Archive for Literature

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

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!

Prophetic Writing

Posted in Fiction, Philosophy, Writing with tags , , , , , on November 20, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

Have you ever tried to write a prophecy? Are you a poet or a short story writer? If so, I envy you your abilities. As for me, my prophecy is lucky it’s so important to my story or else I’d have given up on it long ago.


As a general rule, a prophecy must…

  • Be somewhat poetic in form. It doesn’t have to rhyme, but it should have a poetic cadence to it, at least.
  • Predict some future happening in the most vague and easy-to-misread way possible.
  • Be seen as exact in its prediction when said prediction finally comes out.

I stink at poetry, always have to pull back from telling too much too blatantly, and don’t have any exacts about the final outcome of my trilogy as yet. (Though I DO know what will happen — just no specific details yet.)

It was… painful.

But, after all was said and done I came up with this:

When the end has come and went,
and kith and kin is spent.
When evil rules with secret tools
and the sky is endless fire.
Then will Guts and Glory come
from a place beyond the mire.
He with fiery fearlessness,
she with warmth and wisdom.
Their sacrifice 
will be the price
for our forever freedom.

PLEASE tell me this is as good as I think it is? Because I swear if I have to work on this any longer, someone is loosing some hair.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Novel

Posted in Books, Writing with tags , , on November 14, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

We writers often like to see ourselves as solitary creatures. We imagine ourselves huddled up against our keyboards in dark, dank basement rooms with only a neverending glass of Cognac and maybe a cat to keep us company. And we LIKE it that way, dang it! We’re REBELS! We’re RECLUSES! We won’t let the man bring us down by inferring in our life’s art and work!

Well, unless that man is a publisher with a million dollar contract. Then… maybe.

But the fact is, no matter who we are or what we write, we don’t do it all by ourselves. And if we do, chances are our work is nowhere near as great as it could be.

I’m the one who wrote Dr. Fixit’s Malicious Machine. In fact, I am still writing it. It’s my baby, born from my mind and typed by my fingers. If it wasn’t for me, Nil wouldn’t exist.

But it’s not my story. Not totally, anyway.

I was thinking today about just how many people have brought Dr. Fixit to its current form (which is somewhere around the “SO-FREAKING-CLOSE-TO-PERFECTION-BUT-I-CAN’T-GET-IT-JUST-RIGHT-ARRRGH!” phase), and I thought maybe it was time to do a blog about these awesome people. So here it is!

Colleges/Writer Friends

I don’t know if you belong to a writer’s organisation  If you don’t, might I make a suggestion? Go research the top groups for your particular genre, and JOIN one. Seriously. I only joined SCBWI (aka, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), a little over a year ago, and during that time my manuscript has seen more growth than anything I have written before. Period.

Through SCBWI I have received personal critiques and line edits by colleagues whom I would never have known without the group, conference time where I have learned to hone my manuscript even further, market surveys to know exactly where and how and what to send to agents in real time all the time, personal support and the making of new friendships with others who understand what I’m going through, and one referral to a major agency which, though it was ultimately rejected, gave me some wonderful industry insight and revision suggestions that made Dr. Fixit so much better than I alone, ever could. (Not to mention some wonderful professional references for my resume, should I have to get a job after I graduate. Heh.)

I’d like to personally thank the following members of SCBWI who have been particularly wonderful: Molly Severens, Deby  FredericksJohn Bladek, Kelly Milner Halls, Terry Trueman, and Kimberly Harris ThackerWithout the direct involvement of each and every one of these wonderful fellow writers, Dr. Fixit wouldn’t be anywhere near as awesome as it is today.

Industry Professionals

Help from these giants of the industry is few, far-between, and very valuable. I have had the pleasure of two such connections, both through SCBWI (and mentioned above).

The first was Pamela Glauber, Editor at Holiday House, whom I met at the SCBWI conference a little over a year ago. I asked her for some advice on how to market my manuscript, then titled The Curious Cogs of Nil, since it is under the umbrella of a few genres. She told me to just go with “scifi”, then asked for a full. I was over the moon, and though she ultimately rejected it (to be perfectly honest it really was NOT ready), her insight, suggestions and encouragement were a huge boon to my manuscript and my own motivation as a writer.

