Archive for ‘children’s literature’

April 13, 2014

Happy Families redux

Last weekend’s column, drawing rather heavily on this piece on Blyton’s families from a couple of years ago.



A young couple have twin children, male and female. Preferring boys to girls, they care far more for their son than for their daughter, so that even as a toddler the unloved child retreats into herself. When both the children are three years old the son dies, and the parents resent his sister for surviving. They allow her to forget that she ever had a brother, send her to boarding school when she is old enough, and choose never to visit or write, or even to send birthday cards.

There’s still something a bit transgressive about the idea of parents who don’t love their children—it is, for example, the aspect of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin that seems the most discussed. Parents are unlikely to admit even to having a favourite child. Mothers in particular are expected to be the source of magical, selfless love, and made monsters of when they fail to do so. Fairy tale retellings over time morph uncaring mothers into evil stepmothers to soften the blow.

The story above is not, however, from a literary work about damaged children, or if it is it’s an unlikely one. It is from Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School, and the life story of Joan Townsend, the best friend of that book’s protagonist.

Parents in the Blytonverse range from criminally negligent (oh, are you having an adventure again? they ask as their children once again entangle themselves with internationally-operating and well-armed gangs) to the openly villainous. The first of these is generally a narrative necessity; the second is rarer. The books often get dismissed as comfortable stories about comfortable middle-class children and most of the time this is true, yet occasionally something surfaces that makes one wonder if all is really as it seems.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the incident in The Naughtiest Girl in the School is not that Joan’s parents have been treating her badly for years. It is that, when Mrs Townsend explains to her daughter’s headmistresses that she wishes said daughter had died, everyone around her seems to accept this as normal. Even Joan herself understands and accepts her mother’s neglect once she has heard the facts.

Joan is not the only one of Blyton’s fictional children who has a lot to forgive her family. Barney, of the series of novels that begins with The Rockingdown Mystery, is the son of a circus girl and a man whose family, we are told, mistreated Barney’s mother until she ran away taking her child with her. Carlotta, of the St. Clare’s series of books, has a similar family history. Then there’s Margery, also of St Clare’s school, whose father wishes for sons and so sides with Margery’s stepmother (and the mother of his sons) against his daughter until her school friends intervene by writing to him to prove that she is worthy of his regard.

Childhood means not having power. We’re told that one reason baby animals (including baby humans) are cute is in order to make the adults look after them, since they are helpless to look after themselves. Children of all species are reliant on the benevolence of the adult world for mere survival. If they cannot make themselves loveable, they are doomed.

This is all rather more brutal and nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw than one expects from what are, let’s be honest, not very good books. But if you read Blyton’s fictional universe as one in which these truths are known and understood, where your dependence on your parents for survival is not buried in platitudes about loving families (or at least, not so deeply buried that it isn’t widely known and understood), a lot of things begin to make sense. Carlotta earns tips from her formidable grandmother when she is appropriately ladylike. Barney and his father and grandmother find each other and live happily ever after. Margery and her father are reconciled and presumably go home and determinedly act out happy familial relations. Joan forgives her mother—what were her alternatives?


February 12, 2014

The Krum Theory (or burblings about fanfiction and authorial … authority?)

J.K. Rowling said the end of Deathly Hallows was about “wish-fulfillment” and I had some thoughts. Again, very sparse; I’d love to hear of more examples of authors who have written fanfiction set in their own universes.

From this weekend’s column.


One of the difficulties of a book or television series that generates a great deal of fanfiction is the possibility that while we wait for the next installment, the (unpaid, non-professional) fan writers are doing it better. I spent much of the most recent series of the BBC’s Sherlock series comparing it (usually to the actual show’s disadvantage) to other, fan-produced works. But this is hardly the only instance in which a ‘real’ author’s work has reminded me of fanfic.

The last of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in 2007. Like what felt like most of the world at the time, I read it the day it was released. It was all going so well until we came to the book’s epilogue. Here was a piece of writing that had all the characteristics of a particular sort of fanfiction, the kind that generally isn’t very good. The neat pairing off of everyone with everyone, the weird and wonderful names given to the characters’ offspring; it was uniformly dreadful. Years later, the movies would drive this point home further by fake-aging their actors to film this scene, thus making of it something truly unsettling.

I reread this unfortunate chapter recently, after Rowling herself admitted to the wish-fulfillment nature of it all. More importantly, she suggested that having her character Hermione Granger end up with the gormless Ron Weasley may not have been the best idea, and that Harry Potter himself might have made her happier.

