Black Humor in Children's Literature

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Black Humor in Children's Literature





Comedic elements of a dark or morbid nature that are utilized for ironic expression of morality in children's literature.


Although black humor is generally regarded as a stylistic method most often found in adult fiction, it has long lingered as part of a subversive niche that coexists within the more traditional spectrum of children's literature. At its heart, black humor is a rebellious endorsement of the taboo—a parodic embrace of the dark and socially forbidden aspects of culture, particularly those manifest in death and dying. Writers utilizing this methodology are often attempting to express their frustration with certain facets of life and resort to grotesque exaggerations or morbid symbolism as a means of demonstrating the futility associated with their dissatisfaction. Works like Joseph Heller's Catch 22 or Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge operate as openly contrary broadsides against standard approaches to popular literature, presenting a picture of deep frustration or, at times, even stark anger. As a result, these works are often times the most prone to attempts at censorship from an audience mistaking their dark natures for ill intent rather than the means of change that their writers intended. This question of intent, and whether the intent is appropriate for the work's given audience, is one of the primary issues of discussion surrounding black humor in children's literature. Generally, children's books that feature black humor eschew the dry subtlety found in more adult works and instead rely on over-the-top imagery and scatological exaggerations to reach their target audience.

During the Victorian era, the presence of death was something with which young audiences had a reluctant familiarity—childhood death rates were extremely high during the period. As a result, the Victorians developed a close rapport with the image of death and other forms of tragedy, one that eventually evolved into a sentimental attraction to the unhappy stories of childhood suffering and even childhood death. Ironically, the literature directed at the children of this era reflected these unfortunate affections but channeled them into a didactic tradition of dire threats and moral expectations that, it was hoped, would instill a sense of adult authority and a healthy respect for danger. This almost inadvertently inspired some of the first, and perhaps unintentional, uses of black humor in literature for children. In certain regards, the objectives of these Victorian children's works were admirable in that they proffered ways of keeping safe while simultaneously establishing the acceptable moral codes a child would require later in life.

Two books from the Victorian era epitomize these themes—German author Heinrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter (1845), which was published in English as Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks, and Italian writer Carlo Collodi's enormously popular The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). The styles of both works were humorous, but they also reflected the macabre sensibilities of their generation. By today's standards, these stories might be considered unnecessarily graphic, but they are representational of many of the popular tales of the period. Slovenly Peter is a compilation of short, disturbing tales about small children who disobeyed their parents in various minor ways and suffered terrible consequences as a result. Conrad loses his thumbs to a tailor's scissors for sucking on them, Robert is dragged away by a strong wind for ignoring his parents' warnings about a coming storm, and Wilhelm, Ludwig, and Casper are dipped in black ink by none other than St. Nicholas himself for mocking an African boy. However, these surprisingly horrible scenes are so outrageous and cross so far past the boundaries of acceptable responses that they read as ridiculously humorous. Nonetheless, the moral codes attached to each are clear—listen to your parents, and try to live a good, decent life or else. It is unclear whether these tales appealed more to their intended juvenile audiences or to their parents who themselves were still subject to a strong folkloric tradition of fear of both the unknown and the supernatural dangers believed to exist in the culture of the time. While Slovenly Peter was a warning about the apparent potential pitfalls for children, Collodi's Pinocchio emphasized a rigid standard of conduct for children as they struggled to fit in with adult society. The story, which bears resemblance to the Walt Disney movie adaptation in basic plotline only, features strong elements of dark imagery that are frequently glossed over in modern recollections of the story. The marionette is, by story's beginning, a dangerous and uncontrollable child-like being. He is described by Collodi in malevolent terms, and Gepetto burns Pinocchio's first set of feet as a warning to the puppet after one night of particularly bad mischief. Over the course of the novel, Pinocchio learns a proper code of conduct but each lesson comes at a heavy price as Pinocchio escapes the repeated menace of being burned (the ultimate threat to a creature of wood) and even finds himself at the end of a noose, the painful details of which are graphically described by Collodi. But Pinocchio—who, in this regard, is akin to a supernatural fairy—is resistant to such dangers, although certainly not immune. The cruelest twist comes on Pleasure Island, or Cocagne as it is called in Collodi's original version, when Candlewick and the other mischievous little boys are turned into donkeys. Their pleas of repentance are ignored, and they are left to die in their humiliating forms without recourse of apology or regret. Only Pinocchio finds eventual salvation and forgiveness, ultimately rewarded for his acceptance of "good" behavior by becoming a real boy. Again, the details of the story border on the ludicrous, and for all the terrible pitfalls that befall Pinocchio, he is only a puppet who suffers no lasting harm. As such, the threat is diminished, although the warning regarding bad behavior is clear.

In these early examples of black humor, the interaction of humor and dark thematic elements seem almost incidental, a tangential coincidence that paints a vivid picture, but fails to offer the harmonious confluence of later works. Modern authors can trace the origins of contemporary black humor in children's literature back to the groundbreaking efforts of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. Carroll's affection for children is well documented, and he felt a strong affinity for their tastes and the need for works that appealed to them. Tired of the sermonizing tone evident in the books by many of his contemporaries, Carroll wrote the intentionally logical-impaired Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) as a response. Drawing upon the mystical plot devices similarly found in Hoffman and Collodi's books, Carroll revolutionized the genre by creating a ludicrously perverse universe that both delighted and intrigued children all the same. The appropriateness of these two books has been continuously debated since their initial publishing, and even today, there is not a consistent consensus about their suitability for children. Working in almost open defiance of the social mores of the time, Carroll depicts a little girl lost in a sinister environment where nothing makes sense, least of all, the apparent authority figures. The most rational figures are Alice and the Cheshire Cat who are, respectively, a small child and the smiling epitome of mocking rebellion. In fact, Alice's very life is threatened on several occasions by the Queen of Hearts, who is as close to a presumed supreme authority as Alice can find. One of the most jarring images in the Alice books is the subject of a short poem in Through the Looking Glass. The Jabberwocky is a vile and terrifying creature that is unceremoniously beheaded within the space of a few lines. He is a potentially frightening apparition—particularly as he was imagined by Carroll's illustrator, John Tenniel—but Carroll subverts even his own imagery through the usage of a series of fictional and alliterative words that form a nonsensical yet satisfying jumble when read aloud: "'Twas brilling and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe." Whereas earlier black humor authors were supporting the mantle of adult command through what might be perceived as a series of mild threats, Carroll established a new tradition of challenging this self-same adult authority by suggesting they were not as infallible as they once appeared.

