possible, stripping away any focus on outside culture or time-period. This can be very difficult to do, which may be one reason that a “childist” approach to the criticism of children’s literature has never before been attempted. The question that we must answer, then, is what is a child? What lies at the very heart of child-culture that makes children especially similar to each-other, and very different from adults? How do we define a child?

Joseph L. Zornado states in the introduction to his book, Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology and the Story of the Child, “The vast majority of children’s stories invite the child to identify with the adult’s idea of what a child should be… [they] are more often than not adult propaganda that serves to confirm for the child the hierarchical relationship between the adult and the child.” (XV)  More often than not, adults define children by our own standards and logic, and we write stories based on those same ideals. And yet, in order to critique literature written for children as a stories in-and-of-themselves, we must see it through the eyes of its intended readers – the children.

In “Space, History and Culture”, culture is defined by Tony Watkins as “… an ambiguous term: a problem shared, perhaps, by all concepts which are connected with totality, including history, ideology, society and myth.” (Watkins 57) Taking into consideration that both the history and myths of childhood are rooted directly in the adult culture that surrounds it, this study will look at the unique ideology and societal forms of childhood in defining child-culture within this study.

First is “ideology”, or a system of ideas or ideals. It is generally understood that children gain their basic ideals from those of their parents — beliefs which can be very different based on social class, culture and history. Taking into consideration that much of what children specifically believe can be as varied as those of the adult counterparts who raise and influence them, there can be no standard list of  “customary ideals” in child-culture as a whole. That said, the ideological base of childhood is very much rooted in the positive. “When I grow up…” are words uttered by the majority of children from the western tradition at one time or another, the following statements of which are most often positive and exciting: “… I’ll be a firefighter / nurse / doctor / superhero”. Rooted within the uncertainty of childhood is a necessary belief that things will turn out right in the end, no matter how confusing, fearful, or uncertain the world may be at any given moment.

Second, Watkins cites “society”, or qualities of, relating to, or characteristic of the experience, behavior, and interaction of persons forming groups. In The Social Ecology of Middle Childhood: Family Support, Friendship Quality and Self-Esteem Professor of Psychology Mary J. Levitt states that, “In general, the studies examining family-peer linkages have revealed that parents’ personal characteristics… influence children’s peer relations.” (315) In this way, the social form of child-culture is directly linked with adult-culture. However, as has been established, each generation changes society as a whole as the children in that generation grow up and add their own social forms to those of the past. This child-based influence is currently exemplified in each new generation’s rapid adaptation to the continually evolving technology of today. This would indicate that social forms in child-culture are not entirely based on their adult counterparts, but include separate aspects, uniquely remolding each generation from the ones before. Outside influences such as media and exposure to children raised alternatively will inevitably change the ways in which children experience, behave, and interact with one-another in social situations. Thus, the social forms of child-culture, like its ideals, cannot be defined by any one style of play or interaction when speaking of child-culture spanning many generations. Instead, social forms in child-culture must be defined as changeable and mirror-like, reflecting both generations before them as well as a myriad of outside influences. Yet, it must also be noted that children are highly social creatures, for whom friendships play a key part in their overall development. As Franco and Levitt state, “… in the pre-adolescent years… friendships, rather than general acceptance by peers, are believed to be of great importance for the development of a positive sense of well-being”. (316)

Based on all this, we can define child-culture as continuously in-flux, changeable, mutable and social. Child-culture is chaos controlled and guided by the adult-culture that surrounds it. It is the swirling colors of a hurricane bound within the brick wall of adult-culture. To be a part of child-culture is to be always questioning, wondering, believing and doubting. All adults began as members of this chaotic culture, and it remains the basis of who we are as individuals. As adults, we have learned to mask our fears, calm our excitements, and otherwise control who we are inside. But deep down, every individual adult retains those elementary feelings of fear, hope, anger, triumph, doubt and determination that child-culture still freely explores. Child-culture is a stark mirror into the base reasoning behind many aspects of adult culture, into the society that once-children have built. Generationalism theory, then, judges literature written for children not by what it teaches readers, but by how it reflects the basic building blocks of being human. If canonical works are those that shake up the establishment and change the world, then canonical works for children are those that remind the reader why those changes must happen in the first place.

Besides the foundation of child-culture, Generationalism is built using some aspects from established literary theory. One of these is Feminist Theory. Though Generationalism seeks to define children’s literature as its own entity within the literary world, and thus keep it well removed from its traditional role as “mother-based” literature rather than “child-based”, (Kramnick 1089) still many attitudes expressed within the context of Feminist Theory itself are in-keeping with the needs of a “childist” approach to theory. According to David Barry, Feminist critics, “Rethink the canon… reevaluate women’s experience… [and] challenge representations of women in literature…” (Barry 128) Generationalism will take from these actions, replacing “women” with “children”, to rethink representation of the child, both within the context of the story, and in assumptions of the child-reader by adults.

Another established theory that contributes aspects of itself to Generationalism is Stylistics, or the study of “…how the technical linguistic features of a literary work, such as the grammatical structure of its sentences, contribute to its overall meanings and effects”. (Barry 196) Aspects of the Stylistic approach to literary criticism will contribute to Generationalism by way of illuminating the bridge between the adult writer and the child reader in the use of child-based narrative language.

Generationalism also takes from the established theory of Intertextuality. According to The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Intertextuality, “… denote[s] the interdependence of literary texts… of any one literary text with all those that have gone before it.” It goes on to state that Intertextuality claims that, “… literary text is not an isolated phenomenon but is made up of a mosaic of quotations, and that any text is the ‘absorption and transformation of another’.” (Cuddon 424) Generationalism will use aspects of this approach to theory by way of studying children’s books as intertextualized with classic myth and lore.

Finally, Generationalism will take into account aspects of Joseph Campbell’s theories on storytelling via the heroic archetype, as outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Though not technically a critical theory, Campbell’s vision of hero-as-metaphor perfectly melds the tradition of literature as a powerful cultural emulation with the basic fairy-tale building-blocks of children’s literature, thus solidifying children’s books criticized via Generationalism as literature in their own right.

Taking all of these aspects into account, we are given the new “childist” literary theory, Generationalism.


  1. Examine the roles and traits of protagonistic and antagonistic characters in literature written for children, in-relation to their metaphorical portrayal of the child within child-culture.
  2. Examine the literary devices with which literature written for children directly relates to child-culture, such as allusion, foreshadowing, and cultural landscaping.
  3. Evaluate the role of whimsy, hyperbole, and metaphor in children’s literature, in-relation to the psychological reflection of child-culture on society.
  4. Explore the language / voice of children’s books as succinctly eloquent descriptions of life-experience.
  5. Compare and contrast literature written for children against classic adventure-based stories such as myth and fairy tales as defined within Joseph Campbell’s work, thus taking into consideration the cultural and social significance of both in-relation to the other.
  6. Compare and contrast literature written for children with similarly-themed adult literature, taking into consideration the cultural and social significance of both in-relation to the other.
  7. Revalue the roles of children and childhood in society.

Thus Generationalism quantifiably evaluates children’s books as certifiable works of literature, on the same scale and with similar theoretical approaches as those theories used in evaluating adult literature.

As has been established, this study will focus on a specific list of exceptional Middle Grade works only, for the sake of continuity and brevity. That said, Generationalism is structured for use in evaluating all genres of children’s literature, depending on the interests and goals of those using it.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press, 1995, 2002. Print.

Camfield, Gregg. “Sentimental Liberalism and the Problem of Race in Huckleberry Finn”. Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jun., 1991), 96-113. JSTOR. Web.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Web.

Chambers, Aidan. Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children. London: Bodley Head, 1985. Web.

Cooper, Rose. “Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult.” From The Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Writers., n.d. Web.

Cuddon, J.A, (ed). The Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. London: Penguin (1999): 959. Print.

Daniels, Cindy Lou. “Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies.” The Alan Review. (Winter 2006). JSTOR. Web. 78-82

Franco, Nathalie and Mary J. Levitt. “The Social Ecology of Middle Childhood: Family Support, Friendship Quality, and Self-Esteem”. Family Relations, Vol. 47, No. 4, (Oct, 1998), 315-321. JSTOR. Web.