The second was George Nicholson, Agent at Sterling Lord Literistic. I was referred to him by my SCBWI colleague Terry Trueman (mentioned above), and right away he asked to see my manuscript. This was a wonderful experience as it was my first ever referral, and also terrible in that George decided to pass in the end. But in the time that he was considering my work, he sent me a reader report that made my current edit far better than before. George himself said my manuscript was “… certainly improved, and the characters and narrative… colorful and entertaining”. Then he then gave me more to fix, for which I am very grateful. In the end, while I will not be working with George himself, I know that thanks to him my next submission will be all that much better. And maybe, just maybe, this time it will be gold.


As many of you know, I am currently in graduate school, studying writing and literature for children. Not all writers choose this route, but we have all been educated by someone in the past. Our teachers, professors, tutors and mentors have all contributed to the writing we do today, no matter how long ago we studied under them.

I personally have learned so much from the educators in my life, since way back in middle school when Mrs. Hennessey took me under her wing as a young author in which she saw potential, to my current work under my graduate adviser Dr. Judith McDaniel who has taught me the importance of research, a strong worth ethic, and powerful writing. For Dr. Fixit itself, I have workshopped my manuscript in undergraduate classes at Eastern Washington University, and had it professionally critiqued by one of my favorite graduate professors, Dr. Woden Teachout (yes, that’s her name; awesome I know), who helped it along even further.

Without our teachers, where would we be? Nowhere. Absolutely nowhere.

AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler

It’s a huge pain in the rear. It’s full of pompous jerks. It has “Hell” in more than one of its forum names for a reason. It’s the hardest, most frustrating, most irritating writer’s forum on the web.

It’s also extremely helpful.

See, nobody at AbsoluteWrite is going to blow smoke up your butt. They’ll tell you how it is, no matter how painful. I learned the hard way that you don’t post your work there unless you really want to know the truth of its worth as literature.  So, when I posted a scene from Dr. Fixit a few days ago for the third time and it ONLY got good replies, you can imagine I was over the moon.

Honest crits + honest encouragement = win, every time.

I also met two beta readers from AbsoluteWrite who have been absolutely wonderful in getting back to me with their insights, which I have used to further improve my manuscript.

AbsoluteWrite also has some forums where you can go to read about other writer’s rejections, post about your own, and wallow in each-other’s self-pity for a while. And sometimes, when you just want to give up after the fifth or fiftieth rejection, that’s all you need to keep going.


Often writers poo-poo the help of family because they are biased. And it is true that we should never take what they say in critiques as gospel (unless they’re also professional writers/editors/etc… or just hate you). But family members can be a big help in many other ways.

For example, my husband Mike has not only been patient and supportive to the point that I almost worry for his sanity, but has also given me more ideas and insights than I can remember or count by brainstorming with me when I’ve needed it. If it wasn’t for him, I believe half the scenes and 1/3 of the characters in Dr. Fixit wouldn’t even exist.

My children have also been instrumental in keeping my kid-voice natural and real, and asking them questions about what they’d understand, like, or do in certain situations has been such a boon. My eight-year-old son even created one of my characters, though I have since honed his personality quite a bit.

And I can’t end my entry on family without mentioning my mother Sue Edmiston (pictured above with the red fan), who has been a source of inspiration, support and unwavering belief in me for longer than I can remember.  It is because of her that I perused my dream in the first place, when everyone else told me it was impossible.

Non-Writer Friends

Like family, friends can often be far too biased to trust their opinions on the quality of your work. But also like family, there is more than one way friends can offer assistance. I have had brainstorming sessions with non-writer friends which have turned out to be very helpful, as these friends don’t have any educative/industry/professional bias about plot structure, narrative, character development, or any of the other myriad issues we have to deal with in our craft. These friends simply know what they like and what they want, and they’ll happily tell you. Often, they’re more than excited to share their ideas with you (to the point where you might wish you hadn’t asked!), and some of those ideas can be just crazy enough to work.

Though the biggest boon I have had from a non-writer friend is in my illustrations.

Jessica Suzanne Turner has given faces to my characters, a personality to my website, and a visual window to Nil that I myself could never create. The worth of her illustrations (which you can see all over my site), is immeasurable, and she is currently working on more. Papercut and Snot were both designed by her before I even wrote them into the story, and she is entirely responsible for the creation of the Teens’ face tattoos, as her first drawing of Emily inspired my writing further.  I am happy to say I can finally pay her for this, but she started out doing it for free because she believed in my vision. That, above everything else, is worth its weight in gold.