Naturally this has pleased a section of her fans who always thought that Hermione and Harry were meant to be, and others who simply thought she could do better. Some of us grumpily asked why she needed to be paired off with a man at all when there were so many other options available to her. She could be Minister for Magic. She could be queer. She could have a torrid affair with Bulgarian Quidditch player Viktor Krum, before choosing career over personal life and inventing something world-changing. She  could work towards the inevitable house-elf revolution and be reviled among polite wizard society for her supposed treachery.

But that is one of the things fanfiction allows us to do—to take characters, and imagine that they have an independent existence outside the text, and explore the possibilities they offer us. It’s one of the luxuries afforded to fans of a work, and I’m sure that all of these (and thousands of other) potential futures for Hermione have been explored by writers who are more willing to put in the effort than I am.

But Rowling isn’t a fan of the Harry Potter books, or at least not a typical one, and I find myself intrigued by the implications of an author thus elaborating upon or rethinking events set in the world she created. If Rowling reveals ‘facts’ about the characters that were not stated in the books (as with her assertion some months after the series ended that Professor Dumbledore was gay), are they necessarily more canonical than my own belief that Luna Lovegood is right about the Nargles (admittedly, there’s more textual evidence for the first of these theories than the second)? If Rowling were to write a ‘corrected’ version of the final book with a very  different version of that last chapter would we accept it as the ‘real’ sequence of events? What are the limits of story, to what extent do the millions of people who have already read the book own the plot, so that it cannot now be changed?

All this is hypothetical, since Rowling has shown no sign of wanting to correct her books. And while her pronouncements on the series will presumably always be listened to more seriously than those of her fans, I suppose it would be unfair to ban her from playing with her own creation.


February 9, 2014

Two hair stories

When I wrote this, about ten days ago, I was also following a number of twitter conversations around hair (sparked by Laurie Penny’s rather too universalising piece about the politics of short hair on women), and contemplating a haircut myself. And had just bought the first of these two books (as readers of this blog know, I acquired the Aiken collection through a criminal act more than twenty years ago). Hair seems to have been a theme of this month.

A slightly longer version of last weekend’s column.



I spent most of my childhood alternately wishing for straight hair and defiantly proclaiming the superiority of curls. As an adult I’ve become reconciled (and quite proud of) hair which when caught in a strong wind has been known to accost strangers in the street. I still grit my teeth when shocked hairdressers suggest straightening it (or refuse to cut it as short as I would like) but I’m aware that my hair-related troubles are much less strenuous than those of thousands of other women.

Because hair is an intensely political issue; whether it is long or short, allowed to turn grey, dyed (and what colours of dye are allowable is another issue entirely), left natural or artificially treated, even the sorts of hairstyles we choose; all of these have wider ramifications that we cannot entirely control, and work together to affect us in ways that are both far too common and intensely individual and personal. Black women in particular all too frequently come up against racist assumptions around what is and is not acceptable hair. Your hair can be something you take joy in; it is also often a catalyst for angst, worry, exhaustion.

Parineeta, the princess in Komilla Raote’s The Princess with the Longest Hair (illustrated by Vandana Bist) takes very little delight in the beauty of her hair. It is her parents who engage a hundred maids to oil, wash and make it beautiful. For another long-haired heroine of fairy-tale, Rapunzel, long hair proves the method of her rescue; for Parineeta this is not the case. When she sits at the window of the topmost room of the palace and lets her hair down, it is not escape but further entrapment that is inevitable—when her hair grows long enough to touch the ground the king and queen will choose a prince for a marriage Parineeta doesn’t want.

Joan Aiken’s collection of short stories, The Last Slice of Rainbow, contains another instance of a princess whose hair is more curse than blessing. “The Queen with Screaming Hair” introduces us to Christina, princess of Laurestinia, who in a fit of childish mischief snips off the whiskers of her fairy-godfather. Disappearing until he can grow them back (a process which will take nine times nine thousand hours) he curses Christina; until he returns her hair will scream and taunt her constantly. Attempts to cut it all off prove futile as it immediately grows back, and so Christina must live with a perpetual chorus of voices belittling her; voices that almost no one else can hear. Worse, her parents’ ship has hit an iceberg and to the ordeal of merely getting through the days is added that of running the country.

