“Children’s literature should be subjected to critical rigour as much as grown-up writing … Children's literature occupies a very different position from literature as a whole, largely because of two things: it's part of nurturing, in the anthropological sense, but it's also part of education.”
-- Michael Rosen, The Independent
Behind any child's book or theory of children's literature is a view of children and their upbringing.
-- Michael Prest, “Why it Pays to Study Children's Literature”
Our mission in this ebook, yours and mine, is to answer this simple question: What makes for children’s literature that endures?
Whether we like Tintin or Gears of War or not, there is a secret to these stories’ incredible appeal. We need to understand that appeal, on its surface as well in its deeper meanings. Millions of young readers devotedly consume these narratives, decade after decade. Why? What makes the story tick? What are the ideas beneath its surface? _________________________________________________________________________________
Your teachers want you to think for yourself, to analyze why things happen, to look under the hood. So will all of your bosses.
The answer surely lies in filling a need, or filling a developmental need among our young readers, or matching a societal imperative. Let’s find out. There are no correct answers, nor is there any single way to approach such critical thinking.
For students, teachers, and readers of all narratives: we must each develop our own theory of literature. We are defined by narratives, in our politicians, our schools, our workplaces. Each family has defining coming-of-age stories, and love stories, and success stories. What elements are authentic about these stories? What structures are ‘borrowed’? How are they connected? What are the conventions of each genre of story?
You do not have to buy what I’m selling. It’s worse: you have to understand it, break it down, reply to it, and then produce your own theory to replace mine. _________________________________________________________________________________
Your teachers and I do not want you to agree with the viewpoints in this ebook: we want you to form your own theory. Why are these superhero stories good? Why are they bad? What is the measure of a good story well told? State and justify your theory. Construct an argument. Assemble a chain of logic. Give specific examples. Be clear.
Your teachers want you to think for yourself, to analyze why things happen, to look under the hood. So will all of your bosses. Critical thinking and clear expression are highly marketable skills.
The Coming-of-Age Matrix
This is the most useful section of my ebook.
This matrix or set of ideas is nothing new, rather a skeleton or structure for stories we have told from Day One. All cultures.
There are several different versions of it. Early (early to me, anyway) scholars who outlined the elements of the Coming of Age (COA) story include a German psychologist named Otto Rank, the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell, whose book “Hero with a Thousand Faces” has been so influential. A century earlier than Otto Rank, a German scholar named Karl Morgenstern listed the conventions of the “bildungsroman,” or ‘formation novel,’ a specific form of the COA.
In the COA story, the young protagonist (hero or heroine) is initiated into adulthood through an adventure. The adventure introduces the hero to the adult world – a world in imbalance, full of tragedy, turmoil and disillusionment. The story’s end is a resolution, leaving the world with a balancing of scales. The protagonist has journeyed from innocence to painful wisdom. Childhood is gone. With the hard-won wisdom from this quest, the protagonist can join the ranks of successful adults.
Here are the basic elements of the coming of age story:
a) beloved state of innocence at the story’s beginning
b) foreshadowing = the hint that big change is about to come
c) knotty situation or moral dilemma developing
d) the central, tragic (often violent) event that marks the loss of innocence
e) call to action = the hero leaves home on a quest
f) gaining a sidekick
g) gaining a second name = the hero now belongs to two worlds
h) betrayer or villain
i) the innocent hero becomes the agent of change = the chosen one
j) wise older guide who shows the way forward
k) the unexpected gaining of advantage (magic trinket, weapon, etc.)
l) defeat of a minor villain
m) crucial encounters with nature – one good, one bad
n) revelation of the true nature of evil (it’s worse than you thought)
o) betrayal and loss of close companion = a new low
p) one last chance appears in the dark hour …
q) moment of clarity = the hero’s realization of his/her true potential
r) climactic battle with the forces of evil = act of retribution
s) harmony and justice return to the world
Please test these!! Make a chart with these elements on one axis and six children’s stories on the second axis and see how many elements fit each story, and which diverges from the model. Some, like the first Star Wars trilogy and The Hobbit, check every single element.
Nonfiction The Coming-of-Age rules fit in the real world, as well as in fictional worlds. Homer Hickam’s admirable October Sky is an autobiography that checks all of the COA boxes, as does a book like Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home. One aspect of the narrative is often gets more attention – the science in October Sky, the epic journey in A Long Way Home, but they are still the same story.
