13 December 2017

Happy Holidays from Highlights

This week H-Net’s American Studies discussion site published Patrick Cox’s article “What's Wrong with Christmas in Highlights for Children?” While certainly not saying this was a Bad Thing, Cox noted a significant change in how the magazine has presented Christmas to young readers:
Santa Claus, arguably the most prominent figure in wondrous childhood, has been almost entirely absent from the pages of Highlights over the past 30 years. Santa used to appear multiple times in every December issue in stories and images, as did elves and flying reindeer, since the magazine was founded in 1946. Other Christmas-y pages in December Highlights issues of Chistmases past included short non-fiction pieces on, for example, the history of Christmas trees or Christmas celebrations in other countries, and short fiction about children at Christmas who typically learn valuable lessons about giving and kindness. Recurring characters The Timbertoes and The Bear Family celebrated christmas. Overt Christianity was also prominent in the early years of the magazine all year round and the December issues always included bible stories, sheet music of religious carols, and images of the nativity and angels.

Jesus and Santa both appear less and less frequently in Highlights beginning in the 1950’s. By the 1990’s, Highlights is beginning to look a lot less like Christmas. Santa and Jesus are both almost completely absent, as are the decorations, the bright colors, the piles of gift wrapped presents. They’re replaced by pleas to keep Christmas simple, emphasizing time with family and friends, giving to charities, and making presents by hand. Several pages are given to instructions on making homemade presents and homemade decorations. . . .

The children in Highlights are very often white, as I suspect most of their readers are, and main characters in stories and comics in the magazine are most often male, never queer, and pretty much always comfortably middle class. But at Christmas, their anti-consumerist pragmatism is surprisingly non-conformist.
But what should we expect from a magazine so un-American that it includes no advertising?

(Above: Goofus and Gallant do Christmas, courtesy of Envisioning the American Dream.)

07 December 2017

Guest Reviewer on The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Godson has some things to say about The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage:
…the book ostensibly isn’t on the scale of the trilogy. I was somewhat worried, until I realised that whilst the book limits itself to the Thames, almost entirely to Oxfordshire, and for swathes two buildings, the adventure is still epic beyond belief.

To think critically for a moment, this book can almost be called magic realism, not fantasy. Or at least it is fantasy of the Terry Pratchett school - it can tell very ordinary stories on a heroic scale. The echoes of Pullman’s predecessors and contemporaries are obvious. Add Pratchett’s humour to Gaiman’s dark twist (Pullman jokingly called La Belle Sauvage ‘His Darker Materials’) to C. S. Lewis’ storytelling and worlds to Lewis Carroll’s allegory (and, as one critic pointed out, the fact that Pullman’s heroine is called Alice is slightly on-the-nose) and you begin to approach Pullman’s brilliance.

Approach, mind you - La Belle Sauvage is a clinic in how to structure a novel, allaying each fear I had almost as soon as I had it, the pattern mimetic of the action itself. It brought to my mind the episodic nature of the Icelandic Sagas at one point, a Christie-esque murder mystery at another, thrillers, love stories and epics at others. It transcends genre, and does so to the tune of Pullman’s beautifully simple prose, that captures in the same way as the originals a Romantic quality that is inherently readable for everyone.
The full essay is on his school’s book blog.

18 October 2017

“Comics and Medicine” Coming to MICE, Oct. 21

The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) is coming up this weekend, and on Saturday I’ll moderate a panel on “Comics and Medicine.”

This session is being organized by Matthew Noe, the Graphic Medicine Specialist for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, New England Region. He wrote about it here on the agency’s blog.

Here’s an extract from Matthew’s posting:
In anticipation of this panel, I asked each panelist to say in a few sentences what graphic medicine is to them. Here are their responses – a bit of a teaser of the panel to come!

Cathy Leamy: Graphic medicine is anything involving comics/cartooning and health and illness. I love that it’s not rigid and nailed down; the door is open for all kinds of explorations and investigators. Health education comics, illness memoirs, analysis of comics for medical themes, art therapy, teaching self-expression and empathy through comics making – so many applications are possible, and we all benefit from the cross-pollination of being exposed to them.

Kriota Willberg: My goal as a cartoonist making GM is to normalize medicine and the body. I hope to make illness, anatomy, and science a benign and familiar trio of actors in our lives, thereby mitigating the anxiety and confusion that often effects patients and their families, and stigmatizes the ill.