But Christina uses her hair for good. She donates her hair to the citizens of her country; it is used to make mats and hammocks for those who have to live in the marshes, and to save her people from rampaging bulls and icebergs bigger than the country itself. Parineeta, when she finally escapes the palace, also uses her hair well. It provides a blanket for a nursing mother and her freezing child, nets for fishermen, and a woven roof for a cowshed.

Both stories have the advantage of fine illustrators—Bist and Margaret Walty (illustrator of my edition of Aiken’s short stories) both produce delicate, detailed art that seems to give us every strand of hair. And then Bist and Raote do something that shouldn’t be unexpected but somehow has so much visual impact—they show us Parineeta, bald, walking out of the story and into her future.

“Without the burden of her heavy hair, Parineeta felt as light as the rays of the morning sun that were turning the sky blue. She hurried towards the mountains.”

Growing up in India, most images of bald women one sees are sanyasins. And Parineeta gives up everything (even her body, it seems, as she disappears into the distance) to her kingdom; the last few pages of the story suggest that her absence has become a kind of constant presence, that she’s in the trees and the river (as in the illustration above). I’m sure you could make an argument that teaching young girls to renounce things is not the greatest idea, but there’s something powerful and spiritual about this picture.

Aiken also ends her story by rewarding Christina with a voyage of discovery (and a potential partner to share it with) but Parineeta, lightened of her worldly duties and walking lighthearted into oblivion, is perfect.


Perhaps it’s a little worrying that two of my favourite Indian children’s books in the last few years have ended in the protagonist’s noble death?

August 6, 2013

Junuka Deshpande, Night and Bhajju Shyam, Gita Wolf and Andrea Anastasio, Alone in the Forest

I read some children’s books.

(From this weekend’s column)


Fairy tales would have it that one of the more reliable ways of disposing of children is through the simple expedient of dumping them in a wood somewhere. This is what the parents of Hansel and Gretel do; it’s also how the Huntsman in the Snow White story reconciles his duty (he has been ordered by the queen to murder the girl) and his conscience. Both of these stories have happy endings—Snow White befriends and is helped by a group of dwarves, Hansel and Gretel are first enslaved by, then kill a powerful witch with an edible house. A story that does not have a happy ending is that of the Babes in the Wood in which children abandoned to die in the forest do actually die in the forest. Various versions of the story have them being tended to by robins or carried up to heaven, but whichever way you look at it it’s not a happy story. A child lost in a forest might have reason to be afraid, even if the more obvious dangers did not exist, had she been brought up on these tales.

Musa is the protagonist of Bhajju Shyam, Gita Wolf and Andrea Anastasio’s Alone in the Forest. We’re not told which stories he was brought up on, but as a boy living on the edge of the forest he’s probably aware of its various dangers. One day Musa volunteers to fetch firewood for his mother. He sets off into the forest quite happily, but some loud noises unnerve him. He ends up hiding in a hollow tree for a long time, all the while convinced that something awful is about to happen to him.

Alone in the Forest is a convincing account of fear as it might be experienced by a child or an adult. Publishers Tara Books frequently draw on folk traditions for their art, and Bhajju Shyam has adapted his Gond style to a number of high profile books in the past few years. Here, the style works perfectly. Colour is important; early on a two-page spread shows Musa about to enter the forest. All around him is light blue daylight. In contrast, the forest is dark and dingy. Darker, more muted greens, browns and maroons are used for all the forest scenes. Musa’s imagination, however, is in technicolour, with backgrounds of reds and oranges against which the dark purple wild boar stands out. Of course Musa reaches home safely and here again we have the colours of daylight and sunshine, with the domestic image of the cow and her calf (familiar to urban Indians as it’s painted on the back of every other truck).

By contrast, everything about Junuka Deshpande’s Night is muted. Deshpande’s book also has two children walking through a wood in the dark, but that is where the similarities between the two books end. Deshpande’s illustrations are entirely in black, white and grey with small patterns used to differentiate between different layers or textures. Here there is no underlying sense of fear—the two girls have arrived here by bus and will presumably depart that way, and there are cars on the nearby road. Instead the book looks with a sort of quiet awe at the sights and sounds of the forest at night; the “tap-tap” (or “khat-khat”; Tulika have presented the Hindi and English text side by side) of the woodpecker, the rustle of dry leaves, the stillness of deer and the glow of fireflies and the eyes of owls. Even when a tiger shows up there’s no panic; Deshpande’s style gives the whole a sense of unreality so that, no matter what, the girls are always safe.

Alone in the Forest evokes sympathetically a child’s terror of what might be out there. Night does the opposite, creating a quiet, safe world where we are free to wander and observe, lulling fear (this is a hushed, bedtime sort of book) to sleep.