This challenge of social conventions has been adopted by a number of twentieth-century writers and serves as one of the fundamental tenets of their interpretation of black humor. Mark Twain was one of the strongest advocates of utilizing black humor to skewer the primal instincts of man and his willingness to inflict horrors on one another. And as a result, the same problems that confounded their progenitors threatened men like Twain and continues to impede the black humorists of today. Among the most common victims of censorship efforts, writers who present black humor to children are constantly battling the roadblocks of well-meaning parents who misunderstand their objectives. Their critics abound, whom object to both the lack of an acceptable moral lesson and the sinister manner in which the existing messages are expressed. Furthermore, such critics believe that, as adults, we bear responsibility for the "proper" education of impressionable children, and those authors who engage in black humor are guilty of pandering to a child's love of the grotesque at cost of their ability to discern right from wrong. Roald Dahl is generally considered to be the most prominent contemporary writer to have adopted this style and has come under repeated attacks for his approach. Typical is the response of critic David Rees, who wrote of Dahl: "He plays too much to the gallery where the children sit: hence his popularity. He has considerable skills and talents, but they are frequently misused. And there must be a considerable number of us—teachers, librarians, parents, critics—who wish that some of the books had never been written." Indeed, writers like Dahl and Edward Gorey, who illustrates his dark books with homages to the very blackest images of the Victorian period, elicit tremendous concern with their compelling yet disturbing projections of our deepest inner impulses. Dahl's infamous books feature such memorable moments as a boy's cruel aunts being crushed by a giant piece of fruit in James and Giant Peach (1961), or the retribution that the title character in Matilda (1988) gains over her own wicked parents. But unlike Carroll, Dahl does not reserve his dark fates solely for pretentious adults, instead he inflicts his deadly wit upon spoiled children with equal vigor. The naughty children of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) befall a series of equally unhappy fates relating to their various faults. But Dahl does not mete out his punishment without due cause, and as such, does retain an element of moral expectations that, in the words of Dahl critic Peter Hunt, is "defining the acceptably unacceptable." Dahl creates boundaries that demonstrate a definitive set of limits for children on their quest for self-expression and self-determination. Dahl's black humor is of the liberating kind—his books allow their readers to indulge in a fantasy of control, which functions in direct opposition to the Victorian fear-inducing genuflections to the obedience of societal rules. Dahl's contemporary Edward Gorey is best known for his notorious The Gashlycrumb Tinies; or, After the Outing (1963), which pictures twenty-six children—one for each letter—each the victim of a terrible death. Ostensibly a picture book that teaches the alphabet, The Gashlycrumb Tinies is a grisly portraiture of doll-faced children dying tragic deaths that very much recalls the Victorian mentality. However, while Gorey's pictures co-opt the worst of Victorian imagery, their final message is the exact opposite. Gorey engages in "bibliotherapy," or the attempts by literature to help the reader overcome their fears. In Gorey's case, this means presenting the worst possible scenario in an outrageously ghoulish fashion in order to elicit laughter from children to help lessen their fears of death and mortality.

Even the most self-assured parent can have doubts concerning the appropriateness of black humor in children's literature. It is a topic that, in more mature works, can elicit as much squeamishness from an adult as in any child's book. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction of most adults has limited the exposure of some of these teaching devices or destroyed the message through well-meaning attempts at softening their graphic natures. The Disney Company has been one of the most prominent transgressors of this phenomenon. The Disney film version of Collodi's Pinocchio, for instance, has been sanitized to the point of eliminating much of its original context. In the original, Pinocchio crushes the wizened cricket that comes to tutor him, but the cricket returns as a ghost to comfort and assist Pinocchio in a touching moment of ultimate forgiveness. The Blue Fairy also dies in Collodi's version to teach Pinocchio the meaning of life and death. By whitewashing the unpleasant aspects of even the darkest of humor, the message of the story may be diluted. Regardless, the determination to find the appropriate limits is a fluid process and one subject to the trends of society. It is a necessary precaution, although we may lose sight of what children are capable of understanding and thus lessen their reading experiences. As critic Roni Natov wrote in her analysis of Lewis Carroll, "Our literature abounds with defensive structures which serve as to alleviate the pain of that basic truth. Humor is the greatest of these and the most satisfying."


F. H. Anstey

Vice Versa (juvenile fiction) 1882

Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, and Jo Pocock

* Shockheaded Peter (musical play) 1997

Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (juvenile fiction) 1865

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (juvenile fiction) 1871

Carlo Collodi

Le avventure di Pinocchio: Storia di un burattino [The Adventures of Pinocchio] (juvenile fiction) 1883

Roald Dahl

James and the Giant Peach [illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert] (juvenile fiction) 1961

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [illustrations by Joseph Schindelman] (juvenile fiction) 1964

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: The Further Adventures of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, Chocolate-Maker Extraordinary [illustrations by Joseph Schindelman] (juvenile fiction) 1972

Danny the Champion of the World [illustrations by Jill Bennett] (juvenile fiction) 1975

The Twits [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1980

George's Marvelous Medicine [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1981

The Witches [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1983

Matilda [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1988

Anne Fine

Madame Doubtfire (juvenile fiction) 1987

Goggle-Eyes (juvenile fiction) 1989

Step by Wicked Step (juvenile fiction) 1995

Edward Gorey

The Doubtful Guest (picture book) 1957

The Curious Sofa [as Ogdred Weary] (picture book) 1961

The Hapless Child (picture book) 1961

The Beastly Baby [as Ogdred Weary] (picture book) 1962

The Gashlycrumb Tinies; or, After the Outing (picture book) 1963

The Utter Zoo (picture book) 1967

The Loathsome Couple (picture book) 1977

Heinrich Hoffman

Struwwelpeter [Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks] (juvenile fiction) 1845

Christina Rossetti

The Goblin Market (prose poem) 1862

Maurice Sendak

Higglety Pigglety Pop!, or, There Must Be More to Life (picture book) 1967

We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (picture book) 1993

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)

The Butter Battle Book (picture book) 1984

Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1: The Bad Beginning [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 1999

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 2: The Reptile Room [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 1999

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 3: The Wide Window [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2000

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 4: The Miserable Mill [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2000

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 5: The Austere Academy [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2000

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 6: The Ersatz Elevator [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2001

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 7: The Vile Village [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2001

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 8: The Hostile Hospital [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2001

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 9: The Carnivorous Carnival [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2002

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 10: The Slippery Slope [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2003

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 11: The Grim Grotto [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 2004

Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (juvenile fiction) 1884

A Connecticut Yankee in King's Arthur Court (juvenile fiction) 1889

The Mysterious Stranger (juvenile fiction) 1916

Tomi Ungerer

Zeralda's Ogre (picture book) 1967

The Beast of Monsieur Racine (picture book) 1971

I Am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Stories (picture book) 1971

Jane Yolen

The Sleeping Beauty [illustrations by Ruth Sanderson] (juvenile fiction) 1986

* Shockheaded Peter is based on Heinrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter, with lyrics by Martyn Jacques and original music by Adrian Huge, Martyn Jacques, and Adrian Stout.


Jackie E. Stallcup (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Stallcup, Jackie E. "Power, Fear, and Children's Picture Books." Children's Literature 30 (2002): 125-58.