Iasmin Omar Ata: [To me, graphic medicine is] using unique mediums to heal through the power of art. Particularly in comics and games, there exists such an opportunity for those with illness to speak, be heard, listen, and heal.

Matthew Noe: Graphic medicine, beyond the strict definitions and the difficult task of reigning in what exactly it means to be a comic, is about communication. Patients communicating with physicians. Physicians communicating with patients. Family communicating with family. Comics can give voice to the voiceless, clarity to the unclear, and can help us refocus medicine on the human.
I’m looking forward to hearing more! Our session is at 11:00 A.M. on Saturday in the Auditorium of University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge.

06 October 2017

Choice Bits from M. T. Anderson

Entertainment Weekly’s interview with M. T. Anderson about his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand, focused on its timeliness and political overtones—which came as a surprise to the author. Here are some of his remarks, insightful as always:
I wrote the first version of it like four years ago at this point. Supposedly I had no idea what this political climate was. There is a health care element — like this kid has this weird disease, somehow alien-inspired disease, and his health care won’t cover it. And at the time I actually remember thinking “Oh, with the ACA going into effect, by the time this is published I bet that this will seem kind of backwards.” Like it would seem like a throwback. . . .

I think that the tension that was probably there in my mind — that I was expressing — was after the 2008 crash, suddenly a couple of years later, everyone is saying, “Look, the economy’s doing great!” But of course, the “economy” — that did not extend to about 95 percent of the population; 95 percent of the population was still in a horrible state. I didn’t think of this as I did it, but then it was immediately clear later: Even the fact that the wealthy now, literally, there is space between them and the rest of the population in this book because the wealthy are now hovering in aerial condos a mile above the Earth’s surface, with access to all this vuvv tech and all this alien tech and all this alien medicine and everything else, while the rest of us are falling around on Earth still. That is, in a sense, I feel also a great representation of how it feels right now. Kind of like a gap between that upper one percent and the rest of us. . . .

If you had talked to people 10 years ago to say that their book was somehow relevant to specific political events, it seemed really kind of embarrassing. It felt like that was a cop-out somehow. . . . there was a phase where dystopian fiction was in but it did not yet have that feeling of complete urgency, except for stuff like Cormac McCarthy. It was a little bit more fun window-dressing to suggest teen angst than it was about a truly political situation in some ways.
In an alternate universe, as the kids say, we’d still be talking about dystopian, apocalyptic near-future science fiction that way.

04 October 2017

Years before Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies sits in a long line of novels about shipwrecked voyagers stretching back to the beginning of the English novel with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Other famous examples of the “Robinsonade” genre include Gulliver’s Travels, The Swiss Family Robinson, Enoch Arden, Haakon Haakonsen: En Norsk Robinson, Treasure Island, The Blue Lagoon, The Black Stallion, and Island of the Blue Dolphins.

The example that Golding cited as inspiration was The Coral Island and a Tale of the South Pacific, by R. M. Ballantyne. He explicitly alluded to that book twice in Lord of the Flies and borrowed two of its main characters’ first names. In Ballantyne’s tale three boys are shipwrecked on an island, look after themselves and friendly natives, fight off pirates and unfriendly natives, and convert natives to Christianity. Really their island’s not that deserted.

One novel resembles Lord of the Flies in its premise a lot more: Deux ans de vacances (Two Years’ Vacation, also titled Adrift in the Pacific, A Two Years’ Holiday, and A Long Vacation), written by Jules Verne in 1888. Verne liked Robinsonades, publishing two others before this one: The Mysterious Island (titled L’Oncle Robinson in its first, discarded version) and Godfrey Morgan.

In Deux ans de vacances, a group of mostly British schoolboys are cast ashore on an uninhabited, unmapped island. They organize themselves into a rudimentary society, the older boys looking after the younger ones. They hunt wild animals. They see no other humans for two years until a ship comes by.

In those respects, Lord of the Flies is more like Deux ans de vacances than The Coral Island or any of its predecessors. And the similarities don’t stop with the thick lines of plot. In the first English edition of Verne’s novel, titled Adrift in the Pacific, the younger boys are frequently referred to as “little ones.” In Lord of the Flies, the younger boys are “littluns.” (The 1967 translation of Deux ans de vacances, titled A Long Vacation, comes up with the jargon “Elbees,” short for “little boys.”)