So no, I didn’t alone make my manuscript what it is today, and I entirely expect to lengthen this list before Dr. Fixit is on the bookshelves. Even if nobody else volunteers to help, someday soon I’ll have an agent, an editor, an illustrator, and an entire publishing team who will take Dr. Fixit to the next level.

And I can’t wait to see how great it will be, then!

When Your Darlings are Habitual

Posted in Books, Literature, Publishing, Writing with tags , , , , , , on October 16, 2012 by Jessica Crichton


How ya doin’? Good? Good. I don’t know what it is about Autumn that makes me want to blog, but I feel it in the air. And today I’ve come up with the perfect subject:


I have found that I have been using them entirely too much lately. I don’t even know why, or where the change came from. I certainly didn’t used to use commas as if they’re going to disappear from existence at any moment. I’m trying not to do so in this blog, so maybe it won’t be noticeable here, (ugh! Or maybe it will!), but for some reason that is escaping me right now, it’s a habit I have formed somewhere along the way of which I was NOT aware. Maybe it has to do with writing LONG sentences for grad papers? Or maybe too much studying of those classic authors (*coughSwiftcough*) who used commas more often than breaths?


My point is, it’s become habitual for me to comma everything to death, and it’s annoying the crap out of me. But every time I go to get rid of the excess commas, I have a good reason for them being there.

Every. Time.

See? Look at that paragraph above. (Not the short one. The one above it. There ya go!) I know I could delete the second comma and not have any issues, but then the little voice inside says, “what if it’s confusing for people to read, having to read it in one mental breath and all?” So I think, “well, I can always make it two sentences…” Then my brain stops for a moment before completely imploding against the very thought of writing such short, clippy pieces of crap.


The old writer’s axiom of  “kill your darlings” can relate to many things, but what if those darlings are habitual, such as is the case with my current comma-frenzy? I am well aware, as a professional writer, that this will not stand, and my final manuscripts and papers are certainly purged of them (often along with my hair… strange coincidence), but what do you do when your first drafts always have the same issues which you can’t seem to break?

What about you? What are your habitual darlings, and with what do you murder them in cold blood?

Update on “The Waiting Game”

Posted in Books, Publication, Publishing, Writing with tags , , , , on July 18, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

Hello all!

So, I just spent a few glorious days in the woods with my husband and a few awesome friends, after finally receiving a reply from the agent with whom I hope to work  on “Guts and Glory”. It was a good reply. NOT a rejection (and the angels sing HALLELUJAH!), but not an acceptance either. However, it came with what any writer worth anything to the art and profession of writing covets like their own offspring: professional-level constructive criticism. Yes, you read that right: he actually told me what was wrong, what to do about it, and asked to read my manuscript again once I’ve done it!


Now, an agent with the kind of client base that this guy has (100+ clients), and the history and clout in the profession that he has collected over the years, does not just tell a writer that he’ll read her manuscript again to be nice. He doesn’t have time for that. So, he really does love my book, and just needs a little more to be tweaked before he sells it!

I can tweak. Oh, yes. I can tweak like a… tweaker? No. That sounds wrong. Um… like someone who can tweak really well.

Moving on.

So during the camping trip (ah, and we return to whence we began), my husband and I did some brainstorming on the details that will make up the changes that need to be made.Thanks to him, we came up with some amazing new scenes, and a great new simplified way to end the book. (The main issue the agent and his readers had was that the ending was too complicated.) I’m so excited to write these scenes! Sometimes you just need to get out into the woods and sit around a campfire, you know? Still, I also have some major reworking of the overall trilogy plot and worldbuilding to do, in order for everything to work together in a simplified way. That means lots more notes and sketches and… MAN do I love what I do!

Oh, and just to let you know, I’m not just letting this agent change everything about my story because he’s an agent and I’m a drooling “I-wanna-be-published-Master” noob.  I do agree with the agent on the points he made. In fact, I already knew these were issues, but I second guessed myself. Never do that. If you’re a born writer (and if you are, you know it), then you have the instinct. Don’t doubt that instinct. I have learned that lesson, and just in time; I won’t be sending my manuscript back to the agent until all my doubts are alleviated, because he won’t offer to read it a third time. This is my chance, and I am taking it!