[In the following essay, Stallcup suggests that the dark imagery often present in picture books, which are intended for the youngest readers, is meant as an exercise in child-rearing with both positive and negative connotations.]

One of my students in a recent children's literature course wrote a paper on Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet book that traces in up-beat rhythm and rhyme the gruesome deaths of twenty-six children. My student noted that its format suggests that it is a children's book: it is small, just the right size for small hands and a size that often indicates a children's book; it is short, for the supposedly short attention spans of children; it has pictures of children on every page; and, finally, it is an alphabet book, traditionally a form designed for children learning to read. But my student argued that despite these elements, The Gashlycrumb Tinies is an adult book because of the overt violence enacted upon children's bodies in the depictions of their deaths—deaths that in some pictures occur in the midst of ordinary daily activities. Underlying her argument were the unspoken assumptions that children would be psychologically damaged by witnessing, in print, the grisly deaths of other children and that children's books depicting violence will instill fear in their young readers and, hence, are problematic and inappropriate.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies is part of a long tradition in children's literature in which young characters meet with violent punishments and even death because they transgress social boundaries and challenge adult authority. Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts were designed to frighten young readers into obedience through threatening dire punishments for disobedience. But for modern adults, books that purport to relieve children of their fears of everything from monsters to nightmares are preferable to the older, fear-inducing texts. Many of these modern "fear-alleviating" books are explicit attempts at bibliotherapy, designed to help children, psychologically and emotionally, by demonstrating how young characters overcome frightening situations.1 Yet, their ideological functions are more complicated than this informal definition suggests. In fact, the varied cultural work performed by these texts reveals the many conflicting assumptions adults hold regarding children. Because the overt goal of some of these modern, fear-alleviating books is to free children of fear, they appear at one level to be liberating and possibly subversive of adult power. Underlying these possibilities, however, are unspoken issues of authority and control that add layers of complexity and suggest parallels with older texts that sought to control children through implicit and explicit threats of violence.

While such threats are considered unacceptable by modern adults (as my student's reaction to The Gashlycrumb Tinies suggests), the goal of securing adult authority has not changed—only the means of attaining it have been inverted. Rather than invoking threats of violence to frighten children into submission, many modern picture books seek to reassure children that they have nothing to fear from imaginary dangers while at the same time demonstrating that there are very real dangers that only adults can defuse. Indeed, in some cases, parental control of the child's environment forms the foundation of a child's sense of security. Thus, many of these books consolidate and disseminate adult authority while diminishing the possibilities for children's empowerment and emotional growth. But this potentially oppressive pattern is not the only one offered. In some cases, fear-alleviating books offer a model in which children overcome their fear not simply through relying on adults but through developing adultlike characteristics themselves; more rarely, a book encourages the child reader to reject the adult world altogether. Alleviating children's fear, thus, is not the only goal of such texts; their subtexts reveal some of the unstated ideologies that shape our relationships with children.

There are many criteria one can use to evaluate these books to determine their literary or artistic merit. For purposes of this essay, I will focus on examining their cultural dimensions in order to isolate and illuminate the messages that they contain regarding adult-child relationships. The varying possibilities delineated in these texts reveal some of the limitations of cultural theories that represent adult-child relationships as a dichotomy characterized by power differentials. While works by theorists like Perry Nodelman and Alison Lurie are very useful in establishing how adults can be said to oppress children, such theories do not consider the broad range of ways in which adults actually interact with children or the spectrum of motivations driving such interactions. Taking a different tack in his book Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, James R. Kincaid deconstructs and analyzes many of the binaries that adults use to demarcate the boundary between adults and children. He notes, "If the child is not distinguished from the adult, we imagine that we are seriously threatened, threatened in such a way as to put at risk our very being, what it means to be an adult in the first place" (7). Although Kincaid proceeds to focus on issues of desire, I find the fear that he alludes to here equally fascinating. By examining our fears as they intersect with issues of childhood and by analyzing the ways in which fear is addressed in children's picture books, we can further dismantle some of the representations used to place adults and children on opposite sides of an ideological divide. Fear-alleviating books articulate a variety of models for adult-child relationships (some of which can be read as empowering for children); therefore, examining the implicit ideologies in these texts can allow us to suggest a critique of theories that portray children as inevitably subject to power wielded with veiled hostility by adults and to introduce different models for depicting the relationships between adults and children.

Adults, Children, and Fear

Modern attitudes about children and fear are firmly rooted in specific historical conceptualizations of childhood. I have shown The Gashlycrumb Tinies to other classes and encountered the same horrified reaction—a reaction grounded in beliefs held by many adults today. As numerous critics and historians have discussed, assumptions of purity and innocence are prevalent in modern representations of childhood.2 As a result, we adults persist in believing that innocence is a defining aspect of childhood, and we resist giving books to children that might suggest otherwise. This attitude is also visible in the popular media, as Charles Krauthammer's 1995 Time magazine essay "Hiroshima, Mon Petit" suggests. Why should we, he argues passionately, "assault [children's] innocence" and disturb their "cozy, rosy view of the world" by exposing them to such horrors as the Holocaust (80)? Such reactions suggest that we believe that fear is—or should be, in an ideal world—fundamentally alien to children, who therefore require our protection from anything that might frighten them. This attitude toward children and fear is exemplified in A. S. Neill's 1960 text Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, which delineates the child-rearing methods used at a progressive British school.3 Neill notes: "Fear can be a terrible thing in a child's life. Fear must be entirely eliminated—fear of adults, fear of punishment, fear of disapproval, fear of God. Only hate can flourish in an atmosphere of fear" (124). Of course, Neill is discussing fear in humans in general, not just in children. But his point is that one should never use fear to enforce authority over a child: "Goodness that depends on fear of hell or fear of the policeman or fear of punishment is not goodness at all—it is simply cowardice" (129). Instead of using fear, Neill advocated allowing children the freedom to "grow in the natural way" (110), shaped by a combination of parental common sense and what he termed "self-regulation" on the part of the child (104-6). Obviously, Neill's ideas provide an extreme example that has fueled many a conservative fire, but they also are indicative of general modern attitudes about children and fear. Numerous parenting manuals currently available seek to reduce fear in children's lives, while articles on helping children cope with common childhood fears are widely disseminated in both scholarly journals and general interest magazines.4

In spite of the modern rejection of fear as a child-rearing tactic, control issues have long been—and remain—an essential part of adult-child relationships. As critics have suggested, from at least the mid-eighteenth century through today, adults have used children's literature as a means of transmitting ideology, repressing children, and assuring adult mastery—often through inducing fear.5 While methods of governing children have shifted with changing perceptions of children's nature, issues of control, penetration, surveillance, and the indoctrination of the dominant ideology provide the foundation for children's literature. In his article "Second Thoughts on Socialization through Literature for Children," Jack Zipes argues that one of the major organizing features of children's books is the socialization process:

Literature for children is not children's literature by and for children in their behalf. It never was and never will be. Literature for children is script coded by adults for the information and internalization of children which must meet the approbation of adults.… It is the adult author's symbolically social act intended to influence and perhaps control the future destiny of culture. At heart are notions of civility and civilization. Adults who write literature for children want to cultivate raw sensibilities, to civilize unruly passions, and to reveal unsocial forces hostile to civilization.


