31 March 2008

The Nesbit Model and the Baum Model

For a while I've been mulling over two types of fantasy adventures that start in a world that readers recognize as much like their own. The difference involves the young protagonist(s). Does a group of children have the adventure together, or is a single child on his or her own? It's struck me that authors and series usually favor one form or the other.

The books with a group of children always have some boys and some girls, usually siblings but sometimes augmented with cousins and long-standing neighbors whose connection predates the book. I identify this grouping as constructed on the "Nesbit model," after the British novelist E. Nesbit, who nearly perfected the form more than a century ago in Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, and other delights.

Other fantasy books constructed along the Nesbit model include:

  • Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie.
  • The Ship That Flew, by Hilda Lewis.
  • Mary Poppins and its sequels, by P. L. Travers
  • The Magic Bed-Knob and sequel, by Mary Norton
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its sequels, by C. S. Lewis.
  • every Edward Eager book, of course, since he openly took Nesbit as a model.
  • The series that began with A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle.
  • Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan Cooper, who was motivated to write a "family adventure story" by a contest a publisher announced in Nesbit's honor, as she explained in her Newbery acceptance speech.
  • The Ogre Downstairs, by Diana Wynne Jones, and several of her other books.
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.
These books have a sort of collective protagonist, with the siblings and friends bringing different strengths to the adventure and bucking each other up. That model has proved its value in non-fantasy series as well, such as Swallows and Amazons and its successors by Arthur Ransome; The Famous Five and its many, many clones by Enid Blyton; and Mystery Manor, by Mary Evelyn Atkinson, which I've never read, but which had such intriguing endpapers.

(I didn't include in that group books that have multiple protagonists, usually of both sexes, who are brought together by the adventure itself: Diane Duane's Wizards series, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and so on.)

I identify the other set as following the "Baum model," though there might be precedents before L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, such as Charles E. Carryl's Davy and the Goblin. In this set, a young protagonist travels alone into a fantasy world and attracts companions there, or deals alone with a magical element intruding into his or her world.

The protagonist in this sort of story is often an only child; it took 34 Oz books before any young protagonist had a sibling (in The Wonder City of Oz, shown at top), and four more before a brother and sister had an adventure together. If the protagonist in one of these book has a sibling or two, they're often obstacles to fun and adventure rather than companions.

Fantasies built along this model include:
  • The Old Tobacco Shop, by William Bowen.
  • Peter Graves, by William Pène du Bois.
  • David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd.
  • The Magic Shop books by Bruce Coville.
  • The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster.
  • The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks.
Now perhaps I'm simply dividing books by one factor (quantity of protagonists), and deluding myself into perceiving that that classification leads to something of further significance. But I note that most of the authors in the first grouping are British, and most in the second are American.

Was that difference simply the result of Nesbit's and Baum's influences in their respective countries since the start of the 20th century? Or does it speak to a deeper significance about national cultures--America's cult of individualism, for instance?


Monica Edinger said...

Alice predates Dorothy.

Monica Edinger said...

Other Victorian British singles include Kingsley's The Water Babies (pre Alice, as a matter of fact and MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblins.

J. L. Bell said...

I left out Alice because she provided the initial model for both Nesbit and Baum, and seems to contain a bit of each approach. Though she travels alone (like Dorothy), her many sisters are a presence in her adventures (as in Nesbit's groupings). They appear in references and in allegorical form as flowers in Wonderland, and one sister is on stage with Alice in the waking world in Looking-Glass. After that, the story models seem to diverge.

The stories I considered all started from worlds that their readers would recognize as much like their own. There are, of course, many stories of children having magical adventures starting from worlds unlike their readers', and I think Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald, and most fairy-tale writers took that approach.

Kingsley's Water Babies has lots of real-world grit, of course, but it occurs "Once upon a time..." a few years after the frame-breaking riots of 1812—more than forty years before its first readers. MacDonald's Princess Irene lives in a castle in goblin-inhabited mountains. In contrast, Carroll's, Nesbit's, and Baum's heroines and heroes started from ordinary, contemporary settings.

Libby said...

I'm not sure I'd consider the HP or HDM series to have "multiple protagonists." Harry is quite firmly the protagonist of the HP books, and Lyra is the protagonist of at least the first of the HDM series, with Will a co-protagonist after the first book. I was struck by the national difference when you first laid out the titles, but I think if you also consider chronology things may get more confusing.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree those series don't have multiple protagonists on the true Nesbit model, where it seems impossible to separate the bunch into individuals.

But the authors of both series planned a close grouping of children from both sexes at the center of their sagas, and that's even more different from the loner model.

Harry's definitely the point-of-view character of all seven of Rowling's books and nearly every chapter within them. Pullman is much more free with shifting points of view, including not only Lyra and Will but many other characters, including adults. But I think young readers are still supposed to identify with the kids.

Monica Edinger said...

Hmmm, I still don't see Alice as fitting your structure. She is really on her own for the two books. Her sisters are mentioned a few times, but they aren't along on her journeys.

The Nesbit kids seem to fit a more general story structure that is also evident in the Ransome stories and even our Boxcar Children.

I mean, Baum himself thought he was writing a fairy tale, so I'm not sure setting aside earlier literary fairy tale writers (Kingsley and MacDonald) works. Not for me yet, anyway.

(The flowers, btw, are in Looking-glass. The sisters are also part of the animals in the caucus race in the first book.)

J. L. Bell said...

Again, I left out Alice precisely because she doesn't fit into either model. She travels on her own and, unlike Dorothy Gale or Milo in Phantom Tollbooth, doesn't accumulate companions. But Alice is also happily tethered to siblings in ways that Dorothy and Milo aren't. Carroll inspired both Nesbit and Baum, but they went in different directions.

In his preface to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum labeled that book “a modernized fairy tale.” The word “modernized” signals that he wanted to distinguish his story from traditional tales, which were generally set in a distant past and/or remote place. In doing so, I think Baum set himself apart from the Grimms, Perrault, Kingsley, and MacDonald—but not from Carroll.

Nathan said...

Doesn't A Swiftly Tilting Planet focus on just Charles Wallace throughout most of the plot? It's been a while since I've read it, though, so I could be wrong. Besides, his sister is still a presence in the story, so I suppose it would still count in the Nesbit model.

The child protagonist in Wonder City who has the siblings is a native Ozite, and hence doesn't really come from a world like our own, right?

J. L. Bell said...

Between the central sibling bond in A Wrinkle in Time and the fact that adventures kept happening to the Murry children (even the twins, who I thought might escape the call), I thought that series of books had to be acknowledged in the first group. But it was the last that I typed in. Individual books, as you note, don't quite fit the model.