All this is to say that you should NEVER  give up! It’s right when things look the bleakest, that the light you need to follow can best be seen. Will this take more time and work? Of course. But I didn’t get into writing because I ever thought it would be easy.

Follow your passion. It can lead you to great places. I’ll keep you all updated as “Guts and Glory” makes its way through the traditional publishing rounds, even while I work on another series via self-publishing (more on that to come)!

The Hero’s Apprentice

Posted in Books, Kids, Literature, Scholarly, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , on June 29, 2012 by Jessica Crichton

Here is the second of my “hero” series of papers. This one is all about kids’ books. Yay! I hope you enjoy it! ~ MM

The Hero’s Apprentice

Mythology in Classic and Popular Children’s Literature, as seen through Works of Joseph Campbell and Valerie Estelle Frankel

“Sometimes powerful magic is accomplished by simple means.”

~ Brandon Mull, Fabelhaven



From King Arthur to Snow White, what we in modern society identify as “classic myth” has gone hand-in-hand with children’s literature from the very beginning of the genre. Mythological legends have captivated the imaginations of children – and thus written themselves into our collective consciousness – for generations. Yet while we acknowledge these fables of old as myth, every child’s story of today also shares ancestry with mythology at its core. Whether written by Aesop or J.K. Rowling, children’s literature remains mythology, those stories that grab at the very heart of imagination and never let go. In this paper I will identify and discuss some examples of this mythological strain within children’s literature, utilizing the works of Joseph Campbell and Valerie Estelle Frankel.

The beginning of every myth is what both Campbell and Frankel term “the Call to Adventure”. 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) As Campbell goes on to say, this blunder is never happenstance, but a manifestation of repressed desires and conflicts within the hero(ine).

Some examples of The Call to Adventure in children’s mythologies are, Maniac’s accidental trip to the black part of town in Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (Spinelli 10-11), Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland (Carroll 10), and 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)

The next stage of the journey is called the Refusal of the Call by both Campbell (61) and Frankel. (324) This is the moment that the hero (or heroine in Frankel’s case), balks from the adventure: “This moment is too frightening, and will take time to absorb. Thus, the heroine flees deep inside herself, refusing to take the final step…” (Frankel 391) This step is not included in all myths, but there are times wherein it is very integral to the plot.

Some examples of the Refusal of the Call in children’s myths are, May’s return home after finding the letter calling her to Briery Swamp Lake in Jodi Lynn Anderson’s May Bird and the Ever After (Anderson 24), Edmund’s initial choice to follow the White Queen in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Lewis 67), and Meg’s initial distrust of Ms. Whatsit in Madeline  L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time:

   –For crying out loud, she 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, A Wrinkle in Time 15)

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. Campbell defines this character as “… the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance—a promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost.” (Campbell 67)

Some examples of The Mentor in children’s myths are Merlin the Sorcerer from the classic Arthurian myths, Niamh of the Golden Hair from the Celtic myth of Oisin (Froud and Lee 47), Lemony Snickett from Lemony Snickett’s, A Series of Unfortunate Events (Snickett), and J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous wizard Gandalf who appears in many of his works, including The Hobbit:

   “Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard a very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.” (The Hobbit 3)

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. “Beyond… is dark less, the unknown, and danger…” (Campbell 69) This crossing is the true beginning of the adventure, where the hero(ine) has come to the point of no return.

Some examples of Crossing the Threshold in children’s myth are, Taran leaving Caer Dallben for the dark kingdom of Annuvin in Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron (Alexander 29), Tonino the hunchback’s choice to take up the faerie song in the Spanish fairy tale, Tonino and the Fairies as retold by Ralph Steele Boggs and Mary Gould Davis (Boggs and Davis 143), and Will’s choice to leave his house and venture into the new, unknown landscape that appeared overnight 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)

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. For her example of Allies and Enemies, Frankel cites the Mayan myth of Ix Chel, a goddess who, though great trials against her abusive husband the Sun, became the strong protector of women. (Frankel 863-883)

Some examples of the Road of Trials / Allies and Enemies in children’s myth are, Frodo’s voyage between Bag End and Rivendell in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (Fellowship 99-286), the little Hero’s adventures as a mouse in Roald Dahl’s The Witches (Dahl 53-153), and 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)

Campbell’s next steps are 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 under my own heading of Details of the Quest. These are those situations, underlying issues and major character introductions that lead up to and support the main story arc. Under this umbrella are such components as the introduction of co-protagonists and romantic partners, main character emotional and psychological points, and leads to the plot climax, including and especially overshadowing.