Zipes's comments suggest an interesting and subtle reason for our use of fear to control children; that is, because we fear children ourselves. We fear them because they appear to be fundamentally different from us. We don't always understand them, we cannot always control them, and they sometimes do the very things that we want to do, but cannot or will not do, such as act upon antisocial impulses or act out angry or hate-filled fantasies.6

Adult fear of the potentially anarchic power that resides in children is embedded in many texts. Novels like Lord of the Flies (1954), plays like The Bad Seed (1955), and movies like Village of the Damned (1960), Children of the Corn (1984), and The Good Son (1993) all exhibit radically uncontrolled children who pose physical threats not only to specific adults in their vicinity but also to general social stability. These thrillers foreground adult fears of what would happen should children slip away from adult-centered socialization, while such characters as Bart Simpson and the children of "South Park" provide more comedic representations of children who thumb their noses at adult values. Perhaps it is not surprising that despite their focus on child characters, such works trigger heated discussions of their suitability for young viewers, often centering on the concern that Krauthammer expresses: will exposure to such characters strip real children of their veils of innocence? We should note, however, that because of real life experiences, many children's worldview is already far from "rosy" or "cozy." Hence, these discussions are just as likely to offer insight into adult fears as they are to uncover the dangers to children's innocence. Other questions lurk beneath the surface of such cultural concerns: will watching these shows or reading these books cause children to unleash the potential anarchy that resides within themselves? What will be the eventual outcome to adult systems of power? And, at the most personal level: what will my kids do to me if I let them watch these shows or read these books? That this is a genuine cultural concern is attested to by the fact that articles and books abound on the dangers posed by children who run amok.7

Adult fear of children may be the impetus behind a strand of child-rearing theory that stands in opposition to those who reject fear as a means of discipline. James Dobson's child-rearing manuals offer a clarion call for a return to more overt uses of fear in commanding respect from a child. He strongly cautions that he does not condone abuse, but he argues that physical punishment should be used to create fear of consequences in order to squash defiance. Dobson's examples of the moments at which spanking is appropriate suggest that his call for corporal punishmentis rooted in a fear of the consequences to adults when children defy adult authority and seek to control their parents through asserting their own desires.8 First published in 1970, Dare to Discipline was reissued in a revised and expanded edition in 1992 as The New Dare to Discipline with a headline on the cover trumpeting "more than 3,500,000 copies sold." Very few associations or formal publications still advocate corporal punishment of children, but the fact that Dobson's book has proven so popular suggests that there remains a groundswell of public support for such methods.

Our modern conflicted attitude towards children and fear, represented by these two extremes of Neill and Dobson, has a long history of debate in child-rearing manuals,9 but before the twentieth century, authors of books for children were far less squeamish about using threats of violence to induce respect through fear of severe consequences. In fact, harsh punishments for fairly benign childhood behavior (running in the street, quarreling with siblings, sucking one's thumb) are common in children's books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.10 The fear of consequences that these books seek to inculcate in child readers mirrors the unspoken fear felt by the adult authors and illustrators: What, indeed, might happen should children run madly through the streets? Obviously, at one level, the children's lives would be endangered. But at another level, the anarchy that could spread from such unchecked children might also be dangerous for adult social order. Both aspects of "fear" permeate these texts; adult fear of children leads directly to the use of fear to control children's behavior.

My point is not that we should allow children to run amok nor that we should refrain from warning children about common dangers. Ensuring (as far as possible) children's safety is obviously a necessary and important part of our jobs as adults so that children can grow up as healthy and safe as possible. But our interactions with children also carry ideological weight along with the purely practical concerns of everyday safety. That is, there are many ways to ensure children's safety and the methods that we choose expose our assumptions about children—assumptions that often benefit adults. We can uncover these ideological implications by examining how we seek to keep children safe. Investigating my students' reactions to Gorey's book is instructive. Gorey depicts some of the very things that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers were also depicting, and, in general, he portrays the deaths of the children no more graphically than these writers. Our attitudes about children, however, have shifted dramatically and as a result, what was once considered highly suitable, even necessary, for children is no longer considered even remotely appropriate.11

In fact, far from attempting to frighten children into submission, many late-twentieth-century picture books overtly attempt to alleviate various forms of children's fears, appearing to empower children (on one level at least) through helping them overcome a misplaced or misdirected fear. But in some modern fear-alleviating picture books, the positive message is undercut by a fear-inducing subtext with parallels to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts. In Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour (1987), author Eve Bunting and illustrator Donald Carrick use fear-inducing text and imagery to encourage children to turn to adults for safety and security. The book opens on a dark, frightening night as a young boy creeps out of his bed and wanders around his house, worried because the electricity is out and his parents seem to have disappeared. All the pictures in this first section are created with dark, dreary colors, and there are many shadows in which anything could be hiding. The illustrations of the boy and his dog emphasize their anxiety and fear. On one page, the dog cowers back, reluctant to leave the bedroom, while the boy, though determined (as we can see from the forward slant of his body), fights against a fear that compels him to twist his body forward as if leaning against a great force. The other pictures depict his smallness and insignificance in this huge, dark, shadowy house. The text also contributes to the frightening tone; for example, the boy perceives the dining room furniture as threatening and animal-like: "Our table seemed monstrously big. Chairs, hump-backed, clawed and crouched around it" (n. pag.).

The climax of terror occurs when the boy sees what he thinks is a ghost but is actually only his own reflection. His mirrored image functions as a symbolic representation of the dangers he himself embodies: to the adult world, the only thing truly dangerous in this boy's house is the potential for anarchy that resides within him. The book thus subtly suggests that this is what he (and by extension the child reader) should fear. That point made, the following page shows his father bursting in from the next room. The doorway in which the father stands and the father himself are infused with a comforting sense of security through the warm yellow light radiating all around, while outside the doorway (where the boy is) lies in darkness. Once the boy joins his father and mother in their downstairs "nest," the whole room glows warmly with the light of the parents' candle, and they loom on either side of the boy, touching his small, now-relaxed body in order to comfort him.

