Friday, January 25, 2013

The most important thing we've learned... Morals that SHOCK!

Didactic literature in human form...AH!
Looking beyond power dynamics and the intricacies of academic dialogue on the nature of didacticism in children’s books, it is necessary to remember that all works of literature, for any age, are acting on some level as teaching tools.  This teaching need not be heavy handed, with harsh morals and punishments like that found in evangelical texts for children from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  However, lessons are always being passed along through literature. Even as adults we are still learning through fiction, even if it is packaged through the pleasure of the aesthetic presentation, we are still being exposed to different perspectives and broadening our understanding of who we are as individuals and of the world we view through the lens of the novel; with every page we are learning how to be people.

With this in mind, it is essential then that stories for children actually teach them something.  However, this teaching does not need to be conventional.  It does not need to be didactic and saccharine, in fact if it is, it will fail as a book.  Children are indeed some of the toughest and honest critics and to use Deborah Stevenson’s term, a book that fails to entertain, that fails to draw in its readers will not be honored with the “children’s imprimatur” (Stevenson 118). Humphrey Carpenter lays out this idea of the entertainment/morality balance in his essay, between the child’s desire for “adventure and imagination” and the adult’s desire for “moral examples” (Carpenter 1).

However in reading this essay, a statement that followed soon after this balance discussion caught me off guard.  Carpenter goes on to say that in order for a text to be successful it must indeed fulfill these two desires, however he says that every once in a while a book comes along which achieves success despite failing to satisfy both parties.  He gives Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as his example stating that is “has been loved by children and hated by adults because it is full of fun and virtually amoral” (Carpenter 1).  Was I the only one that found this strange?  It was even stranger that Carpenter failed to give any support for his statement, leaving it merely as a given that everyone finds Dahl’s novel “amoral”.  The first thing that came to mind was, I don’t know of any other book that has so many lessons and morals, some even explicitly spelled out, but in a way that is hilarious and entertaining.  Dahl creates the ideal model for children to follow in the character of Charlie, and he then has four characters that exhibit extremes of what children should not be like.  One of the most memorable excerpts from the novel is the Oompa-Loompa song directed at parents (if you'd like to hear it sung and watch it performed, it's actually included in the Tim Burton film, check it out here):

"The most important thing we've learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set --
Or better still, just don't install
The idiotic thing at all…
did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
What used the darling ones to do?
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:
THEY ... USED ... TO ... READ! They'd READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!"

            As I continued to think about Dahl’s novel and it’s relation to didacticism/morality and entertainment, I realized in a way, Dahl is doing for children’s books what Flannery O’Connor did for her adult readers.  They both utilize the shock factor, they stay clear of heavy-handed didacticism.  But they are in no way elevating or suggesting that readers should follow in the footsteps of the many amoral characters that populate the pages of their stories.  Instead, they both utilize the grotesque in order to shock their readers and bring a realization of how they as people should act.  Moreover the grotesque in a way brings on a sort of grace and salvation.  And in Dahl’s case this produced not only for his readers, but also for the amoral children in his story because although they are cruelly punished, they do not perish, they come out alive, but severely altered, ready to start out on a better and more enlightened path, a path which we as readers are able to take without having to actually learn it the hard way.
Works Consulted:

Humphrey Carpenter’s “Secret Gardens”

Deborah Stevenson’s “Classics and Canons”

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jon M. Sweeney's article from American Magazine, “Grace and Grotestque” (

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Final Installment of Only in a Fairy Tale

Only in a Fairy Tale:

Discerning the Form through the Art of Illustration

Part 5

“Physicalization of Emotion”

In part 4 it was put forth that fairy tales are filled with violence and brutality.  But why the violence and physical pain?  What is the point? Is it bad for children to be exposed to this?  Bruno Bettelheim once said that “Since ancient times, the near-impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious.”  Thus, many have agreed with Bettelheim that fairy tales are ripe with desires and dreams and are a world where psychological traumas take center stage.  But what does this have to do with violence, especially since our psychology is so internal rather than external?

Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grimm, explains this perplexity with the phrase “turning tears into blood”.  In The Seven Ravens illustration, Rackham gives viewers the exact moment where the sister has almost made it to her brothers, but she has come face to face with a locked door to which she has lost the key.  Her solution is not to go back or to ask for help, she literally cuts off her finger and this magically serves as a key to open the door.  Thus, all the love she holds for her brothers, her fears and hopes coalesce in this painful sacrifice to save her brothers.  Gidwitz thus claims that scenes like this take place because, “forests are where our fears turn into wolves, our desires into candy houses…where the emotional problems we face…are physicalized, externalized, and ultimately conquered. Where tears are transformed into blood.” Thus, fairy tales and their illustrations, take all of these unknown, confusing, uncomfortable and abstract feelings and transform them into terms children know all to well, physical pain.  And they slowly realize that if cuts and bruises eventually heal, then perhaps their emotional trauma will one day heal too.

To see more of Adam's thoughts on fairy tales check out his post here and his website:

Hope you enjoyed this five part series on fairy tales!!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Part 4 of Only in a Fairy Tale

Only in a Fairy Tale:

Discerning the Form through the Art of Illustration

Part 4

Reality of the Brutality

Fairy tales, especially from the Brothers Grimm, have some surprisingly violent moments and perhaps even more interesting is the almost blasé way that these moments are related, meaning that these moments are not really dwelled upon or emotionalized, they simply are.  These include everything from The Juniper Tree, where a young boy is murdered by his mother and feasted upon by his father to the abducting and massacring of maidens in Fitcher’s Bird and the more well known wolf surgery scene in Red Riding Hood.  More than most versions of Red Riding Hood, Zwerger’s illustrations emphasize the surgical procedure that is about to happen.  While we as readers must suspend our disbelief in coming to terms with the fact that Red and her Grandmother are still alive after being devoured by the wolf, there is nothing magical in the practicality of exhuming them from within the wolf.  The woodcutter takes on the role of doctor in Zwerger’s scene.  Moreover, Zwerger does not shy away from actually showing us, in the moment, what it would have looked like to see Grandmother coming out of the incised belly of the wolf, perhaps all that is missing is some blood, or maybe the woodcutter is just that talented.

Part 5, which will be the last installment of this Only in a Fairy Tale series, will expand on this area a bit more, so stay tuned!  If you've missed parts 1-3 you can find them here, here and here.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Part 3 of Only in a Fairy Tale

Only in a Fairy Tale:

Discerning the Form through the Art of Illustration

Part 3

Flatness of Fairy Tales

In the minds of many today, fairy tales are usually dictated by the Disney versions, the color palette and specific idea of whom each of the character are.  For many, Cinderella is not just any girl, it is Disney’s girl, and the same goes for many of the other fairy tales colonized by Disney. However, in A.S. Byatt’s introduction to Maria Tatar’s annotated Grimm, she states that the original tales have a “discrete, salutary flatness” and that they are “older, simpler and deeper than the individual imagination.” I started to realize that these tales are truly flat, but not in a negative sense.  They are flat in that they are universal, timeless, and they are able to connect to any individual, regardless of who they are.  They do not need to be specific and elaborate, they instead have the ability to reach out and touch the human soul and illuminate truth in a way that lights up the imagination and creates this magical space where the reader or listener is hooked and floods the page with the colors of their own imagination.

Byatt also cites Max Luthi’s description of fairy tales: “an abstract world, full of discrete, interchangeable people, objects, and incidents, all of which are isolated and are nevertheless interconnected, in a kind of web…”  Thus from one tale to the next, princesses and princes, wicked step-mothers and kings, fill the role of their archetypes, but are not unique individuals, and could easily be transplanted between tales. Moreover, the aesthetic of the tales, the colors and imagery, has a certain palette, Luthi says: “red, white, black and the metallic colors of gold and silver and steel.”  This bareness even in terms of color is then typified and exalted by the illustrations of Lisbeth Zwerger.  Here in a faultless flatness she exudes the tension, annoyance, fear, movement, and pulse that fills The Frog Prince. Zwerger is able to wedge her illustrations into the flatness of the fairy tale, her princess could be any girl, what is unique are the emotions she elicits, even in its bareness and simplicity, and the magical space that she creates between word, book, image and reader.