Some examples of Details of the Quest in children’s myth are the first meeting of Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke in Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terebithia (Patterson 16), Louis’ father stealing the trumpet for his son in Fred Marcellino’s The Trumpet of the Swan (Marcellino 92-94), and the ominous haiku right before Ralph’s race in Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse:

   “A little brown mouse

   Smells cheese and steps in a trap.

   Snap! Now he is dead.”

   Ralph was so horrified that he curled in a tight ball to top his trembling How was he supposed to run a race if he was shaking all over? (Cleary 90-91)

It is of interesting note that here Frankel adds steps that are not included separately in Campbell’s analogies, though each holds a place somewhere within his theory as a whole. These steps, which Frankel calls Facing the Self, (Frankel 1606) 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) 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.

Some examples of Facing the Self in children’s myth are, Coraline’s duality in fighting the Other Mother while accepting her True Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Meg’s spiritual and emotional torture as she fights to save her bother Charles Wallace in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door (L’Engle, A Wind in the Door, 174-197), and 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 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 physical success of the hero(ine), which is to gain the powers of the god(dess) – often taking the form of a kind of talisman or magic weapon. “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)

Some examples of The Ultimate Boon / Forever Cycling: Rebirth in children’s myth are, the childrens’ ascension to “the England within England” in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. (Lewis 226), Bastion’s magical, godlike rebuilding of Fantasia in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, and Mary’s transformation into a goddess-like life-giver for both the garden and Colin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden:

   “I thought [the garden] would be dead,” he said.

   “Mary thought so at first,” said Colin, but it came alive.” (Burnett 255)

Then comes Frankel’s final step, which she calls Apotheosis: Mistress of Both Worlds. (Frankel 2274) Campbell, however, splits this final step into chapters, under the simple title of “Return”. (Campbell 127) These chapters 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) Both stress the importance of the hero(ine)’s return to their own world, and the bringing of the Boon into it for the greater good of all. This Boon can be physical or spiritual, or both. Either way, it is the ultimate reward – the reason the hero(ine) quested in the first place – and it changes the hero(ine) – and his/her world – forever for the better.

Some examples of this Boon in children’s myth are, Alanna’s earned trust, as a girl, from Prince Jonathan in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The first Adventure (Pierce 273), the physical and metaphoric healing of Johnny’s deformity in Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain (Forbes 254), and Peter’s forever mother in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan:

   As you look at Wendy you may see her hair becoming white… for all this happened long ago. Jane is now a common grown-up, with a daughter called Margaret; and every spring-cleaning time, except when he forgets, Peter comes for Margaret and takes her to the Neverland… When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and so it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless. (Barrie 217)

And so we see that in children’s literature, perhaps more than any other genre, The Hero(ine)’s Quest is perfectly embodied. Still, this is perhaps not to be wondered at. After all, Joseph Campbell said it best when he wrote, “The wonder is that the characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale … [for] they are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.” (Campbell 21)


Works Cited

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

Anderson, Jodi lynn. May Bird and the Ever After. New York: Scholastic (2005). Print.

Barrie, Sir J.M. Peter Pan. New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons (1911). Print.

Boggs Ralph Steele and Mary Gould Davis. “Tonino and the Fairies”. 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.

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

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

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland (1864). Weekly Reader Books (1965). Print.

Cleary, Beverly. Ralph S. Mouse. New York: Scholastic (1998). Print.

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

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

Dahl, Roald. The Witches. New York: Puffin Books (1983). Print.

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

Froud, Brian and Lee, Alan. Faeries. New York: Abrams (2010). Print.

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 Wind in the Door. New York: Del Publishing (1973). Print.

—. 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.

Patterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. New York: Harper Trophy (1977). Print.

Pierce, Tamora. Alanna: The First Adventure. New York: Simon Pulse (1983). Print.

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

Snickett, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events. 14 vols. Scholastic (1999). Print.

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

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books (1976). Print.

—. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books (1982). Print.

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