The next two pages show the boy tucked up in the couch with his parents by his side, and though the candle has been snuffed, the picture is still infused with an orange-yellow brown much warmer than the drab browns of the previous pages, emphasizing the overall message that security lies with one's parents. The first half of the book is so threatening and scary that it serves to drive this message home by offering a vision of what life would be like without the parents: lonely, frightening, and dark. The book does not merely seek to assuage fear, as a shallow reading might suggest, but to actually inculcate it first, creating a sharp contrast with the feeling of relief created when we see that the parents haven't actually abandoned the boy. This technique demonstrates one of the more subtle ways in which we adults are still using fear to control children's impulses. Certainly there is no hint that the child could run riot through the house, scaring away spooks by the very exuberance of his being. Such a depiction might strike adults as sending a dangerous message to children because it would suggest that one does not need one's parents for security and that one can run about the house at night without fear of reprisal.

This book demonstrates that despite our modern discomfort with "frightening" texts, we still are not above using fear (albeit in more subtle ways than in the past) to control children. Our slippery and inconsistent attitudes toward fear suggest that our assumptions about children are just that: assumptions, not an unchanging, substantiated core truth that must be accepted. Thus, they reveal the varying facets of our shifting ideological stances regarding the concept of "childhood." As Perry Nodelman argues in his 1992 essay "The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children's Literature," adults seek to oppress children through invoking a stable concept of childhood, unchanging and ultimately fully knowable only by adults. This "knowing" places adults into a position of mastery over children.12 But as Nodelman suggests, if we acknowledge the changes that have taken place in our conceptions of children, we can then examine them to discern the ideological impetus behind such changes. If the idea that children need to be free—and freed—from fear is not a "truth" about childhood, but merely a modern concept, then several questions become relevant: Why do we have this concept? What does it do for us as adults? What are the implications for our relationships with children? Just as feminists have had to distinguish between apparent and actual empowerment for women, a critic who examines these modern picture books that seek to relieve children of their fears must also determine how much power—and what kind of power—is actually invested in the child reader. In some contemporary picture books, such as Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour, very little power is invested in the child reader, as they either are frightened into obeying adult rules or strongly encouraged to fear their own impulses and to seek safety in a space created by adult authority. Hence these books and others like them reinforce adult control over children without offering children any kind of personal empowerment or emotional growth.

Fear, Power, and Subversive Children's

If we fear children and wish to control them through fear (even despite cultural rhetoric to the contrary), then how do we interpret fear-alleviating books that do not contain fear-inducing subtexts? One possibility is that these books are functioning as subversive children's literature. In her 1990 book Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, Alison Lurie argues that while most children's literature, particularly that preferred by adults, is designed to inculcate adult values, there are what she calls the "sacred texts of childhood, whose authors had not forgotten what it was like to be a child" (x). Lurie contends that "these books, and others like them, recommended—even celebrated—daydreaming, disobedience, answering back, running away from home, and concealing one's private thoughts and feelings from unsympathetic grown-ups. They overturned adult pretensions and made fun of adult institutions, including school and family. In a word, they were subversive" (x). It would seem that a book designed to assuage fear and even empower children might fit into this description. The case is far more complicated, however, because issues of subversiveness and empowerment become slippery when we try to employ them together. The concepts do not dovetail neatly; one text might subvert adult social conventions without offering the child a modicum of empowerment while another may articulate adult values that ultimately can be read as empowering rather than oppressing children. Examples of both of these variants can be found in fear-alleviating texts.

Of all of the picture books examined here, Ed Emberley's Go Away, Big Green Monster! (1992) comes closest to fitting Lurie's definition of subversive children's literature. Emberley utilizes an ingenious diecut technique to make a monster appear and then disappear piece by piece as the child turns the pages. As the monster gradually appears, each page is entirely black, with pieces cut out that reveal a colored page later in the book. Each cut out gives shape to part of the monster. For example, one page reads "scraggly purple hair" (n. pag.) and holes in the shape of scraggly hair are cut into the black page to reveal a purple page later in the book. As the reader turns the pages, more and more parts of the monster become visible. This is a spooky effect, as if the monster is peering out from a darkened room and, like the Cheshire Cat, slowly appearing. Then, after the monster is fully revealed, the text reads "But … you don't scare me! So go away, scraggly purple hair!" (n. pag., emphasis in original) and as the reader continues through the book, the monster is deconstructed as the colored pages take over from the black pages, so that "scraggly purple hair" becomes, simply, a purple page. The immediate effect of the change from black to colored pages is one of relief and cheerfulness, which is heightened, page by page, as the monster's parts disappear.

Adults are entirely absent from the text; there is no one besides the monster and the reader. The first few times a child encounters this book, a parent or other adult might read it aloud, but the sentences are simple and closely tied to the illustrations so that children should quickly be able to read it themselves. The language of the text is important at the level of subversion: the comment midway through the book "you don't scare me" clearly represents the child's voice, and all of the sentences following this comment are in the imperative mood, a powerful tool as any parent can attest—one that brooks no protest. This also creates a sense of the book as a "script," telling the reader what to say to the monster on each page and thus tightly linking the reader with the voice of the text. Thus, the children reading the book seize power over the monster and retain that power both through the voice and through engineering the monster's disappearance. At the end of the book, the text reads, "and Don't Come Back, " and the last line (printed suggestively in "monster green") adds, "Until I say so." This suggests the power of the child over the monster: she can make it come or go at will; and the potential for subversiveness: she might just summon the monster back.…One might ask, for what purpose? This last line of Go Away, Big Green Monster! suggests the myriad possibilities available to the brave child who invites the forbidden and forbidding monster to come back and play.

What does this conclusion suggest about the relationship between adulthood and childhood? If a monster can be defined as something ungoverned by rules, then this linking of child and monster in play suggests an alliance resistant to adult attempts at control. In his 1992 book Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction, John Stephens situates certain children's texts within the form of carnivalesque, arguing: "carnival in children's literature is grounded in a playfulness which situates itself in positions of nonconformity. It expresses opposition to authoritarianism and seriousness" (121). The conclusion of Go Away, Big Green Monster! engages these elements by implying that instead of rejecting or vanquishing the monster, the child can summon and play with the monster at her will. The book encourages children to embrace rather than reject the "monster" that resides in all of us: the impulse to anarchy that we must control in order to fully participate in mutual interactive social relations. The equivalent impulse in Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour would be for the boy to run riot through the house, romping with whatever "ghosts" he could imagine and embracing the image he glimpses in the mirror as part of himself, instead of rejecting it as alien and frightening. Stephens further argues: "play is [a] human activity liable to carry heavy ideological markings. It is the opposite of 'seriousness,' and can thus be devalued; it often signifies the innocence and happiness of childhood, and is therefore temporary and transient; it represents moments of freedom, and is (therefore) subject to adult attempts to impart order, structure and meaning to it; it is one means through which a child explores the world, and so is harnessed for educational purposes and is appropriated by adult culture" (186-87). But in Go Away, Big Green Monster! the lack of adult authority inside and outside of the text frees both child and monster; they can have their "moments of freedom" and exploration without being subject to such adult interference in their play. The child herself is in control, yet, paradoxically, that control is aimed at unleashing a potentially subversive impulse to playfulness that is linked to the scariness and indeterminacy of the monster. The fact that this time of play remains always in the future and under the control of the child suggests a sense of indeterminacy regarding the child's potential growth into maturity: she can play or not play—she chooses the path. Thus, this book is subversive and liberating in the sense of allowing the child to escape or repudiate (if only briefly and through fantasy) the bonds imposed by adults on children, on children's play, and on the very heart of "childhood"—which is, in part, the refusal to "act like an adult" by curbing one's impulses.13