June 29, 2013

Sheela Chari, Vanished

There’s been a minor revolution in Indian children’s publishing in the last few years, particularly with regard to Middle Grade and Young Adult books. But all this really means is that we have MG and YA books; it’s still rare that I find one I actually enjoy. So I leapt at the offer of a copy of Vanished, a book set in India and the USA and featuring a hunt for a possibly-magical veena.

Neela is eleven years old and lives in Massachusetts where, after school, she takes veena lessons. Her veena is an unusual one; a gift from a grandmother who also plays the instrument, it’s a Guru original, made by one of the greatest veena makers of all time. It has a strange, winged dragon carved into its pegbox. And then the veena goes missing.

Legend has it that one of Guru’s veenas keeps returning to a particular music shop in Chennai. And we’re also told that a famous American veena player called Veronica Wyvern (as in winged dragon, you ask?) owned a Guru original. None of this is particularly hard to piece together and it doesn’t really have to be. For me the big mystery was whether or not this was really a supernatural story.

There’s a blurb from The Hindu at the back of this book which  suggests that one of its virtues is that it “gives Indian readers a glimpse of life in America”. I thought this was interesting because I got the opposite sense–I think there’s an element of explaining India to American (or Americans of Indian origin) children (Vanished was first published in the USA by Hyperion in 2011). And part of the reason why it worked well for me is Chari’s choice to avoid turning it into a novel of multicultural angst. We’re never under the impression that there’s one model of Indian-in-America; Neela’s friend Pavi has far more conservative parents, but is (unlike Neela) also more willing to flaunt her difference and wear a bindi in public (Gwen Stefani wears one, she points out in a popculture reference that might already be outdated). And there’s no romance plot, merely a few friendship ones, and at least one of these is left unresolved in a way that felt very realistic to me. It sounds at this point as if I’m praising the book more for what it doesn’t do than what it does. But what all these omissions allow for is a relatively simple, likeable book and I genuinely enjoyed it.

And look, cover art by Jon Klassen!

June 13, 2013

Lucy Boston, The Children of Green Knowe

This is not a Rasa of Yearniness post, or not really, Kip.

From this week’s column.


The haunted house is such a classic (and effective) trope in literature because we believe that places matter. Ghosts wherever they are, mean history; that a place is supposed to be haunted is a constant reminder that it has had a past. Things have happened here. Quite apart from the inherent uncanniness of spirits that can move things around, the idea of ghosts is a reminder that we cannot entirely control our surroundings. We will never be the first to experience a place.

One house that can lay claim to a long history is The Manor, in Cambridgeshire, England. It is supposed to be one of the oldest continually-habited houses in the country, having been built almost a thousand years ago. The Manor was also home for many years to the author Lucy Boston, who used it as the setting for the six books in her “Green Knowe” series.

I don’t know if there are any stories of ghosts that haunt The Manor, but its fictional counterpart certainly has them in abundance. The first book, The Children of Green Knowe, has seven year old Toseland (“Tolly” for short) arriving for the first time at his great-grandmother’s ancestral home. Almost immediately he begins to sense the presence of other children, though he cannot yet see them.  Green Knowe continues to be the home of three children who lived during the 1600s; Anthony, Linnet and Toby (another Toseland). As Tolly learns to see these distant relatives in more definite ways than out of the corner of his eye, he also learns more about the history of this house and of his own family.

Some of my favourite books, particularly children’s books, have as their background a feeling of quiet yearning. It’s in invoking this feeling that Boston’s great achievement lies. Not much actually happens in The Children of Green Knowe, but something about this book is pure, distilled childhood. It’s in Tolly’s immediate acceptance of the very strange world he has come to live in, in the elusiveness of companions who cannot always be directly looked at, the equal parts of fear and longing. Death exists in this world, and so do curses, and sadness and fear are inevitable even for adults. But above and around them exists a sense of safety, of being in the right place.  To read The Children of Green Knowe is to remember that “nostalgia” is from the Greek for homecoming—Tolly comes home to family, history, even to his own name. For this alone it might just be the perfect children’s book.