Hunt, Peter, ed. Understanding Children’s Literature, Second Edition. New York: Routledge. Print.

Jackson, Peter (1989) Maps of Meaning: An Introduction to Cultural Geography: London, Unwin Hyman. Print.

Kramnick, Jonathan Brody. “The Making of the English Canon.” PMLA. Modern Language Association, (October, 1997). JSTOR. Web. 1087-1101

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karín. “The Psychopathology of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism.” Cultural Critique, No. 45 (Spring, 2000), 222-242. JSTOR. Web.

Mitchell, Donald (2000) Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell. Print.

“NAIBA Book of the Year Awards.” New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), n.d. Web.

“Newberry Medal Homepage.” American Library Association, n.d. Web.

Russell, David L. Literature for Children. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2005. Print.

Sarland, Charles. “Critical Tradition and Ideological Positioning” Hunt 30-49.

Tiedt, Sidney W. “Education and the Novel”. Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Nov., 1964), 163-165. JSTOR. Web.

Watkins, Tony. “Space, History and Culture” Hunt 50-72.

Zornado, Joseph L. Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology and the Story of the Child. Garland Science, 2004. Print

A Seafood Feast

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Reading, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2013 by Jessica Crichton

This is chapter 11 of my webnovel, The Elementals: Song of Spirit. If you’re on the wrong chapter, or are just starting to read, click here for the linked table of contents. And happy reading! ~ JR

Chapter 11
A Seafood Feast

Poseidon sat in his opulent dining hall surrounded by giggling merfolk, whispering selkies, and other various excited Water-Born, slowly drumming his fingers against the mother-of-pearl and coral dining table. This languid, underwater movement was the norm for the god of the seas, though anyone unused to Atlantis would find it almost dreamlike in its slowness.

Of course, a peaceful, dreamlike state was the very heart of the Water-Born.

As he waited for his Princess to make her entrance, the Water-Lord found himself once more thinking deeply on a subject that he hated, but one which had haunted him for the last thirty moons. The Water-Born had always been a peaceful people from the moment of their foundation. So very long ago, while his greedy brothers Zeus and Hades had contended with each-other in a futile war for who would rule over the earth, Poseidon, the middle brother, had gladly taken the seas and sunk far below their depths, forming his kingdom in peace and tranquility. He had been more than happy to leave his bickering brothers behind, and when The Great Queen banished the two to The Great Empty for their greed, she had, in turn, offered Poseidon the rule of the Aether Plane as a reward for his peaceful nature.

From that day forward, Atlantis had been a haven of peace and security for all sidhe (though the Fire-Born had a hard time spending very much time within its watery walls). Poseidon had always been welcoming, kind and giving to all sentient beings who served The Great Queen.

And yet, for a reason he could not possibly fathom, now, after eons of peace and friendship, the other planes came against him in force.

It was true that there had been no actual attacks, but his ministers had come to him with grave news of plots and war campaigns from the Earth-Born, the Air-Born, and the Fire-Born. This was a serious offense that he could not lightly brush aside, and it hurt him deeply. His army, long used to fighting sinister Water-Born and pirates within their own plane, now trained to fight those whom they had once called friends.

It was a dark, dark time for the peace-loving Water-Born, and Poseidon was nowhere near to finding the answer to why it had even begun.

Slowly, he smiled. Yet this day a ray of hope had come to them at last. Their Princess was returned to them! True, she came with grave news of the evil sorcerer Adams’ return to the planes, but at least that was an enemy the Water-Born could feel right about fighting.

And with their Princess to lead them once more, they would surely be victorious!

Of course, first they had to get to the bottom of this confusing sidhe war.

He frowned sadly again, his fingers continuing to drum in their languid, underwater way. A sigh escaped from his lips, forming tiny bubbles that rose to the hall’s high, vaulted ceiling.

Suddenly, a joyous fanfare rang out from the horn bearers who stood near the hall’s great clamshell entryway. Slowly, the doors opened and a Traveling bubble identical to the one that had brought the Princess to Atlantis floated in, followed by a large retune of mermaid attendants.

Poseidon smiled wide, rising up and floating at his place. Like a tidal wave of creatures, all at the table followed his lead, floating in respect at their seats.

Princess Kathleen had arrived!

The bubble floated to the right of the Water-Lord’s chair, lowering into a specially prepared seat-like cradle for the Princess. Her mermaid entourage floated behind her, waiting to serve.

Poseidon held up a hand. When he spoke, his thunderous voice shook the room. “All Hail Princess Kathleen, Elemental of Water, Daughter of the Muses, Holder of the Sacred Whistle!”

The room erupted in whoops and cheers. Kat, inside her bubble, took it all in with a mixture of amazed awe and confusion. Nobody had ever been this excited to see her before, and while it was wonderful, and the feeling of being home had not left her, she couldn’t help but worry over what it all may mean.

The Water-Lord held up a hand again and the crowd grew silent. “These have been dark days for our people, but The Great Queen has finally answered our cries for help. With our Princess to lead us, we can defeat any foe! So eat and be joyous! Our Princess has returned!”

Kat’s eyes grew wide in worry. Lead them in defeating foes? She was no warrior!

The crowd roared again. Poseidon sat down as various Water-Born servants brought in half shell plates piled with green seaweed cakes, pink shrimp puffs wrapped in more seaweed, strange blue discs the size of quarters, mysterious orange balls with red spikes sprouting out of their tops, and an array of other colorful underwater delicacies. It must have been a touch of magic – what Romin had called glamour – that kept it all from floating up from the shells. Kat eyed her plate somewhat distrustfully as it was set before her. Remembering something she had heard about some kinds of sushi, she hoped that none of it was still alive.

“Princess, we have much to discuss,” Poseidon said, putting one of the blue discs into his mouth. “Why aren’t you eating? Are you feeling ill?”

Kat shook her head. “I’d love to try the food, Papa Poseidon, but the bubble … I’m afraid of popping it.”

“Ah, yes,” the god replied, nodding thoughtfully. “Well, for now you should know that it is perfectly safe to reach out and take what you need in the water. Just as it did when you first entered it, the bubble will not pop, but will mold around your arm, letting no water in.” He frowned. “But water should never be the enemy of our Princess. Your first lesson must be in returning to your true form so you may be among us without fear.”

“My true form?” Kat asked, reaching out a finger to poke at the bubble’s shiny surface. It gave way easily, but did not pop. With renewed courage, she reached her hand out more, taking a shrimp wrap from her plate and bringing it into the bubble with her. Both the shrimp and her hand dripped a bit, but that was the only water that got inside. Realizing how hungry she was, Kat popped the morsel into her mouth. It tasted just like the shrimp from home, only a bit more salty. She liked it.

“Yes,” Poseidon answered as he swallowed another bite. “You are a mermaid, Princess. And in your mermaid form, you will have complete freedom here in Atlantis. Once you have perfected it.”

Taking another shrimp, Kat nodded thoughtfully. “I heard you and Romin talking about that. Is that why I had to jump into the water so bad?”

“Yes Princess,” the god replied. “To a point. Your elemental source pulls you now that you are out of the sealed Earthen Plane, as it did your ancestor, the first Princess of the Aether Plane. Her name was Atlantia, after our fair city. Of course, she was born here, unlike her descendants.”

“Atlantia,” Kat mused. “That’s a pretty name.”

“She was very beautiful,” Poseidon agreed with a sigh. “But being half human had its disadvantages. She lived for a long time, and bore many children after the Great Battle. But in the end, she was mortal, and therefore she had to die.” The god sniffed a bit, then looked at Kat, his eyes full of love. “I never knew her children or their children or their children or … for a very long time. At the order of The Great Queen, she and the other Elementals went to live on the Earthen Plane after the Great Battle, to be with other mortal humans so that they could grow old naturally. When The Queen sealed the Earthen Plane many generations later, we lost track of her progeny entirely.”

“Progeny?” Kat asked.

Poseidon smiled. “Her descendants, Princess.” He reached out, his hand passing through the bubble to cup her cheek tenderly. “You.”

Kat giggled at his wet touch.