But, for the child reader, "liberating" does not necessarily equate with "empowering." While Go Away, Big Green Monster! creates a subversive space for the child to resist adult control, it does not force or even encourage her to reject the ultimately subordinate role of "child at play." Thus, although this role is subversive of many adult values and concerns (particularly that of self-control), it maintains and even strengthens a division between adults and children that (as Nodelman argues) is disempowering for children. Henry Jenkins points out in his introduction to The Children's Culture Reader (1998) that "embracing a politics of appropriation and resistance runs the risk of romanticizing child's play as the seeds of cultural revolution" (30). In other words, one cannot simply valorize subversiveness; doing so is merely another form of romanticizing and oppressing children. Hence, while Go Away, Big Green Monster! offers a model of resistance to adult power, it does not necessarily offer empowerment to the child reader. Because the anarchic play celebrated by the book remains childlike, we must look to other fear-alleviating books to explore how they might empower children within our culture.

Peer Group Power?

Picture books that suggest turning to one's peer group for reassurance rather than to parents or other adults might subvert certain adult conceptions about children as well as offer readers visions of a world in which they do not have to depend upon adults. In Franklin and the Thunderstorm (1998), written by Paulette Bourgeois and illustrated by Brenda Clark, Franklin (a turtle) is afraid of thunderstorms but his friends help him to overcome his phobia. Instead of trying to invoke fear in the children reading the book (as Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour does), the author and illustrator do not make either the pictures or the text scary. Even on the darkest page, Franklin's colorful attire offers cheerfulness and comfort, and although Franklin is frightened of the storm, his friends are excited by it, imagining funny explanations for the thunder and lightning. So the book is not engaged in frightening the child further and even appears to suggest that one can turn to one's peer group for support instead of turning to adults: his friends' stories make Franklin literally come out of his shell and finally laugh about the storm.

The adult world, however, permeates the background of the book, providing a secure space for the children. When the children decide to run to the tree house instead of inside Fox's home as the storm breaks, Fox's mother appears and makes them come into the house. The implication is that they are not safe within their own "child" space outside the boundaries of the home; they are only safe within the adult space, where Fox's mother can light candles and bring them food and drink. She creates warmth and security, signified here (as in Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour) with a warm yellow glow.

The book does note that there are real dangers associated with storms, and it links those dangers (the tree being struck by lightning) with the children's wish to be in their own space. Despite the emphasis on children helping one another to soothe their fears, it is the adult world that provides the safe matrix within which the children can do this. This reinforces adult dominance by suggesting to children that they put themselves in danger when they chose to step outside the boundaries set by adults.

Again, I am not suggesting that we allow children to place themselves at risk; it is part of our job as adults to protect children from hazards that they have not yet learned to respect. Children are not born with the knowledge that playing in a tree house during an electrical storm can be deadly, and neither the characters nor real children should engage in such a dangerous activity. But is it possible to convey such important information without simply subjecting children to adult authority? Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrestles with this problem in her 1983 book, Family Politics: Love and Power on an Intimate Frontier. After discussing sharing responsibility with children, she notes:

But, someone is sure to say, families cannot allow three-year-olds to refuse to wear seat belts, four-year-olds to decide the menu, or eight-year-olds to spend money at will. Surely parents' greater maturity and the wisdom born of experience entitles adults to exercise authority over children. Yes, of course. Giving children reasonable rules of safety and consideration, guidance, support, and protection, and establishing moral and intellectual standards are the fundamental responsibilities of parenthood. That is what a loving parent or caregiver does. But how the job is done is the question.

(102, emphasis in original)

Similarly, I am not arguing that adults should let children engage in dangerous activities in order not to oppress them; this could obviously result in parental neglect or worse. But not all picture books address such issues in the same way, and the varying methods reveal underlying agendas. Picture books, like other media, contain embedded messages, as Stephens notes: "every book has an implicit ideology … usually in the form of assumed social structures and habits of thought." He further argues that a book with underlying (rather than overt) socializing agendas "can be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology because implicit, and therefore invisible, ideological positions are invested with legitimacy that things are simply 'so'" (9).14

On a practical level then, in Franklin and the Thunderstorm, one can admire the goal of ridding children of fear and admit that it would be dangerous for Franklin and his friends to play in a tree house during a lightning storm. But the way this decision is made and disseminated is grounded implicitly in a particular, hierarchized view of adult-child relationships. As Jacqueline Rose points out in The Case of Peter Pan (1984), the child characters in children's literature are not real children but are a means for the adult to try to "secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come so easily within its grasp" (2). In Franklin and the Thunderstorm, the text does not merely communicate safety practices to young readers but also imbues them with a particular perspective on the proper roles of adults and children. Because that perspective is embedded in the text and pictures implicitly, the reader is encouraged to simply accept a hierarchical view of the adult-child relationship. The text could disseminate the same basic safety message in numerous ways without adhering so tightly to this implicit ideology. The other children know about storms, judging by their comments elsewhere in the text. Therefore, one of Franklin's friends could deliver the information about the danger of playing in the tree house as the youngsters quickly return to safety. I am not suggesting that this change would create an improved or preferable plot in any literary sense. Instead, my scenario demonstrates that the same basic safety information can be presented in a way that suggests a very different cultural agenda. In this scenario, the children would have a voice and would be participating in decisions rather than simply being subject to them. Hence, they would be developing a sense of growing autonomy and maturity. In Franklin and the Thunderstorm, the way that the information is offered sets up the adult in the role of benevolent protector and thus reinforces adult power and control. To have children who know about storms pass along the information without the intervention of an adult would allow them to start taking responsibility for themselves, and this is not quite what the author and illustrator of this book seem to want to achieve, preferring to infantilize the children and reinforce adult power.

In other words, to paraphrase Pogrebin, it is not so much the decision that is made, but how it is made and who gets to make it that matter. The relationships between adults and children depicted in Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour and Franklin and the Thunderstorm are not designed to empower children by aiding them in developing adult characteristics. Instead the child characters (and, by extension, the readers) are encouraged to reject and even fear their own autonomy and to depend upon adults for comfort, security, and decision making. Hence, they are discouraged from unleashing their subversive impulse to "play" (as Go Away, Big Green Monster! encourages them to do) and also are deprived of the opportunity to develop maturity, initiative, and independence by coping with frightening situations on their own. The characters and readers are encouraged to remain childlike in their continuing reliance on adult authority to provide safety and security. Therefore, these books are neither empowering nor subversive but instead reinscribe traditional lines demarcating adult power and authority.