There’s also something rather special happening with time. Play that involves companions who might disappear at any moment may seem transient; and read from my (now) adult perspective so may this whole business of childhood itself. But on a larger scale things stay remarkably unchanged in this little world. Children’s play appears to have stayed constant across centuries so that Tolly is able to communicate immediately with these distant relatives. The house is unchanged. Even the faithful retainer is the descendant of his predecessor in the position—apparently the Boggis family have been content to be loyal servants for centuries. (One wonders if the Boggis children get to have similarly nostalgic adventures). Green Knowe is also known as “Green Noah”; the house is surrounded by a moat and we first see it during a flood. It’s tempting to see Green Knowe as a sort of time-ark, carrying within it the past, and preserving it into the future. Is it even really a haunted house when the past, present and future exist together in this protected space? I’m not sure.

As a child I was terrified of ghosts—to the point that a single nightmare could have me in tears regularly for months after. But as a child I had not yet read The Children of Green Knowe, and I wonder if that could have changed things.


May 5, 2013

The monster and the children’s book

The Monster in Anushka Ravishankar’s Moin and the Monster requires Moin to draw it in order that it may have a corporeal form. Its giant nose, hideous face and fearsomely purple skin turn out to be a bit too much for Moin’s weak artistic skills. Much to its disgust, the Monster must go about looking like this:

I did a very silly interview with Anushka at the Duckbill blog when the second Moin book came out. I asked her a couple of over-inflated, “serious” questions about the book: about the monster’s self-identification as a monster, about its lack of a name and a gender, and so forth. I’m not sure what it says about me that I now think my parody questions focused on an aspect of the book that I think is rather important.

Another recent children’s book (though for younger readers than Moin’s audience) is The Pleasant Rakshasa by Sowmya Rajendran and artist Niveditha Subramaniam. It’s about Karimuga, a rakshasa whose beauty causes the other rakshasas to feel jealous and insecure. Being a saintly sort of person, Karimuga arranges it so that his numerous assets are  distributed among his peers.

There’s already enough in this outline of the plot to suggest that this book is very deliberately doing a couple of interesting things. The rakshasa as “pleasant” and unselfish, for one. I don’t think any twenty-first century children’s book (insert hollow laugh, because you just know there are some authors and publishers who will still enthusiastically prove me wrong) can still disseminate seriously the idea that entire races of sentient beings are fundamentally “bad”. The redistribution of assets, if not property (though beauty is itself a kind of currency); if this blog had very different politics I’d be writing an outraged Are Tulika Books Indoctrinating Our Children With Communist Propaganda? story. And then there’s the association of the rakshasa with beauty. If you grew up on a diet of Amar Chitra Katha and the like you know that rakshasas are mostly hideous, mysteriously olive-green, and can only be beautiful when they want to trick you into wanting sex with them–see for example many depictions of Surpanakha.

Karimuga looks like this:

The other rakshasas were jealous of him.

“Look at his beautiful purple skin!”

“Look at his splendid red eyes!”

“Look at his wonderful hairy legs!”

“Oh, look at his huge belly!”

“And those teeth!”


Karimuga is beautiful because he is fat and hairy with red eyes and yellow teeth. Ravishankar’s nameless “Monster” is unconcerned with beauty–its concern is that it be as physically terrifying as the limitations of a small boy’s artistic skills can make it. Both of them, then, are offering alternative ways of “judging” appearance; one by ignoring traditional literary beauty standards altogether in favour of a much more useful paradigm, and the other by overturning those standards and creating a set of beauty standards that are almost its opposite. Incidentally, Moin’s monster was also supposed to have purple skin (and who can blame it for wanting such a thing).

I think it’s also interesting that part of the monster’s problem is that it cannot be drawn–at least, not well. Particularly when you consider some of Niveditha Subramaniam’s rakshasas:

I think it’s possibly relevant that both of these creatures exist in part outside the clear black outlines that, for example, their eyes (and the face of the green one) have. The green rakshasa also has hairy legs without really having enough leg for the hair to rest on. There’s something decidedly non-Euclidean about all of this; monstrousness, then, is undrawable.

But creating alternative standards of beauty can be as exclusionary as the original ones, as The Pleasant Rakshasa finds. All this new set of attractive traits does is to set up Karimuga as the ideal to aspire to. It’s only when Karimuga is able to share the wealth, to let go of the power that his beauty gives him (while still retaining his glorious yellow teeth because you have to be able to love your body) that any sort of revolution can happen. And Karimuga is happy.


[Or this is all complete nonsense. But you should read both these monster books anyway, they're excellent.]

March 20, 2013

Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, Tina’s Mouth

This was fun. From this weekend’s column:



“To be honest, Sartre, up until last week I did not have the slightest interest in the meaning of my existence”.