“But you are home now,” the god went on, returning to his food. He frowned, not looking at her. “And we need your help dearly… not just with Adams.”

Kat scrunched up her nose in thought. “How else?” she asked, exasperated. She was still confused about all this Adams stuff that Romin had spoken of with the Water-Lord, and now there was more to worry about?

Poseidon thought for a long moment. Finally, he shook his head. “That is for another day, Princess. After you have trained more… and after you understand more.”

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My Top Seventeen Middle Grade Books of all Time!

Posted in Books, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Jessica Crichton

If you follow my blog regularly, you know that I have just begun my final Master’s thesis on middle grade children’s literature. I’ve been asked by more than a few people exactly what kidlit titles a graduate student would possibly want to study, and why. So I decided to post the bibliography portion of my final document proposal here, with a short note on each entry as to the “whys”.

Submitted for your approval: the top fifteen middle grade books of all time, according to Jessica Rising. (Your mileage my vary; in fact, I hope it does! Please add your own entries in the comments below so we can build this list high!)

1) Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Columbus: Weekly Reader Books. Print.


If you’re breathing, chances are you know who Alice is (though maybe not her last name — it’s Liddell, incidentally), that the Mad Hatter isn’t angry but he is totally nutso, and / or have had some kind of argument over weather Lewis Carroll’s classic work of children’s fantasy is about math, drugs, both or neither. As an undeniable staple of classic kidlit, leaving Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland out of a study on children’s books would be like leaving Shakespeare out of a study on classic adult literature. I, for one, am not about to make that kind of literary foible, you can be sure!

2) Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising. New York: Scholastic, Inc Publishers. Print.


Written by the daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, The Dark is Rising by celebrated novelist Susan Cooper is a Newberry Honor book, and as been the favorite of many generations of children. It’s classic fantasy with a real-world twist of history and ancient Celtic culture, and a deep resonance of the human condition that few other children’s books have ever emulated.

3) Dahl, Roald. Danny the Champion of the World . New York: Alfered A. Knopf (1975). Print.


Having published a myriad of well-known and beloved books for kids, Roald Dahl is arguably one of the great pillars of modern kidlit, so leaving him out of the study would be a gross oversight. Still, which of his wonderful, witty kids’ books should be included to represent the whole? That was my dilemma. In the end, I opted to forgo fantastical whimsy in preference for a life-lessons story every kid can relate to. After all, there are enough fantasy stories in my list already, and the whole point of my study is to prove that kidlit emulates the human condition just as deeply and profoundly as its adult counterpart. For anyone who has read Danny, its inclusion for this reason should be a no-brainer. It certainly was for me!

4) Ende, Michael. The Neverending Story. New York: Penguin Books (1996). Print.


Most know of The Neverending Story from the popular 1984 film adaptation. However, Michael Ende’s powerful fantasy book about the importance of imagination and hope in a sometimes fearful world is as relevant to today’s children as it was when it first appeared in Germany under the title of Die Unendliche Geschicte back in 1979. As both a classic kid’s book and a well-known fantasy epic through the last  three generations, including The Neverending Story in my study just makes sense.

5) Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York: Scholastic (2003). Print.


It’s current. It’s popular. It’s a Newberry Award Winner. And, perhaps most importantly, it resonates deeply with modern children. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is such a perfect modern counterpart to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that not including it as at least a comparison between classic and current kidlit would be a terrible oversight. But even beyond that, Graveyard is a great story in its own right, which is a must for inclusion on my list. Plus, keeping up with the times is very important for any serious writer, and while I adore the classic titles I grew up with, there is wonderful kidlit from every era to explore — including our own.

6) Collins, Suzanne. Gregor the Overlander. New York: Scholastic (2003). Print. 


Gregor the Overlander is a modern middle grade story. It’s also very popular, which speaks for the mindset of today’s children, and the societal impact of fiction on child culture and vice-versa as a whole. Suzanne Collins herself is a highly gifted and beloved children’s writer of our modern age, though her most famous series, “The Hunger Games”, is YA rather than MG, the age-group focus of this particular study.

7) Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Collins (1993). Print.


Back to classics! Whether you wanted to or not, chances are you read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. For me, it was ninth grade English and I fell in love with it instantly.  There is a reason this book has been studied by schoolkids all over for generations — it is the epitome of the human condition, the very thing that makes literature worth reading, writing and studying. Some would argue that this is more of a YA title than MG. However, I have set up certain conditions (clearly outlined in my full thesis), as to what is considered MG for this study. One of those conditions is the age of the protagonists being between 7 and 12 years. To Kill a Mockingbird fully meets this requirement, and I would feel very remiss to leave it out.

8) L’Engle, Madeline. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Laurel Leaf Imprint, Random House Publishers (2005). Print.


Best described as a modern classic, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is quickly taking its deserved place among the ranks of the timeless. Though it is usually classified as a fantasy book, Wrinkle actually mixes fantasy with science fiction to form a deeply relevant story that has touched the hearts and minds of children for so many years now. It is also a Newberry Award winner, which I must admit I have been a little biased towards for this study. After all, there is a reason certain titles earn that prestigious award!

9) Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: Harper Trophy (1994). Print.


Like Alice in Wonderland, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an undeniable staple of classic kidlit. That alone gives it an instant place in my study; its timeless ability to fascinate the hearts and minds of children from so many different generations makes it a perfect example of how children’s literature directly effects and mirrors society. Its metaphor, too, is a perfect example of life-reflected-in-literature, which can’t be ignored.

10) Palacio, R.J. Wonder by R.J. Palacio. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers (2012). Print.


I initially chose Wonder because it is a very modern (published in 2012), award-winning middle grade book that is right now making the rounds of literary fame through book clubs, raving reviews and bookstore center isles. When I chose it, I hadn’t yet read it, and was ready to take it off the list if I felt it didn’t make the cut. Of course, as you can see here that didn’t happen. What did happen was I found yet another wonderful example of the human condition reflected in a children’s book. The lesson in Wonder of not judging each-other is deeply woven into the storyline and narrative style, both with the main character being so unique himself, and the narration switching points-of-view between him and many others in is life whom he has touched. In this way, the story shows that not only does everyone have feelings they aren’t always proud of, but everyone has a story to tell that directly effects how they see others and the world around them.

11) Riordan, Rick. The Lightning Thief . New York: Hyperion Books (2005). Print.


The Lightning Thief is included in this study as a modern popular title, with Rick Riordan being a huge success both in middle grade and young adult circles. When studying how literature impacts a society, one must include the literature that society most craves, as it is a direct mirror to the psyche. Also, as a modern adaptati0n of  classic mythology — the precursor to most original fairy tales — Lightning can be studied in relation to the evolution of children’s literature over eons of time. This alone, as I am sure you can understand, is invaluable to my study.

12) Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 1997. Print.


It would be a very difficult thing indeed, to study middle grade literature and its place in society without including “Harry Potter”. The impact that JK. Rowling’s boy wizard has had on modern children and modern society as a whole is almost deafening, and that impact is only continuing to grow. My study would literally be incomplete without it, and its absence would certainly remove a large chunk of relevance that I am not willing to lose. Though the later books can be classified more as young adult titles, the earlier ones are clearly middle grade, and The Sorcerers Stone is the very earliest. That, and the fact that it began the whole phenomenon is why I chose this particular title in the series.

13) Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. New York: Scholastic, Inc Publishers. Print.

maniac magee

Another Newberry Award Winner, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli deserves its place on this list for its poignant yet simple vision of life as an outsider, and what it means to belong. One argument against children’s books being relevant to deep study is that they are shallow and only relate to the shallow minds of children. Now, ignoring the obvious fallibility of children’s minds being shallow in the first place, Maniac Magee blows that entire argument out of the water. It is simple to understand and entirely relatable for middle grade readers, yet so deeply conveys the human condition that I challenge any adult to read it and not see it as a masterpiece in its own right.

14) Patterson, Katherine. The Great Gilly Hopkins. New York: Harper Trophy (1978). Print.