The hero story often begins with the hero’s special birth and flawed or absent parent figures. Something wrong in the hero’s family tends to mirror the greater issue in the story’s society – there is usually a violent or epic or dramatic social movement taking place in the background (war, civil rights, etc).
Other ‘failed’ grownup figures appear along the way, sad role models of children who did not successfully make a successful transition to adulthood
The hero is usually a figure of two worlds, and is known by two names. Like you and me, she has a social name -- a name among her peers – and then a truer, private, forever name which refers to a secret heritage (and latent special powers).
The hero’s encounter with nature is sometimes in the form of a divine intervention – an encounter with the supernatural.
One of N. C. Wyeth’s illustrations for the COA classic “Treasure Island.”
Sub-categories of sidekicks include the Jester (San Gamgee), the Rebel (Han Solo) and the Innocent (the Snowman in Frozen). Other recurring characters include the Magic negro (John Coffey in The Green Mile), who uses his powers to further the white savior’s quest; the noble savage, often a foe-turned-friend; the savage conquest (a type of girlfriend, often the chieftain’s daughter, as in Avatar); and Lotus Flower Woman, the lucky Asian female (the wife of Tom Cruise’s fallen foe in The Last Samurai) who gets to bandage and enlighten the male hero.
Heroes often patrol a “borderland” -- a place outside civilized society, on the remote frontiers -- where they a) gain valuable information or b) fight their epic encounters with evil. It is often far away from friendly places with families, schools, warm light and stores. For example, modern-day heroes of the U.S. military patrol the “borderlands” or Afghanistan. Nicolas Cage in the motorcyclist-on-fire movie fought his demonic foes in a gigantic cemetery. Batman first encountered Ras-Al-Ghul in the far mountains of Tibet.
THE VILLAIN IS AS IMPORTANT TO THE STORY AS THE HERO
Villains and their motivations differ greatly. Evil can be either human and social, or cosmic. The Terminator movies feature apocalyptic evil, while a villain like Doctor Octopus in Spiderman represents one man’s good intentions gone terribly bad. Harry Potter features both categories of villainy – Valdemort is apocalyptic evil, and the blockheaded Minister of Magic’s villainy seems more rooted in his personal vanity. Terrorism is today often portrayed as apocalyptic – a cosmic force, something we cannot prevent or understand. Movies like White House Down, Independence Day, Green Lantern, and War of the Worlds feature evil like this – a force you cannot really understand (but must defeat). Certainly the Joker in The Dark Knight is like this -- he wants to bring general chaos to Gotham City for no rational reason. By contrast, the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises had a specific human story behind his villainy. Jack Torrance, the bad guy in Stephen King’s The Shining, is an unlucky man controlled by a higher evil force.
American evil is often hedonism. Because of America’s Puritanical streak, we tend to portray our villains as high-living creeps who transgress the work ethic. They are hedonistic – they enjoy material things way too much. They represent bad values. The Die Hard films, for example, feature villains who want to get ahead without working hard and playing by the rules – they want to cheat. That is why they are so despicable. Corporate villains (Robocop) often fall into this category.
Each villain may be simply the mirror image of its hero. Captain America is a strong smart hero (with no special powers) fighting for democracy, so the Red Skull is a strong smart Nazi (with no special powers) opposing him. That is why you can never switch villains – Lex Luthor does not fit against Luke Skywalker.
Henchmen are minor villains and may not need a theory at all.
In the hero’s final battle with evil, an ancestor often plays a key role, providing a trinket or weapon or special motto of self-understanding. Uncovering the ‘real’ truth about one’s past looms large in a successful quest.
My students always enjoy filling out (and arguing over) the coming-of-age matrix. As they enter the classroom, I am drawing on the chalkboard a giant chart listing some of the most common elements on the left. As soon as class starts, I ask for their favorite protagonists, fictional or real. We include a student or student’s parent, since the coming of age saga applies to fictional characters and their readers alike. We list those names on the top line, and then we check off who fits the bill (they all do).
It's impossible to fill out the COA chart and then read a teen book or see a teen movie without connecting the two. This is the essence of Lit Crit – seeing patterns, overt and hidden, among stories.