There’s no evidence that Golding ever read Deux ans de vacances. The 1889 British version was reprinted in 1927, 1934, and perhaps other years, however. Golding said he and his wife shared a number of island adventure stories before he got the idea to write about how boys would really behave on an island. Adrift in the Pacific might have been one of them. If not, then there are some mighty strong coincidences.

02 October 2017

Dahl’s Chocolate Boy

Last month I wrote about the suddenly fashionable but not really new news that Roald Dahl had originally described Charlie Bucket as black.

Maria Russo of the New York Times interviewed Catherine Keyser, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, about the part of Dahl’s early draft for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Keyser identified the agent who advised Dahl against making Charlie black as Sheila St. Lawrence of the Watkins Agency in New York. She had pushed Dahl into giving children’s books a try, so she was a big part of his literary success and wealth. Their working relationship ended in a transatlantic row, of course.

In the first draft Charlie’s status as a “small NEGRO boy” became significant in a scene that Keyser summarized like this:
Charlie ends up in the Easter Room, where there are life-size candy molds of creatures, and one of these life-size molds is shaped like a chocolate boy. Charlie is fascinated by this. Wonka helps him into the mold and gets distracted. The mold closes, and the chocolate pours over his body and he is suffocating and nearly drowning in it. And it hardens around him, which feels terrible. He’s trapped. He’s alive but can’t be seen or heard. No one knows where he’s gone. Then he gets taken to Wonka’s house to be the chocolate boy in Wonka’s son’s Easter basket. . . .

As far as this version goes, I think it is a really powerful racial allegory that might seem very surprising coming from Dahl. I think the mold in the shape of a chocolate boy is a metaphor for racial stereotype. In the early 20th century, chocolate marketing in both the U.S. and England was very tied up in imperialist fantasies and in connecting brown skin with brown chocolate.
I can’t help thinking that Keyser’s reading of the episode as a “powerful racial allegory” is too charitable to Dahl. He was not known for his broad sympathies, after all.

What’s more, the guiding pattern in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that the kids get in trouble because their personal weaknesses draw them toward a certain type of candy, and they end up nastily transformed in some way related to that candy. This Charlie is “fascinated” by the chocolate boy mold, even wishing to get inside. It feels like Dahl was thinking that a black boy would naturally be drawn to the chocolate boy mold. That’s the suffocating stereotype itself, not an allegory for it. Dahl eventually dropped that characterization of Charlie and that episode, letting him sharpen the book’s moral allegory.

Another part of the interview:
When you started your research, had anyone else ever written about “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy”?

No. It was mentioned by Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, and it was mentioned in Lucy Mangan’s popular book “Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.”
So actually I think the answer to that question is “Yes.” Even if, as Keyser goes on to state, no previous author had looked at the episode “in great textual detail.”

30 September 2017

Pocketing the Bad Machinery Series

I heartily enjoy John Allison’s Bad Machinery graphic novels, following a team of teen detectives in the fictional mid-sized city of Tackleford, England.

Allison created these stories first as webcomics, and they retain that form’s rhythm. Each page has a payoff of its own. The narrative can jerk ahead in time from one to the next. That serves the sprawling stories well since they’re as much about upper-school personalities and the British class system as that term’s mystery.

Allison drew his pages to the dimensions of a computer screen, about half again as wide as they are tall. As a result, the first print editions were more than a foot wide, floppy and hard to shelve. I loved the stories, but I didn’t have space for them all.

Oni Press has started to reissue the Bad Machinery books in “Pocket Editions,” a shade less than nine inches wide. That makes them the same size as the seventh and latest volume, The Case of the Forked Road, which Allison created in a more traditional vertical format for print.

I was worried, however, that my aging eyes wouldn’t be able to read the balloons on the smaller pages. But I took a chance on the first two volumes, The Case of the Team Spirit and The Case of the Good Boy, and my eyes worked fine. While I still don’t see as many commas of direct address as I’d like, Allison’s verbal wit comes through just as well as his visuals.

(In addition to the seven Bad Machinery novels, one of the Tackleford teens, Charlotte, crosses over into another of Allison’s series in Murder, She Writes, set in the cutthroat world of children’s publishing. It’s a fine introduction to Allison’s work.)