As another Newberry winner, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson already deserves a spot on this list. Still, there have been many Newberry winners and honors over the years – including another title by Patterson herself — so why is Gilly so special? Like every book on my list, Gilly reflects society and the human condition, which are key elements in weather a piece of literature is considered worthy of inclusion into the canon of  scholarly study. The story is deep and meaningful, especially to children who feel like outsiders in their world. The themes therein of family, devotion, and the pain of loss are just as relevant to adults as they are to all the children who have read and loved this book.

15) Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Dover Publications; abridged edition (1998). Print.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is already an undeniable classic. Its inclusion to my study is twofold. One, I simply love Mark Twain and can’t stand to do any study without him included — call me biased. And two, as an acknowledged classic that fits perfectly into my definition of middle grade children’s literature, Huck Finn will lead credence to the study of kidlit as a whole. Win-win!

16) White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1952. Print.


A classic Newberry Honor book, Charlotte’s Web is, like Alice in Wonderland, a staple of children’s literature. The mismatched friendship of Fern the girl, Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig is a perfect example of how children use their everyday surroundings to better understand themselves and others — a lesson that even adults often must continue to learn. The basics of respect and understanding emulated in Charlotte’s Web will continue to be relevant to mankind as we enter a future that is bright with promise, hope, and peace.

17) Snyder, Zilpha Keatley. The Witches of Worm. New York: Dell Yearling, 1972. Print.


The Witches of Worm was given to me for Christmas last year. Before that, I hadn’t even considered including it in my study, as I didn’t know it existed. A Newberry Honor book, Witches is everything that award emulates — depth, spirit, a reflection of the fear and emotional pain that every human being goes through, no matter what their age. Another book of metaphor, Witches personifies that theme within the mind of its pre-teen protagonist as she struggles to come to grips with the loss of her childhood, and the realization of her mother’s own human failings via her discovery of a very strange stay cat. As a children’s mirror to societal psyche and the human condition, it’s difficult to find a better story than The Witches of Worm.

So, there you have it — the seventeen books I will be studying and critiquing in my master’s thesis on middle grade children’s literature, and why they have been included. Of course, these descriptions aren’t detailed, as this is a short explanation only. However, if you have any questions or relevant additions / arguments to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section. And thanks for reading!

Memiors of a Professional Child

Posted in Family, Kids, Shiny Happy Musings, Writing with tags , , , , , on July 30, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

I have a confession to make.

I’m a kid.

I think Sir Barrie had it right when he said, “I don’t ever want to grow up”. He didn’t, either, by the way. Even with such luminary friends as H.G. Welles, to whom he once said, “”It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you waggle your ears?” He also was said to have loved ordering Brussels sprouts, of which he remarked, “”I cannot resists ordering them. The words are so lovely to say.”

Simple joys are so very important. Especially in difficult times.

And we have had some of those lately, haven’t we? In fact, if you ask some certain individuals of my acquaintance, we still are, and the hard times will only be getting worse from here. Daily I read posts on Facebook linking to articles about how the government (of America of which I, personally, am a citizen), is trying to take over (news flash: they don’t really have to try), or how the jobs will keep getting less and less until the corporations have totally taken every red cent from the people (not really possible, considering who would buy their products then?) , and the like.

I hate those posts.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not naive enough to think that bad things aren’t going on in the world, and I certainly don’t condone many of the goings-on in the government and among big corporations right now, but for me, I can’t imagine how anyone can live with the constant fear of impending doom over their head day in and day out. I suppose those people have lost their “muchness”, as Johnny Depp puts it in the “Alice” movie (which I do condone, as it does not assume to remake the books but only adds to Carroll’s legacy). They can no longer see the light of magic, the joy of hope. For them, I am sorry.

But for me, I will remain a child at heart. Always.

Because it is in childhood that we see the beauty of a rainbow, and don’t even stop to think about weather homosexuality is good or bad. It is in childhood that we look at the stars and see the immense awe of the universe, but never once consider what religion is the “right” one through which to ponder such things. And it is in childhood that we imagine the future with hope and optimism, without once thinking the word “impossible”.

I study children’s literature on the graduate level. For those of you who regularly read my blog (thank you), you know this not only because I always say it (I’m kindasorta proud of it… kinda), but through the graduate papers I post. I’m asked often how I can study children’s books so deeply: are there really any existential, meaningful themes in kids’ books that warrant such study?

Pardon my language, but HELL yes. There are.

Childhood is when human beings start thinking on a philosophical level, but that level is still so raw, so basic, that it seems worthless to most “great” adult thinkers and scholars. I argue that it is only in going back to the basics that we can truly understand the real meaning of life. To study children’s literature is to study the human condition through its most basic form. When we truly understand where from we have come, only then can we see where we are — and should be — going. Children are literally the future of our world. I feel that it is, therefore, vital that we not only understand them better, but show them the power they possess to change it. I myself do that through the magical and fantastic adventures of  literary heroes who are, like them, very young and very insecure. Studying the great children’s writers of the past is a perfect way to learn how to do that powerfully and effectively.

Are kids’ books all that important? Again… HELL yes, they are.

And to drive my point home harder, here is a list of some of the deepest, most influential children’s books that I have recently studied. I bet you fondly recognize at least one, and that it touched you in an important way:

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

May Bird and the Ever After by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Peter Pan: The Story of Peter and Wendy by Sir James Michael Barrie

The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankewiler by E.L. Koingsburg

A Wind in the Door by Madeline L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

“The Narnia Chronicles” by Clive Staples Lewis

The Trumpet of the Swan. by Fred Marcellino

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snickett

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

There are many more, but that’s already a pretty long list. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

And so, when people ask me what I do for a living, I often say “I am a professional child”. What better occupation could there possibly be?

Baby Heroes and Infant Goddesses

Posted in Literature, Scholarly, Writing with tags , , , on July 25, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

Time again for another graduate paper! This is one of my finals, so it’s pretty long and in-depth. That said, I hope you enjoy it, and as always, please cite if you use any of it. 🙂

Baby Heroes and Infant Goddesses

A Theoretical Study of Juvenile Heroes and Heroines in Classic and Contemporary Children’s Literature, as seen through the Works of Joseph Campbell and Valerie Estelle Frankel


“The radical knowledge and amazements found in stories ought to be every child’s daily inheritance.”

~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., Introduction to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 2004 Edition.


In his famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell gives the reader a unilateral, step-by-step map of the mythos of the classic male hero. Likewise, in her work titled From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, Valerie Estelle Frankel takes the reader through a similar mapping for the feminine. In this paper, I will compare the two forms of hero(ine) in children’s literature using examples from both male and female-driven stories. For the sake of clarity and organization, I will follow their original mapping in this paper as well as I am able. For the duration of this paper, the terms “myth” and “mythology” will be used to denote all works of fiction herein.

The beginning of every myth is what both Campbell and Frankel term “the Call to Adventure”, or when the adventure truly begins.

For the hero, this call is defined by Campbell as, “a blunder—apparently the merest chance—reveal[ing] an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood.” (Campbell 57) One example of this masculine Call in children’s mythology is Percy Jackson’s accidental anger-powered reveal of his godhood in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief:

I tried to stay cool. The school counselor had told me a billion times, “Count to ten, get control of your temper.” But I was so mad my mind went blank. A wave roared in my ears.

I don’t remember touching her, but the next thing I knew, Nancy was sitting on her butt in the fountain, screaming, “Percy pushed me!” (Riordan 9)

Directly after this scene, as a result of his use of power that only a demigod can wield and thus revealing himself to be more than an average child, Percy is attacked by a gorgon in her true form, though before this he only ever knew her as a disagreeable teacher. This is the pivotal moment for Percy, changing his life from that of an average kid to a demigod, stalked by monsters and villains, forced into a world that has him fulfilling the hero’s Call to save humanity. This Call to Adventure, as in Campbell’s theory, is entirely accidental on the hero’s part. Still it makes no difference. Because of it, Percy is forever changed.

According to Frankel, the heroine’s experience of this Call is much like the hero’s, with a small twist: “When goddesses embark upon heroic journeys, it is to restore what has been broken or injured.” (Frankel 234) Again, we see the theme of the accidental Call, but for Frankel this accident has already happened, and the heroine/goddess’ Call is to restore what the accident destroyed, not the accident itself. One example of this feminine Call in children’s mythology can be found in Sabriel’s delivery of her father’s necromancy tools In Garth Nix’ Sabriel:

… “Sabriel! My messenger! Take the sack!” The voice was Abhorsen’s.