Tina Malhotra is the youngest member of her family, and attends a prestigious, and expensive, school in California. “Prestigious” here means the sort of school where it is normal to take a class on existentialism. Philosophy isn’t that interesting to Tina, though, until a particularly disastrous period in her school life when her best friend grows overly absorbed with a new boyfriend and leaves her behind. Tina has no one to have lunch with, an unrequited crush, and has never been kissed. Perhaps writing a diary addressed to Jean-Paul Sartre will help her to figure things out.

Describing itself as “an existential comic diary”, Tina’s Mouth, by Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, chronicles the events of one semester in Tina’s life. These include the end of her oldest friendship, her first kiss, and varying degrees of family drama. The “comic” part of the equation (though it’s also frequently a very funny book) is provided by Mari Araki’s illustrations.

Like most people reading this, I have never attended an American High School. I have (again, I suspect, like most people) watched far too many teen movies, and read far too many teenage books, and recognise all of the tropes. So it’s sometimes hard to tell how far Kashyap and Araki’s depiction of Yarborough Academy is authentic and how far it is specifically intended to invoke these tropes. There’s certainly an awareness of, and a willingness to play with the tropes of the high school story; the cool teacher who smokes pot, the charming, unattainable crush, the terrible secrets and betrayals heard in the girls’ bathrooms, and the division of the student body into ridiculous cliques. So we have “hippies”, “cheerleaders”, and “skaters” (are there really still skaters?), but there are also “pseudo-intellectual-future-art-school-hipsters”, and anti-racism clubs featuring white boys with dreadlocks. The back jacket of the book describes Tina as a “wry observer” of those around her, and this is sometimes true. But often Kashyap’s satire is light-handed, allowing the reader to see the absurdity of things and behaviours Tina takes for granted. This is certainly true of the many sections in which Tina’s Indianness comes into play; when the mother of a friend refers to her as “my little six-armed goddess”, or the boy she has a crush on expects her to teach him about Buddhism, it’s far more effective than the more explicit list of silly questions people ask about her heritage that she provides at the beginning of the book.

One of the things that makes Tina’s Mouth work is the matter-of-fact way in which Tina’s Indian origins are merged with other aspects of her life. The book never makes a particularly big deal about the fact that Tina once had a crush on Lord Krishna, or that her sister, whose last boyfriend was a German architect, must fight off Pinky Aunty’s matchmaking her with doctors. An old story about Krishna’s mother Yashodha seeing the universe in her son’s mouth comes up over and over. No book deserves credit merely for avoiding a lazy stereotype, but so many books make this cultural difference the site of angst that this approach comes as a relief.

It’s probably clear from all of this that despite Sartre’s presence Tina’s Mouth is not a book that engages deeply with philosophy; though there’s a throwaway conversation about Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a scrawled “Die Camus # ❤” on the last page. It manages not to be too precious with its references, which is really the most one could hope for.

Araki’s art is charming and detailed. In one scene, as an increasingly drunk aunt lectures Tina about feminism, philosophy, and the superiority of European (as opposed to American) men, Tina’s mother’s increasing disgust at the smoke from the aunt’s cigarette is never alluded to by the narrative, but becomes the focus of interest for this set of panels. These are real people, and the book never lets us forget that.


March 1, 2013

A solution to Susan

A few years ago, I read Alan Garner’s Elidor and was struck by a number of similarities with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. This is not to say that I think Garner was doing a conscious rebuttal of Lewis in his own work, necessarily (that disclaimer applies to this post as well). Portal fantasies with “chosen” children were, I think, a reasonably established trope by the time Garner’s earlier books were written, as were fantastic unicorns and books that began with train journeys (see for example practically every school story ever). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of these, along with other tropes, come into play in Elidor, but that’s because Elidor works as an inversion of exactly that type of fantasy.

It’s probably also a coincidence that both writers write of girls named Susan; there are a number of Susans floating about mid-twentieth century children’s literature. Still, reading both the Susans together is potentially illuminating.

Lewis’s Susan Pevensie first appears in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as the concerned older sister. She tries to mother the younger ones, is sensible, is rescued by her brother, grows into a good archer and a beautiful woman.Skimming the book again I see that the being sensible part remains constant; at the end of the book Susan is the only one of her siblings to suggest not taking the path that will (though they don’t know this at the time) send them back to their own world with no way of coming back. In The Horse and His Boy, which is set during the Pevensies’ time as rulers of Narnia, she’s an adult, capable of desire and contemplating marriage to a Calormene prince (who turns out to be evil, as most brown people are). There’s no sign, either here or in the final pages of LWW, that any of the children spend much time thinking about where they came from or contemplate returning– though at the end of The Horse and His Boy Aravis and Shasta hear Lucy telling the story of how the Pevensies came to Narnia, so at least at this point they still remember. And while I find this a little creepy, the implication is that these characters’ lives are here.