16 September 2017

The Original Charlie Bucket

The press in both Britain and America is abuzz with reports that Roald Dahl originally wrote of Charlie Bucket, hero of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as black. These grew out of a radio interview with Dahl’s widow and his authorized biographer, Donald Sturrock.

In fact, Sturrock reported how Dahl’s early drafts described Charlie as a “small NEGRO boy” back in 2011 in his biography Storyteller. At that stage the novel’s plot turned on Charlie being sprayed with quick-drying chocolate and mistaken for one of Willie Wonka’s “chocolate boys,” an awkward state that nonetheless lets him witness a theft and solve a mystery.

Dahl already had his eye on the American market, with agents in New York and Hollywood and direct contact with editors at Alfred A. Knopf. His widow, who didn’t meet Dahl until a decade after he wrote Charlie, suggested that a part-American sensibility was why he first imagined the young hero as black. Of course, it might simply have been a mental association of chocolate and brown skin.

In the radio interview Sturrock said that an agent recommended that Dahl drop that idea. He didn’t name the agent, but he used the pronoun “she,” ruling out Dahl’s British representative, Laurence Pollinger. According to Sturrock, “She said people would ask: ‘Why?’” Which might have been an unfortunate reflection of the U.S. market, or might have been a polite way of warning Dahl off of a racial stereotype.

As we know, in subsequent drafts Dahl stopped describing Charlie as black and also gave Willie Wonka an enslaved African workforce. That should undercut any simple suggestion that Dahl was unusually enlightened in imagining a black hero for a children’s novel in the early 1960s.

14 September 2017

“The only one there is you.”

From novelist David Burr Gerard at LitHub, writing about the biggest influences on him as a storyteller:

And if I hadn’t fallen in love as a child with The Monster at the End of This Book, I’m not sure I would have fallen in love as a teenager quite so hard, or in quite the same way, with Kafka…
The essay touches on child empowerment, the reader’s relationship to a narrative protagonist, and the ambivalence of recognizing the self.

08 September 2017

Golding and the Girls

Recently news broke that a Hollywood studio optioning a remake of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies with marooned schoolgirls instead schoolboys. I saw some people suggesting that adaptation missed how the novel is a critique of male behavior; others said that wasn’t what Golding had in mind at all. So I decided to look into the question.

As the book was being published, Golding told his publisher:
The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island.
It seems clear not only that Golding hadn’t set out to discuss male behavior. Indeed, his use of the generic word “children” for the all-boy cast of characters hints that he believed boys were representative of all children.

And that’s confirmed by Golding’s later comments. Peter Brook, who eventually directed the best movie adaptation of the novel, recalled hearing Golding respond to Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel’s suggestion to add girls to the cast:
Mr. Spiegel, I wanted the film to be an allegory on the human race. “Man” suggests all, “boy” equally—if you bring in boys and girls you’re forced to bring in secondary side issues, sexual attractions, conflicts, problems of puberty…
Indeed, a teacher casting the play in a co-ed school found something similar: “while having the female actors read lines with the male actors during auditions, Williams noticed that the teasing dialogue had turned into flirting.” Surely Golding, a schoolteacher, understood those issues arose in an all-male group as well, but they weren’t as open, especially with such young boys.

However, that quotation also shows that Golding was considering male as the default gender, especially when discussing “the human race.” In the introduction for a reissue of the novel, Golding expressed that idea at even more length:
When girls say to me, and very reasonably, “Why isn’t it a bunch of girls? Why did you write this about a bunch of boys?” my reply is I was once a little boy. I have been a brother, I have been a father, I’m going to be a grandfather, I have never been a sister or a mother or a grandmother, so this is why I wrote it really about little boys. That’s one answer. Another answer is of course to say if you, as it were, scaled down human beings, scaled down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.

Don’t ask me why, and this is a terrible thing to say because I’m going to be chased from Hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality. This has nothing at all to do with equality at all. Women are foolish to pretend they’re equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. But one thing you cannot do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down so to speak into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization, of society. That’s another reason why they were little boys.

The other thing is, why weren’t they little boys and little girls? We being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.
After considering these quotations, I concluded that it was clear Golding didn’t intend to write about masculinity, but also couldn’t conceive of masculinity as an issue in the problems he set out to explore. Which looks like an aspect of the male behavior up for critique. Unknowingly, or in defiant denial, Golding portrayed the worst of male behavior while insisting he’d done no such thing.