Becoming an Adult

If children's safety and security depends upon rejecting the very core of themselves (as implied in Ghost's Hour), then they cannot grow in independence or even in partnership with the adult figures in their lives. This is a fundamentally unrealistic mode of viewing the world; the cure for childhood, of course, is adulthood, and the fact that children do become adults thoroughly complicates the discussion. Although Nodelman's conception of the adult-child relationship is valuable because it reveals how we consciously or unconsciously oppress children, his argument depends upon a problematic analogy comparing children with adult colonized subjects, using Edward Said's concept of "Orientalism" as a springboard for analyzing how we interact with children. But unlike colonizers and colonized subjects, children and adults are, in fact, fundamentally different in important ways. Very young children require someone at least marginally older to help them survive; as well, crucial cultural skills must be acquired within a social context from those who have already mastered them. Equating children with colonized subjects means defining adult power as essentially negative and oppressive. This fails to take into account myriad adult agendas that stretch across the spectrum of adult-child interactions. Defining adults as oppressors leaves no room for the acts of love and nurture that children absolutely must obtain in order to become fully empowered in our social system.

Nodelman acknowledges that children must become adults and that this is a point at which his ideas diverge from Said's, but he does not explore how children can become fully functioning members of society without adult intervention, and he suggests at the end of his essay that even helping children to understand the strategies that adults use to oppress them is yet another form of colonization (34). But this conflation of "help" and "colonize" makes it difficult to see how adults are to socialize children—what options remain? This is a fundamental dislocation between Said's theory of Orientalism and Nodelman's application of Orientalism to relationships between adults and children. Initial socialization into a cultural group cannot be conflated with pressing a new social order onto subjects who are already embedded in a culture. Adult colonized subjects are already part of a social system, and colonization disrupts that system in an attempt to replace it with what the colonizers perceive as a better one. Children who remain unsocialized are not in an equivalent position. Studies of feral children, such as Kaspar Hauser, Genie, and the Wild Boy of Aveyron, suggest that if socialization is neglected, then children are not liberated from adult society but are disempowered by their inability to participate in normal social relationships.15

Children need to and will become adults. As A. S. Neill argues in the 1992 edition of Summerhill School, "No one really wants to remain a child. The desire for power urges children on" (52) and Beverly Cleary concurs, noting that "to grow up is the ambition of normal children" (562). In this context, Homi Bhabha's concept of mimicry helps to differentiate the colonizer-colonized relationship from that of adults and children. Bhabha argues "the authority of that mode of colonial discourse that I have called mimicry is … stricken by an indeterminacy: mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal" (126). Hence, within the context of colonization, the value of the "mimic man" in defining the dominant culture lies in the difference that must never be erased: "to be Anglicized," Bhabha points out, "is emphatically not to be English" (128, emphasis in original). The adult colonized subject approaches similarity to the colonizer but, by definition, can never become the colonizer.16 The child, on the other hand, must ultimately fully negotiate the barrier between childhood and adulthood. To do anything less implies a failure of control on the part of adults, as well as the potential for an end of adulthood as we know and value it. In opposition to the mimic man who, theoretically, can never become the colonizer, the child must eventually become the adult. Hence, the stakes for adults are very different from those for colonizers in Said's and Bhabha's concept. It is to our benefit for children to become adults and it is to the benefit of children as well.17

A striking set of analogies created by C. S. Lewis illustrates two approaches to accounting for differences between adults and children. In The Abolition of Man (1943), Lewis compares two methods of education, using metaphors to illustrate their difference. The old way of education (which he prefers) "dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing" (436-37). These images point to the problem at the heart of the adult-child relationship: do we define our interactions with children as a continuum involving potential equals or as a hierarchy in which adults are empowered at the expense of children? The second approach assumes a difference of kind and results in a hierarchical relationship that defines adults and children as "different" and that places adults in charge while reducing children to the level of beasts. In contrast, the first approach assumes a difference merely of degree, with adults invested in the success of children because of defining them as "like" adults.

Lewis's analogies reveal the heart of the problem of comparing children to colonized subjects. Bhabha argues that the colonizer-colonized relationship depends upon the fact that the colonized subject can never become the colonizer. This presumes a difference in kind as the basis for the colonizing project and results in a fundamental dislocation between what is perceived as best for the two groups. But while many parents and educators would defend themselves vehemently on the grounds that they abide by the first representation, Nodelman and other theorists argue that despite this perception, our relationships with children too often partake of elements of the second. Perhaps it is fair to conclude that both representations are at work in varying levels. With this in mind, Mary Louise Pratt's work in colonial and exploration discourse suggests a more fruitful means of conceptualizing the complexities of adult-child relationships than Said's and Bhabha's theories offer. Pratt deconstructs the colonizer-colonized dichotomy in her 1992 book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, creating the concept of "contact zones" to explore the complex and diverse relationships between subjects of different cultures. She argues: "A 'contact' perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized … not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interaction, inter-locking understandings and practices" (7). Like Bhabha and Said, Pratt emphasizes the fundamentally conflictual nature of the colonizer-colonized relationship, noting that such cultures often function in "highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination" (4) and that their contact usually involves "conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (6). Pratt's concept of the contact zone, however, also allows for a wide range of possible interactive relationships between subjects. If we map this idea onto the conceptual framework surrounding adult-child relationships, we can conceive of the possibility for a spectrum of interactions between adults and children, even as we draw away from a dichotomy that insists, problematically, upon an unbridgeable gulf between adults and children. Thus, we can acknowledge and address the troubling, asymmetrical power relationships between adults and children and, at the same time, explore the possibility of sharing power with children in mutually beneficial ways.

Less oppressive representations of the relationship between adulthood and childhood are enacted in certain fear-alleviating picture books, which take a very different approach from that of Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour by acknowledging the inevitability of children's growth. Far from simply relieving children's fear by encouraging them to rely on adults, these books model methods for children to overcome fears on their own by encouraging them to access adult language and behavior. These books are not subversive in the sense of rejecting or critiquing the adult world; instead, they encourage the child to become self-empowered through developing adult-order initiative. In his 1995 text Five Ugly Monsters, Tedd Arnold parodies the familiar rhyme of the five little monkeys to reveal how a young boy overcomes his fear of the monsters who jump on his bed. Each time the monsters appear (in decreasing increments), the boy calls the doctor and then holds out the phone while the doctor shouts (with increasing irritation and anger), "No more monsters jumping on the bed." The monsters scurry away each time. Despite a few scary illustrations, this book is not designed to frighten children into submission as Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour seems to be. The opening endpapers and the first page are a bit threatening: the boy is in bed, surrounded by eyeballs that peer at him from hiding places. The tension this creates is heightened abruptly on the next page, when five of the monsters erupt from hiding and encircle the terrified boy. But the tension is diffused on the next page as he leaps safely out of bed while the monsters, now uninterested in him, jump playfully on the bed, looking so silly that one cannot be scared of them. They have soft rounded curves, chubby cheeks, no teeth and seem designed to alleviate fear rather than induce it. There is a lesson here, but Arnold does not scare the reader into learning it.