And so to Prince Caspian, the last book in which Susan appears. I’m indebted for my reading of Susan in this book to Ana Mardoll’s ongoing chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the series, all of which can be found here, but I want to particularly focus on these two posts. Ana Mardoll sees Susan as deeply vulnerable, and strongly affected by being hauled in and out of Narnia; and it’s a situation that is potentially traumatic. We’re never shown how Susan feels at being told at the end of Prince Caspian that coming back is no longer an option for her, but it’s quite conceivable that she’s less accepting of it than her brother.

Within the series’ internal chronology, that moment when Susan walks through the door in the air and back to “our” world is the last time we see her. We will see her siblings, and fellow Narnia-adventurers in The Last Battle though:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

Critiques of Lewis tend to focus on that “nylons and lipstick and invitations” line, and while I find it rather indicative of Lewis’ politics in general, I find what Eustace says to be more interesting. Susan says Narnia doesn’t exist at all, and within the logic of the series this doesn’t make sense because obviously it does exist and this is the real problem.

Back at the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the Pevensie children had found Lucy’s insistence that she had entered a magical land through a wardrobe alarming, and had asked Professor Kirk for advice. His answer:

“There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad.”

This is a version of Lewis’s trilemma, and let’s ignore for the moment all the things that are obviously wrong with it as an argument. Lucy is not in the habit of lying and is “clearly” not mad (how likely is it that the Professor’s degrees are in anything related to the field of mental health?) so we have to assume she’s telling the truth, against all laws of time and space as the children know them.

Within the logic of Narnia’s universe (which I am respecting much more than the Professor does that of the real world) Susan is not telling the truth when she says Narnia does not exist. Is she in the habit of lying, then, or is something much more serious going on here? I notice that the dismissive comments that the ‘Friends’ of Narnia make about Susan do not come from her family. Polly, Jill and Eustace all have negative things to say, but of those who know her best, Peter is short and changes the subject, and Edmund and Lucy are silent.



One of the reasons I suspect no one expected a third book in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen series is that it ends so very well. In The Moon of Gomrath Susan briefly rides with, and feels a strong kinship with the Daughters of the Moon. She has further reason to feel like she belongs with them; the Mark of Fohla, given to her by Angharad Goldenhand. We see Susan’s desolation at the end of the book twice, through her own eyes and her brother’s, as they leave her behind.

The Einheriar paled, their forms thinning to air and light, and they rose from her into the sky.


But Susan was left as dross upon the hill, and a voice came to her from the gathering outlines of the stars. “It is not yet! It will be! But not yet!” And the fire died in Susan, and she was alone on the moor, the night wind in her face, joy and anguish in her heart.

The hoof-beats drew near, and the earth throbbed. Colin opened his eyes. Now the cloud raced over the ground, breaking into separate glories that whisped and sharpened to skeins of starlight, and were horsemen, and at their head was majesty, crowned with antlers, like the sun.

But as they crossed the valley, one of the riders dropped behind, and Colin saw that it was Susan. She lost ground, though her speed was no less, and the light that formed her died, and in its place was a smaller, solid figure that halted, forlorn, in the white wake of the riding.


It’s a horrible moment.

And you have to wonder how much of the awfulness of those final moments of Elidor has to do with the terrible thing that has just happened (the death of Findhorn) and how much of it is the horror of return to the mundane world:

… for an instant the glories of stone, sword, spear, and cauldron hung in their true shapes, almost a trick of the splintering glass, the golden light. The song faded.

The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.

These children cannot skip unconcernedly back and forth between worlds without consequence or thought for what they must now do without. There’s magic, then it’s gone, and they are bereft.