… The sack in her hand was heavy, and there was a leaden feeling in her stomach. If the messenger was truly [her father] Abhorsen’s, then he himself was unable to return to the realm of the living. (Nix 17-18)

Up to this moment Sabriel has lived at a boarding school for girls, and has not often been visited — at least physically — by her father Abhorsen. While she is well aware of her father’s necromancy and, indeed, she herself has the same powers, she has been up to this point largely protected from the dangers those powers entail. Directly following Frankel’s pattern for the heroine, when Sabriel is Called to her Adventure it is not by her own accidental actions, but rather by the accident that has befallen her father: an accident that she must now fix by finding and rescuing him.

The next stage of the journey, called the Refusal of the Call by Campbell (61) and Frankel (324), is self-defining: the hero(ine), at this point, refuses to go on the adventure for one reason or another. While this refusal is not always a step of every myth-adventure, it is a potent one in those which it exists.

For the hero, Campbell states that this Refusal turns the myth to a negative bent (Campbell 62), and this negative turn can often become the very drive of the myth itself. One example of the Refusal for a hero in children’s myth is Edmund’s initial refusal to help his siblings against the White Queen in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Edmund could see two small hills, and he was almost sure they were the two hills which the White Witch had pointed out to him… And he thought about Turkish Delight, and about being a King… and horrible ideas came into his head. (Lewis, Wardrobe 56)

This is the pivotal moment for Edmund — and for the story itself — wherein he chooses to refuse the Call of staying with his siblings to help save Narnia, instead allying himself with the evil White Witch and ultimately putting them all in danger. As Campbell outlined in his theory, this Refusal by Edmund twists the story into a negative path, and becomes a driving force therein for all the characters involved as Edmund switches sides, becoming a weakness against good and a power for evil.

Frankel’s view of the Refusal is different than Campbell’s in that the heroine’s Refusal often drives the story positively rather than negatively, though it is still most often done by the heroine for selfish reasons, as described by Frankel in the metaphor of sleep:  “This sleep is a defensive maneuver, allowing the self to deal with the insurmountable stress of change.” (Frankel 377) This Refusal, Frankel goes on to explain, drives the story by forcing the hand of a hero to take up the call of rescue and break the heroine from her chains, freeing her to take up her own Adventure as heroine/goddess. An example of this Refusal for the heroine in children’s myth can be found in Meg’s initial refusal to trust Ms. Whatsit in Madeline L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time:

–For crying out loud, [Meg] thought,—this old woman comes barging in on us in the middle of the night and Mother makes it as though there weren’t anything peculiar about it at all. I’ll bet she is the Tramp. I’ll bet she did steal those sheets. And she’s certainly no one Charles Wallace ought to be friends with, especially when he won’t even talk to ordinary people. (L’Engle 15)

As the hero of the story, it is up to Charles Wallace to break Meg from this Refusal by insisting that she trust the “tramp”:

“… I thought we’d better go see Mrs. Whatsit.”

“Oh golly,” Meg said. “Why, Charles?”

“You’re still uneasy about her, aren’t you?” Charles asked.

“Well, yes.”

“Don’t be. She’s alright. I promise you. She’s on our side.” (L’Engle 24)

However after he has freed her metaphorically, Charles Wallace becomes the one in need of saving physically, and in the end, it is Meg’s actions that save her brother, as she comes to her own as a true heroine:

Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in the forehead ceased its revolting twitch. Slowly he advanced toward her.

“I love you!” she cried. “I love you, Charles! I love you!”

The suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms, he was shrieking with sobs. “Meg! Meg! Meg!” (L’Engle195)

Just as Frankel stated in her theory, Meg as the heroine must first be freed of her Refusal in order to find her inner goddess and save the world.

If the call is not refused (and sometimes even when it is), the next step in the hero(ine)’s journey is what Campbell calls Supernatural Aid, (65) and Frankel calls The Mentor (442). This is the emergence of the protector, the wise one, etc, who will guide and help the hero(ine) on the adventure. This person can be male or female, but they are always wise, and often possess both knowledge to bestow and magic and/or talismans of power that they use to help the hero(ine), for varying reasons.

Campbell defines this character as “… the benign, protecting power of destiny.” (Campbell 67) An example of this Supernatural Aid for the hero in children’s myth can be found in classic Arthurian mythology in the form of Merlyn, who guides and empowers the hero Arthur on his many quests, from the very beginning:

Then Merlyn said, “Sir Ector, I know very well who is this youth, for I have kept diligent watch over him for all this time. And I know that in him lieth the hope of Britain.” (Pyle 29)

Merlyn, as a very old magician, is literally “the protecting power of destiny” both by his magic and by his knowledge to raise Arthur up to be a great king and legend of old.

Likewise, Frankel defines the heroine’s Mentor as a “…wisewoman or elder of the tribe, this mentor teaches spinning, singing, or magic to prepare her pupil for her ordeal.” (Frankel 509-510) An example of this feminine Teacher-Mentor in children’s mythology can be found in Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda:

There had not been time yet to find out exactly how brilliant [Matilda] was, but Miss Honey had learned enough to realize that something had to be done about it as soon as possible. It would be ridiculous to leave a child like that stuck in the bottom form. (Dahl, Matilda 82)

As is evident in both of these examples, the Mentor sees something special in the hero(ine) that compels their teaching, protection and help. As a teacher in the strictest sense of the word, Miss Honey defines Frankel’s Mentor role, seeing both Matilda’s promise, and her ordeal, and helping the young heroine along the way to fulfill the former in order to overcome the latter.

The next stage, both Campbell (69) and Frankel (749) call The Crossing of the First Threshold. This is when the hero(ine) makes the choice to set out on the adventure, having been prepared by the Mentor for the ordeals ahead.

According to Campbell, for the hero, “beyond [the First Threshold]… is darkness, the unknown, and danger…” (Campbell 69) This crossing over is highly symbolic of the human condition of fighting against the self-preservation instinct in order to grow and become more than we are. Crossing the threshold is the first real, conscious step towards becoming a true hero(ine) in every sense of the word. Where most people – and characters – are happy to stay where they are and live passive, safe lives, the hero(ine) feels a call they cannot fight any longer – the call of destiny. An example of this Crossing for the hero in children’s myth can be found in Will’s first adventure into the world of the deep past in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising:

There was total silence. As deep and timeless as the blanketing snow; the house and everyone in it lay in a sleep that would not be broken.

Will… went out of the backdoor, closing it quietly behind him, and stood looking out through the quick white vapor of his breath.

The strange white world lay stroked by silence… Will set off … without looking back over his shoulder, because he knew that when he looked, he would find that the house was gone. (Cooper 22)

Here, Will takes the initiative to leave his house — the only recognizable thing left in his world — to venture out into the unknown because he knows it is what he must do. Directly opposite of Edmund’s Refusal, Will’s Crossing is an acceptance of his place in the story as the hero. And though he knows he will lose everything he has held dear in the most literal way as his house and family disappear behind him, he chooses to take the necessary steps nonetheless, thus beginning his Adventure and, in the end, the salvation of all mankind.

Frankel describes the heroine’s Crossing as “… where the heroine grows into her hidden powers and discovers the mermaid or enchantress she is waiting to become.” (Frankel 784) An example of this powerful Crossing for the heroine in children’s myth can be found in Kat’s water-dive Morgan Marshall’s Song of Spirit:

Posiedon’s gaze had broken the rest of Kat’s already weak self-control. As her siblings watched in shock and confusion, the girl ran to the edge of the boat and dove into the ocean, fully clothed. She emerged within a moment and paddled hard to where the god bobbed, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing his weedy cheek. (Marshall 63)

Not long after this scene, Kat literally turns into a mermaid, fulfilling her place as the Water-Born heroine who will go on to save the world. Quite literally, as she chooses to dive into the water and leave her family behind, Kat grows into her hidden powers, just as Frankel wrote in her theory.