Also, check out Donna's wonderful review of a new Lisbeth Zwerger collection over at "32 Pages"! :

Monday, January 14, 2013

Part 2, Only in a Fairy Tale

Only in a Fairy Tale:

Discerning the Form through the Art of Illustration

Part 2

“Eucatastrophe”: Sudden and Miraculous Grace

Almost anything can happen in a fairy tale.  Main characters are murdered, blinded and banished.  Characters often start out weak, and must venture through an unknown forest, facing their fears and battling enemies. And when all hope seems lost, some miracle takes place and the main character comes out on top and all is well in the kingdom again leading to their “happily ever after”.  Some may complain that this is not realistic, but that is the point, fairy tales are not supposed to be about our reality, they live in their own reality and play by different rules.  Moreover, this form of story gives its readers hope, that as difficult and seemingly impossible the world may seem, the fairy tale always gets you out of it and your problems are resolved.

J.R.R.Tolkien has probably described this literary phenomenon the best.  He refers to this fairy tale happy ending propensity as “eucatastrophe”.  He coined this term from Greek: ευ- "good" and καταστροφή "destruction".  In his essay “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien states:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending… or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”: this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…”

In his illustration for Rapunzel, Zelinsky gives us the moment following the eucatastrophe. Readers have just finished witnessing the almost religious miracle that changes the lives of Rapunzel and her beloved, the healing power of her tears to cure his blindness. Playing into this religiosity, Zelinsky ends his tale with this icon or Renaissance-style religious composition, showing that all is well, their happy ending is real, and Rapunzel, like the grace-giving Virgin herself, is the deliverer and stands at the center of their family’s world.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Only in a Fairy Tale, PART 1

Only in a Fairy Tale:

Discerning the Form through the Art of Illustration

This will be a 5 part series based on my final project for my course this past fall on the Brothers Grimm and fairy tales.  Each post will take on a certain aspect of the fairy tale as a genre, and unpack it by looking at a specific illustration.  Hope you enjoy and look forward to hearing your thoughts on the illustrations and my analysis!

Part 1

Once Upon a Time…

      Fairy tales inhabit the world of “once upon a time”.  They are not bound up by history or specifics of culture or the intricacies of clock time, they dwell in the land of “faerie” and have rules of their own.  Within the world of fairy tales, we begin in a place that mirrors reality, but then as the journey sets off, usually through the dark woods, we enter a space where anything can happen, mothers and fathers can abandon children, wolves can devour you alive, and witches in confectionary cottages will bake you for dinner.  “Once upon a time” is a sort of “dream time” or “literary time”; it is outside of time, “upon” or above it.  It is a place where time itself breaks, the rules of time do not exist, and real time no longer is.  In this way, it resembles closely the idea of Kairos, moments where “clock time” seems to open up and no longer exist, where time falls away.

     In Anton Pieck’s illustration for Hansel and Gretel, we see this magical house, amid a callous, dark forest.  Shadowy figures loom in the background, as a warning to the reader that perhaps this place is too good to be true; unfortunately Hansel and Gretel are not privy to this knowledge until it is almost too late.  The witch’s house dwells in a time of its own, and the rules of reality, the fact that a house could not really stand made of mere sweets, do not hold.  In Derek Stratton’s illustration, ideas of time and different levels of reality jump out at the viewer.  Hansel and Gretel stand at the foreground, balanced on the threshold between the dark forest and the tempting candy land.  The witch stands as observer, more than that as a god figure of this realm of time that she dictates, with the peppermint hypnotically dangling, she controls each step that the siblings take and whether or not they will survive.  That is until the wit and cunning of a real world child supplants this “once upon a time” goddess.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Thanks to All of You!

Thanks to all of you who have stopped by here to read posts, check out reviews, interviews or book lists here at Alice in Baker Street!!  The blog just hit over 10,000 views which is AWESOME!

The new semester just kicked off this week, and this spring I'm taking some great classes, three English courses and one Art studio course : Golden Age of Children's Literature, Literature for the Young Child, an Independent Study focusing on soon to be determined topics in children's lit, and an Illustration class!!

Coming soon I'll be posting a 5 part series honing in on what makes fairy tales fairy tales by way of illustration analysis, so stay tuned for that :)

Hope all of your New Years are off to fantastic starts!!