And so to Boneland*, Garner’s 2012 conclusion to what we now know is a trilogy. This is a darker book, an adult book. It works outside the realm of children’s fantasy and in some ways is not fantasy at all. Susan is not present in this book, any more than she is in The Last Battle. Here she is not even named. And Colin cannot work out where his sister has gone; for much of the book he can’t even be sure he had a sister. The siblings are separated, either because one of them has managed again to access the world of fantasy from which the other has been cut off, or by death, or (as is the case in The Last Battle) the two are the same thing anyway. Susan is not the one left behind this time, she has moved ahead into whatever it is she has moved into. Boneland is all about Colin’s fractured psyche that is partly (in one of several possible readings of the book) a result of his childhood adventures. In a sense, then, if we accept Mardoll’s reading of Susan (I do, though I’m reasonably sure Lewis would not) with Boneland Garner may provide us with a solution to the problem of why Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia. I wonder how Colin would answer if asked whether the events of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen were “real”.




* I reviewed Boneland here, and Maureen Kincaid Speller has some detailed notes here that are especially helpful in placing it in the context of Garner’s larger body of work. And see also this lovely snippet about girls who went back (by Atilla/atillariffic on tumblr, based on art by Helen Green/dollychops).

February 11, 2013

Two Owls and a Goat.

I’m never looking for anything in particular at the Delhi Bookfair, which is why my purchases always feel (to me) so unexpectedly entertaining. Among those I picked up this year were three Indian children’s books the covers of which featured, respectively, an owl, an owl and a goat. I like owls and goats.

The first was The Magic Feather by Roma Singh, published by Tulika Books. The owl on the cover is slightly misleading — though it plays an important role in the book it has very little screentime and no speaking lines. A little girl is looking for her friends. She tucks a fallen owl feather into her hair, and from then on, whatever she places in her hair leads her to a wonderful land. Eventually she reaches the land of books, where she finds her friends and they all read things.

What makes this is the art, which is a mixture of papercraft and simple, drawn-on colours, which makes for a sense of overlapping textures leaping off the page. The little girl’s hair is made of long strips of curling print, and birds, clouds, leaves are varieties of patterned paper. Some of the paper still bears text,  so that on the owl’s wings or the belly of a frog it is possible to read part of an article about construction work. It is so very pretty.

Owl Ball by Francesca Xotta was published by the National Book Trust and was not half as attractive as (though a fraction of the price of) The Magic Feather. The NBT can be frustrating if you like children’s books– there’s so much potential for greatness wasted for lack of funds and perhaps lack of care. I’d work for them (part-time only) for free if it meant better-edited books.

So, Owl Ball. It’s about an owl who lives in a park where children regularly dump junk food. Our protagonist eats these unhealthy things and grows fat. This causes the other animals in the park to bully him and call him names, including “kumbhakarna” and “football”; it becomes clear that in calling him “Owl Ball” the book is doing something similar. Owl Ball is too weak to defend himself from the bullies until he meets a little girl. She tells him he must become physically strong in order to stand up for himself. A strict programme of exercise follows but this is not enough. She must “turn Owl Ball into a normal owl … his behaviour also needs reformation”.

Now that he is strong, does Owl Ball defend himself from the bullies? Well, no, because they are impressed by his newfound slim handsomeness and do not taunt him anymore. Instead they all become friends. What Owl Ball has learnt is that his new friends are really a bunch of bullies to whose ideas he was forced to conform “excess of everything is bad”. Owl Ball  is a story about how children can protect themselves from being bullied by getting rid of whatever traits about them the bullies fixate upon — and that these bullies make desirable friends. And that being fat is the worst thing in the world. It was published in 2009.

The last of the three books was The Bravest Goat in the World, a story (incredibly) by former president Dr. Zakir Husain, translated by Samina Mishra and with illustrations by Pooja Pottenkulam. It’s published by Young Zubaan, and I bought it mainly for the combination of the title and this illustration, reproduced on the cover:

(Note: the goat in question does not have seven legs. That is merely her coat, though various people on twitter suggested that they might be udders).

Chandni is a goat, owned by a lonely man named Abbu Khan who keeps goats for company. All his previous goats have escaped and run to the mountains, as mountain goats cannot abide being chained; Chandni yearns to do the same. Eventually she breaks free, lives the life of a real goat, falls in love, and (spoiler warning!) … is killed by a wolf.

Which is the point at which in many books we’d learn that Chandni shouldn’t have left her nice safe home. Instead, The Bravest Goat in the World actively validates her choice. We’re told that she had lived “like a mountain goat”, that in fact “it was Chandni who had won in the end”. What we have is a book that upholds an idea of personal integrity as more important than anything else– certainly more important than safety; as far as morals in children’s books go this is one we really don’t see enough of. Our former president. There’s rather too much text on each page to make for perfection, but between the unusual, gory morality of the story and Pooja Pottenkulam’s adorably silly illustrations, I was completely charmed.