The next step in the hero(ine)’s journey Campbell calls The Road of Trials (82), while Frankel names it Allies and Enemies (863). A conglomeration of this step for both hero and heroine would describe it as the place where the hero(ine) meets new friends, learns of his/her enemies, and adventures around the new World wherein he/she has found themselves, touching on small but significant quests and trials. In this step, the myth deepens for both hero(ine) and reader, as they get to know the adventure as it unfolds.

Campbell describes this Road of Trials for the hero as “…a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.” (Campbell 82) An example of this masculine Road can be found in the monsters and friends whom Prince Petit Jean encounters in Canada’s myth The Golden Phoenix by Marius Barbeau, as retold by Michael Hornyansky:

In the middle of the cavern stood a fierce beast… When it saw him it bellowed… “You may not pass!” (Hornyansky 281-282)

Along with this first fierce beast that calls itself a unicorn, Petit Jean also meets a Great Lion and a three-headed Serpent, all of whom he must defeat in order to pass into the Sultan’s country and fulfill his quest. With each successive trial, the hero must test his powers of stealth, swordfighting and intelligence in that order, proving himself as a hero. It is only when this is accomplished that he is finally given passage to fulfill his heroic duty.

In her description of Allies and Enemies for the heroine, Frankel states that Allies are, “…a part of the heroine, the unconscious voices that creep forward to help, to comfort, when the task is too hard” (Frankel 893), while Enemies are described as “…twisted voices of the unconscious” (Frankel 910). Though Campbell includes both characters and situations in his Road of Trials, Frankel’s Allies and Enemies are situation-and-character in one. To Frankel, both Allies and Enemies are unconscious voices for the heroine, metaphorical representations of her own powers and weaknesses. Thus, for this reason the characters are the situational trials for the heroine, as she must use her heroine powers and defeat her inner demons metaphorically and physically all at once. An example of this duality of trial and character for the heroine in children’s myth can be found in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz:

“What shall we do now?” said Dorothy sadly.

“There is only one thing we can do,” retuned the Lion, “and that is to go to the land of the Winkies, seek out the Wicked Witch, and destroy her.”

“But suppose we cannot?” said the girl.

“Then I shall never have courage,” declared the Lion.

“And I shall never have brains,” added the Scarecrow.

“And I shall never have a heart,” spoke the Tin Woodsman. (Baum 105-106)

This scene directly follows a much longer one in which the Wizard of Oz calls each character into his hall separately, appearing in a different guise each time. To each request that is made, the Wizard gives the same charge: destroy the Wicked Witch. The only difference is that, while the Wizard specifically charges Dorothy with the quest, he tells the others only to help her. Thus, the quest is, ultimately, Dorothy’s and Dorothy’s alone. As Frankel’s theory illuminates, Dorothy’s friends are metaphorical manifestations of her own heroic powers of heart, mind and courage, which she must take along with her to defeat the evil Witch. As for the Witch:

… the Wicked Witch laughed to herself, and thought, “I can still make her my slave, for she does not know how to use her power.” (Baum 118-119

As Frankel stated in her theory, the Wicked Witch represents Dorothy’s self-doubt. The doubt of her power — the innocence of who she truly is — is Dorothy’s weakness, and one that the Witch intends to use against her. But in the end, with the power she has found in her friends and thus in herself, Dorothy emerges the victorious heroine, defeating the Witch (her own self-doubt), by finding and using her courage, her brains, and her heart.

Here Campbell and Frankel part ways even more, with Campbell’s next steps titled The Meeting with the Goddess (Campbell 88), Woman as the Temptress (93), Atonement with the Father (96), and Apotheosis (climax) (107), while Frankel’s are Taming the Beast: The Shapechanger as Lover (981), Unholy Marriage: Confronting the Father (1166), The Deepest Crime: Abuse and Healing (1297), With This Ring: Sacred Marriage (1455), and Of Carpets and Slippers: Flight and Return (2051). For the sake of clarity and concision, I will discuss these steps together for each theory, first hero then heroine.

In his steps, Campbell concentrates on the culmination of the hero’s quest as a whole, starting with the goddess, working through the hero’s inner and outer rivalries, and ending with the epoch of the story, wherein the hero finds his inner power and defeats the evil he has sought throughout.

To Campbell, the goddess-image is “… mother, sister, mistress, bride… the bliss that once was known [that] will be known again; the comforting, the nourishing, the ‘good’…” (Campbell 88) To Campbell, the feminine is the prize that the hero wins, as well as the temptation of the ages. She stands for peace and war, prosperity and want, warmth and cold, life and death, often in-tandem. For a child’s myth, this feminine most often takes the literal form of the mother or, as in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a grandmother:

“At half-passed seven,” [Grandma] said, “I shall go down to the Dining-Room for supper with you in my hand bag. I shall release you under the table together with the precious bottle [of mouse-maker poison] and from then you’ll be on your own. You will have to work your way unseen across the Dining-Room to the door that leads to the kitchens…” (Dahl, Witches 156 – 157)

While the young hero in Dahl’s tale of witches and mice does not technically rescue his grandmother from direct harm, she is the one who tells him of the evil witches in the first place, gives him the information that he needs to destroy them, and charges him with that very quest. It is by her and for her that he does what is needed to rid England of witches for good, accepting the price he pays in doing so, all for the love and acceptance of the grandmotherly goddess:

“My darling,” [Grandma] said at last, “are you sure you don’t mind being a mouse for the rest of your life?”

“I don’t mind at all,” I said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.” (Dahl, Witches 197)

Campbell goes on to explain the role of the masculine Other in the hero’s journey who represents the father — both protector and rival — with whom the hero must come to a peace in order to win the day: “The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being… He beholds the face of the father, understands —and the two are atoned.” (Campbell 105) To Campbell, the Father is a direct representation of God, who is father of all humanity. First the hero defies the Father – God – because he wants to be more powerful: the true hero without the need of any outside, powerful help, especially from his rival-father. But even as the hero learns to embrace his power, he also must embrace his humility, and come to the Father as a student instead of a rival, thus finally understanding the importance of humble acceptance of the Father’s teaching and help. This atonement most often results in the son-hero’s transcendence beyond the Father, which he has wished for all along, but only by using the Father’s wisdom and guidance can this transcendence take place. An example of this father-son rivalry in children’s myth can be found in Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain:

‘No. He was wounded in that first volley. He got it pretty bad.’

‘You mean very bad, don’t you?’

‘Yes, very.’

‘I see,” but Johnny saw nothing. The fresh spring world turned black before him, but even in this darkness he could still see Rab, chin up, shoulders squared – not afraid.

‘Where?…’ he asked.

… ‘Rab played a man’s part. Look that you do the same.’

‘I will.’ He knew the Doctor meant that he wasn’t to cry or take on. He’d got to take it quietly. (Forbes 248-249)

During the majority of Johnny Tremain, Johnny fights between respect for and jealousy of his friend Rab who is older, stronger and, most importantly to Johnny, not crippled as he himself is. When the Revolutionary War breaks out, Rab joins the army to fight for America, and Johnny is left to do what he can to help as a civilian, as his crippled hand makes it impossible for him to fire a weapon. Johnny must find his own courage and strength by learning from Rab’s experiences, what it means to be a true soldier, both physically and mentally:

Rab lay with his eyes shut for a little while, remembering other things – things perhaps Johnny did not share… ‘Colonel Nesbit… remember. And he told me, “Go buy a popgun, boy.” Well… a popgun would have done me just as well in the end.” This idea fretted him a little. Doctor Warren wet a cloth in a basin of water and wiped his bloody mouth. (Forbes 250)

It is in Rab’s literal death that Johnny finally understands the raw, serious terror of war. And it is not until this understanding that Doctor Warren realizes that he can fix Johnny’s hand so he, too, can serve in the war as he has always wanted. (Forbes 254-255) But when the time comes for Johnny to serve, he does not go into it as an excited youth as Rab did (Forbes 208). Rather, he learns from the Father what it means to be humble. He does not go to war expecting to be a hero, only expecting to do his part in fear and humility, which is what makes him a true hero in the end.

For the heroine’s part, Frankel sees being feminine — being the goddess — as a trial in and of itself. The heroine’s fight is similar to the hero’s, but her goal is often very different. The hero wants to restore peace to his world, and that peace is personified in the feminine, while the heroine wants peace within herself, and that peace is embodied not in the masculine, but in her own ability to control her life and her destiny. An example of this peace-finding within in children’s myth can be seen in Katniss’ many-tiered trials in the arena in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:

The swelling. The pain. The ooze. Watching Glimmer twitching to death on the ground. It’s a lot to handle before the sun even clears the horizon. (Collins 191)

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen finds herself entirely without power, forced to fight and kill by her far more dominant government just to survive another day. Directly paralleling Frankel’s theory, Katniss spends the trilogy of Collins’ books fighting for that power over herself and her life, not to give it to a man, but to have it for herself. Everything down to the choice of who she will marry is entirely in the hands of the Capitol, and it is Katniss’ quest to win the right to decide for herself what her life will be. In the end, she finds that power, making the decision for her whole world that neither of the current leaders is worthy of them, as well as deciding that she does not want to be that leader, either. Instead, she chooses to marry the man whom the Capitol would have chosen — not for their sake but in spite of them — and to settle down in her home, taking her prize — her own personal power over her life — and leaving the major power to those she has allowed to live who may want it.

For the hero, the Father and he are one, and he must embrace that fact or perish. For the heroine, according to Frankel, the Mother is all this and more, as she is, “… the shadow cast by the conscious mind of the individual contain[ing] the hidden, repressed, and unfavorable (or nefarious) aspects of the personality.” (Frankel 1798) Still, this unfavorable shadow must be accepted by the heroine and embraced, just as the Father must be embraced by the hero, because “…as the dark mother or witch-queen is the heroine’s shadow, the daughter also represents the shadow for the mother – her flaws and unfulfilled desires made manifest. In her battle to achieve a higher consciousness, the heroine pits herself against this shadow, and must integrate it into the self.” (Frankel 1799-1801)

Yet along with this need to accept and integrate her dark self, the heroine must also defy the temptation to become evil, and find a way to come out of this transformation not only powerful, but whole and good. In her description of this transformation, Frankel cites four steps which she calls Facing the Self, (Frankel 1606) which are deeply emotional and personal for the heroine. They are called, in order, The Endless Summons: Descent into Darkness, (1606) I’ll Get you, my Pretty: Confronting the Deadly Mother, (1752) Ceasefire with the Self: Healing the Wounded Shadow, (1872) and The Elixir of Life: Reward. (1995) Though Campbell does have a separate step for the Reward, this is an inner, emotional prize for Frankel, who also cites another final reward step for the physical, discussed later in this paper. By creating specific steps for the emotional, Frankel outlines how the heroine battles inwardly and outwardly often in two different arenas, while the hero, whom Campbell reflects in his meeting of the physical and emotional as one within his steps, battles all things, inside and outside, at the same time. One example in children’s myth of this dual struggle with the heroine’s mother-shadow self can be found in the central theme of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline:

“You’re sick,” said Coraline. “Sick and evil and weird.”

“Is that any way to talk to your mother?” her other mother asked, with her mouth full of blackbeetles.

“You aren’t my mother,” said Coraline. (Gaiman 78)

In the beginning of Coraline, the young heroine struggles against her real mother who seems at once overly controlling and neglectful to her daughter, who herself is willful and independent. Coraline sees in her real mother both a rival and a mentor, embracing the former even as she denies the latter:

“Coraline? Oh, there you are. Where on earth were you?”

“I was kidnapped by aliens,” said Coraline…

“Yes, dear. Now, I think you could do with some more hair clips, don’t you?”


“Well, let’s say half a dozen, to be on the safe side,” said her mother.

Coraline didn’t say anything. (Gaiman 24)

It is not until she must confront her personal shadow in the form of the Other Mother that Coraline learns to respect her real mother, and embrace her love and lessons. By defying the fake love and attention that the Other Mother bestows on her, Coraline learns what motherly love really means, while at the same time she embraces her own dark shadow within the Other Mother, fighting the witch-woman with her own weapons of guile, cunning, and gameplay:

… “You like games,” [Coraline] said. “That’s what I’ve been told.”

The other mother’s black eyes flashed. “Everybody likes games,” was all she said. (Gaiman 91)

In the end, Coraline comes out of her ordeal of Finding the Self to both embrace the imperfect but true love of her real mother, and find her own power to overcome the darkness within, thus emerging as a true heroine.

In the next step, Campbell and Frankel again merge, with Campbell’s step titled The Ultimate Boon, (117) and Frankel’s titled Forever Cycling: Rebirth. (2166) Both steps describe the ultimate success of the hero(ine), often taking the form of a kind of talisman or magic weapon.

For Cambell, the hero’s Ultimate Boon “…is simply a symbol of life energy stepped down to the requirements of a certain specific case.” (Campbell 125) This symbol, Campbell goes on to explain, is most often not what the hero expected, but is always what the hero needs to save the day. The Boon can be a physical thing, and often is, but that physical thing always represents the deep resonance of the hero’s true victory, and accepting this unexpected — and often unwanted — Boon is the hero’s final test: “The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth.” (Campbell 126) After fighting through all his obstacles, beating the odds and winning the day, can the hero accept the fact that all he has fought for might not be exactly what he expected? And in doing that, can he then find the way to use the Boon to restore the peace and prosperity of his world? This is the trial of the Ultimate Boon that Campbell describes. An example of the hero’s Ultimate Boon in children’s myth can be seen in Taran’s acceptance of the reality of war in Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron:

“It is strange”, [Taran] said at last. “I had longed to enter the world of men. Now I see it filled with sorrow, with cruelty and treachery, and with those who would destroy all around them.”

“Yet, enter it you must,” Gwydion answered, “for it is a destiny laid on each of us…

Taran nodded. “I see now the price I paid was the least of all, for the brooch was never truly mine. I wore it, but it was no part of me… [but] at least I knew, for a little while… what it must be like to be a hero.” (Alexander 228)

Taran begins his quest with a very specific goal in mind: to become a man and a hero. To Taran, his Ultimate Boon is glory and respect. Gifted a magic brooch by the bard-warrior Adaon upon his own death, Taran uses it to lead a group of great warriors towards defeating the evil Arwan, and soon he sees the brooch as a shining symbol of the Ultimate Boon he seeks. But in the end Taran must give the brooch up in order to gain the Black Cauldron of Arwan and destroy it, thus destroying Arwan’s ability to amass an unstoppable army of undead. In this way, Taran learns the true Boon of becoming a wise and humble hero, by giving up the very symbol of the glorious Boon he expected:

“… your sacrifice was all the more difficult,” Gwydion said. “You chose to be a hero not through enchantment but through your own manhood.” (Alexander 228)

As Campbell stated, the Boon is not what Taran expected, but it was what he needed most.

Frankel describes her Forever Cycling: Rebirth step thusly: “To achieve the greatest success, the heroine becomes a ‘goddess’ herself. In this way she achieves enormous power and becomes a guardian for the next generation.” (Frankel 2216) For the heroine, the Ultimate Boon is the ability to nurture, teach, and protect the next generation using what she has learned through her own trials. She becomes a goddess who has helped her before, forever transcending the boundaries that she has broken and paving the way for the next generation to do even more. One example of this Rebirth into goddess-hood in children’s myth can be found in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden:

On the grass near the tree Mary had dropped her trowel. Colin stretched out his hand and took it up. An odd expression came into his face and he began to scratch at the earth. His thin hand was weak enough but presently as they watched him—Mary with quite breathless interest—he drove the end of the trowel into the soil and turned it over.

“You can do it! You can do it!” said Mary… (Burnett 255)

Mary Lennox, having begun the story as a sour, selfish, and altogether disagreeable little girl who has just lost her parents to a plague, transforms through her adventures into a literal nurturer, helping the secret garden return from death, and Colin return from the brink of it, resulting in her uncle’s rebirth as well when he learns of his son’s miraculous recovery. In this transformation, Mary becomes Gaia, the goddess of nature, and thus finds her own magic Boon in the end:

“When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead,” the orator proceeded. “Then something began bushing things up out of the soil and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were… I don’t know its name so I call it Magic.” (Burnett 207)

Finally, there is the final step. Frankel calls hers Apotheosis: Mistress of Both Worlds. (Frankel 2274) Campbell, however, splits his into five final steps, under the simple title of “Return”. (Campbell 127) These steps are titled Refusal of the Return (127), The Magic Flight (133), Rescue from Without (138), The Crossing of the Return Threshold (142), Master of the Two Worlds (148), and Freedom to Live. (152) (It should be noted here that both Campbell and Frankel split all of their steps into chapters and sub-chapters throughout their theories. However, for the sake of clarity between their theories, I have taken special note of it, here.) In these chapters, both Frankel and Campbell stress the importance of the bringing of the Boon into the world for the greater good of all. There is also an emphasis on duality for both hero and heroine.

Campbell’s hero is the master of “…the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back…” (Campbell 212) A true hero, to Campbell, is one who can straddle both the secrets of the cosmos and the simplicity of mortal life. “The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become, because he is.” (Campbell 154) An example of Campbell’s “champion of all things becoming” in children’s mythology can be found in E. B White’s The Trumpet of the Swan:

“On the pond where the swans were, Louis put his trumpet away. The cygnets crept under their mother’s wings. Darkness settles on woods and fields and marsh. A loon called its wild night cry. As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day. (White 251-252)

After all his adventures, Louis is now finally able to reap the rewards of a peaceful, happy life with his beautiful mate Serena, which is his mastery of “the casual deep”. But entwined within that mortal life is his newfound understanding of the deep importance of that peace. He has overcome great obstacles to win it, and he will never be the same, having won, as well, the wisdom of the cosmos in his deeper understanding of life than that of his fellow swans. He is the hero of things becoming… the life he is now building with his beloved.

Frankel’s heroine, too, straddles two worlds, that of her physical waking life, and that of the immortal goddess, holder of the keys to death and rebirth: “The Mistress of both worlds comprehends the delicate balance between innocence and experience, death and life.” (Frankel 2343-2344) As the new goddess-mother, the victorious heroine can never fully return to her mortal life, and thus will forever straddle who she was and who she is, at once handing guidance and strength to the innocents who come after her, and forever learning the wisdom of the ages from the universe to which she has given herself. An example of Frankel’s duality Mistress in children’s myth can be found in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle:

“So,” said Peter, “night falls on Narnia. What, Lucy! You’re not crying? With Aslan ahead, and all of us here?”

“Don’t try to stop me, Peter,” said Lucy. “I am sure Aslan would not. I am sure it is not wrong to mourn for Narnia.” (Lewis, Battle 198)

While everyone else is excited for the new, rebirthed Narnia, and all the adventures and wonder it promises, Lucy alone mourns for the old Narnia. She, too, is excited and happy for the future, but she also lives in the death of the past, forever straddling light and dark, innocence and understanding. As the rebirthed goddess, Lucy will always remember the wise yet dark lessons of her past, even as she basks in “… the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (Lewis, Battle 228)

Works Cited

Alexander, Lloyd. The Black Cauldron. New York: bantam Doubleday Dell Books (1999). Print.

Baum, L. Frank. The Wizard of Oz. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers (1994). Print.

Burnett, Francis Hodgson. The Secret Garden. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company (1962). Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pdf file.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic (2998). Print.

Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising. New York: Scholastic (1989). Print.

Dahl, Roald. Matilda. New York: Penguin Books (2003)

—. The Witches. New York: Puffin Books (1983). Print.

Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain. New York: Dell Publishers (1971). Print.

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Adventure through Myth and Legend . Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2010. Pdf file, Kindle Edition.

Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. New York: Scholastic (2003). Print.

Hornyansky, Michael and Marius Barbeau. “The Golden Phoenix”. Once Upon a Time: The young Folks’ Shelf of Books.  Ed. Margaret E Marrtignoni and Elizabeth H. Gross. New York:The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company (1962). Print.

L’Engle, Madeline. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Laurel Leaf Imprint, Random House Publishers (2005). Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Last Battle. New York: Harper Trophy (1984). Print.

—. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: The MacmMillain Company (1966). Print.

Marcellino, Fred. The Trumpet of the Swan. New York: Harper Trophy (2000). Print.

Marshall, Morgan. Song of Spirit. Spokane: Morgan Marshall Literary (2012). Print.

Nix, Garth. Sabriel. New York: Harper Collins (2004). Print.

Pyle, Howard. The Story of king Arthur and his Knights. New York: Penguin Group (1986). Print.

Riordan, Rick. The Lightning Thief. New York: Disney Hyperion (2006). Print.

White, E.B. The Trumpet of the Swan. New York: Harper Trophy (2000). Print.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

Posted in Books, Family, Kids, Literature, Writing with tags , , , , , on July 31, 2011 by Jessica Crichton

… when Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit visited the Murrys so long ago. For me, that opening line will always be about Meg and Charles Wallace, even though I know it was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and not Madeline L’Engle. Still, I never read the good Baron’s story and I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what follows his line, but I can tell you what follows in A Wrinkle in Time: the most magical, mystical adventure in childhood literary history.

OK, MAYBE it has some contenders. Maybe.

Still, A Wrinkle in Time is such a famous book that I have yet to find one person who hasn’t heard of it. (To be fair, I don’t travel much. But still…) Yet a startlingly low amount of people can name the author of such a famous book: Madeline L’Engle.

That is her legacy.

When I was in high school my mother allowed me to skip school one day so that I could go to the bookstore and meet Madeline L’Engle. I was so excited that I almost threw up. Seriously.

Yes, that is the kind of fangirl I still am today. Musicians? Meh. Actors? Whatev. Authors? DROOL!

Anyway, I knew there would be no time to actually talk to Mrs. L’Engle, so I wrote her a letter instead. I smiled at her, she smiled at me and signed my book (which was actually my hard-loved copy of A Wind in the Door; I hadn’t gotten A Wrinkle in Time and didn’t have the money to buy it that day either), and I handed her the letter and left. I waited until I was outside to open to the treasured page, and when I saw what she wrote, I felt like I had grown wings. To anyone who hasn’t read A Wind in the Door, this won’t mean anything… but to you who have, this is what she said:

“To Jessica: Be a Namer”.

I still have that book. It will be passed down to my children after I die.

That was the only time I ever saw Madeline L’Engle in person… she died eleven years later in 2007 while I was just beginning my family and I didn’t even know it until last year. But only a few weeks after that short yet memorable encounter, I received a letter in the mail…

…from Madeline L’Engle. To me.


The author of A Wrinkle in Time had written to ME! PERSONALLY!

To say I was elated would be a gross disservice to the true feelings that welled up inside me at that moment. Madeline L’Engle had answered my letter! I had never expected that in a million fantasies in a billion worlds. Never. I don’t know if she ever knew what that meant to me, but even now, at the age of thirty-four, it makes me teary just thinking about it.

In my letter to her I had asked the typical questions of a budding teenage author: How did you get published? How do I get published? Is it possible to make a living off writing? Of course, these were mixed in with plenty of gushes about how awesome she was and how much I loved her books, yadda yadda.

Thinking back now as an adult professional writer, I can only imagine the small, knowing smile she must have had while reading it.

But her reply said nothing of the trials and tribulations I would have to endure while building my career. Most likely, she knew I would find those out for myself soon enough. Instead, she told me that few writers make a lot of money writing, but that wasn’t the point anyway. She said that true writers are born that way, and that we write because we have to. “It burns inside us”, she said, “and no matter what other jobs we try in our lifetimes, we always go back to writing.”

She told me to just… write. And never stop. And I did.

She didn’t touch much on my gushing about her own work, but she did say one thing that stuck with me through my own long and winding struggle to publication: “It’s not about who I am, but about what my work has created in you. It’s never about the writer; it’s always about the reader.”

That, as I said, is her legacy.

Let us all take a lesson from Madeline L’Engle and remember: it’s not about our fortune and fame. In the end, it’s about the young minds we reach, and the young hearts that we touch.

John M. Cusick

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