In the boy's reaction, we can see that he has absorbed one concept already: racing to the phone, he turns immediately to the adult world to solve his problem. Just as in Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour, the adult world is symbolically coded as comforting by the invitingly glowing lamp by the telephone that connects him, via an umbilical-like cord, to the doctor. But the boy now needs to develop a more mature method for dealing with his fears in order to model such behavior for the readers. We see a gradual, mirrored transformation in the boy and the doctor. The boy's terror is slowly transformed to cockiness as each time the doctor makes the monsters go away. Simultaneously, the doctor grows increasingly annoyed at the interruptions to his sleep. The climatic moment comes when the doctor, in a fury, throws his phone out the window, breaking the connection with the boy—a separation symbolically enacted by the severing of the phone cord. The next page displays the moment of crisis. The doctor is comfortably asleep, totally unconcerned with the boy's plight, while the boy is shocked and dismayed. But the boy negotiates the next step successfully: he assumes the voice of authority for himself. With a determined look on his face, he hangs up the phone as the text notes, "then I said," and on the following page his words are printed in a large banner across the top of a two-page spread: "No more monsters jumping on the bed!" The terrified monsters flee for good and the closing endpapers show the boy quite happily asleep with nary a monster in sight.

Here is a boy who has learned that he doesn't need adults to banish his fears after all—potentially a very empowering message for the boy and the readers, encouraging them to assume responsibility for themselves. Still, we must note that in finding his courage, the boy echoes the voice of the adult. He develops a sense of security by participating in the adult realm, but the goal of the book is to encourage the child to assimilate through merely mimicking adult language. This mimicry on the part of the boy returns us, problematically, to the issue of colonization. Frantz Fanon discusses the oppressive uses of language in Black Skin, White Masks, arguing: "Every colonized people … finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards" (18). In other words, according to Fanon, a colonized subject is elevated in the eyes of the oppressor by his adoption of the language of the dominant culture and by his ability to assimilate into this culture. But he goes on to argue that regardless of this mastery of language, the colonized can never be seen as anything but Other. Assimilation can only be attempted, never fully achieved, and is accompanied by high psychological and cultural costs. Fanon notes that "the fact that the newly returned Negro adopts a language different from that of the group into which he was born is evidence of a dislocation, a separation" (25).

Again, this is where a comparison between adult colonized subjects and children breaks down: language can be used to hail colonized subjects into place, while adoption of the dominant language implies a separation from their original identities. But this separation, so problematic for colonized subjects, is of essential importance to children. Retaining their own language would be an imprisonment in the childhood state, just as colonized subjects are imprisoned by their original language. Unlike colonized subjects, children must learn to utilize the language of the dominant group because they must eventually, systematically, imperceptibly become one with it. Thus, the boy in Five Ugly Monsters is empowered in the sense that he is moving toward maturity by taking the initiative and driving the monsters out of his room. However, he has no words of his own to express independence, and thus he remains dependent upon adults to offer him the words needed to secure his safety and well-being. As Roderick McGillis notes in "Post-colonialism, Children, and Their Literature" (1997), the "older generation might encourage children to speak, but it does so by expecting them to speak its words, to pass on its wisdom, to perpetuate its vision of the world" (10). In Five Ugly Monsters, the monsters, with their anarchic silliness and their propensity for the forbidden, also symbolize that which is dangerously childlike in the boy. One might argue that it is subversive for the boy to take charge of his nightmares and send them away himself without the doctor. But the repetitive plot structure strongly suggests that the doctor is modeling appropriate adult behavior, and the climax of the book comes not when the boy rejects this—for he doesn't—but when he embraces it with all of his being; when he validates the power of the adult world by infusing himself with it; when, in short, he begins to become "one of us."

In other fear-alleviating books, child characters move even further along the path to maturity, independence, and adulthood. They may be imitating adult behavior, but they do so in order to set aside disempowering elements of childhood as they shoulder the burden of responsibility for themselves and others. Frances in Maggie Smith's There's a Witch under the Stairs (1991), for example, is empowered by assuming the mantle of adulthood. A mean and scary witch lives under her cellar stairs, and, one day, Frances is forced to go down the stairs and face the witch by herself. For security, she takes her stuffed elephant, Ellie, with her but inadvertently drops Ellie right under the stairs where the witch resides. Ellie's plight compels Frances to gather her courage and confront the witch. She goes to the cellar, equipped with weaponry and armor, only to find that the witch has disappeared, leaving Ellie behind. In the final picture, the witch trudges off with her belongings, presumably to find another cellar to inhabit.

Frances's empowerment is a transformation that develops over a two-page spread of illustrations. As she races around gathering up clothing and tools, her worried and fearful expression gradually changes to one of determination and anger. On the next page, we are introduced to the new and improved Frances, decked out in a witch-hunting outfit gathered from both the adult world and her own. She has her stuffed snake and her Halloween mask, but she also has her father's tie and her mother's colander, as well as a broom and flashlight.

Through her outfit and her protective attitude toward Ellie, Frances emulates adults, shouldering their roles as she dons their external trappings. Other aspects of both text and illustration also subtly emphasize this shift in Frances. Early in her quest to banish the witch, she makes a special "witch's brew" out in her sandbox. It has "everything in it. Nine gum balls. Two bottles of slime. One cup of dust" (n. pag.). Coded as child's play by the outdoor location, the sandbox, and the ridiculous ingredients, this method of dispelling the witch is ineffective, suggesting that Frances will be powerless as long as she continues to remain a child. After she has vanquished the witch, we see her inside the house getting ready for a celebration of the witch's departure. She is in the kitchen wearing a dress instead of play clothes and the recipe ingredients are those found in a real cake; that is, she is participating in the adult world, taking on an adult task, using adult ingredients. In the background, the witch is disappearing behind a hill with her witch's pot, her broom and her knapsack full of belongings. In these illustrations, the witch is the symbol of the anarchy that is implicit in the very idea of childhood, which must be subdued if we are to fully accept adult tasks and responsibilities. In fact, if we read the witch as symbolic of the dangerous propensities of childhood, then the message of this book (just as in Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour) is that children should be frightened of this potential within themselves. In this book, however, Frances is encouraged not to turn to adults for safety, but to actually take on adult roles.18 Conquering and routing these impulses is cause, as we see here, for celebration.

The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams (1994), written by Jenny Koralek and illustrated by James Mayhew, moves the child reader even further along the road to independence and self-reliance. A young boy has long been protected as he sleeps by a "cloth of dreams" sewn for him by his grandmother, but when the cloth tears, nightmares enter his sleep and he must find a way to repair the cloth in order to end the nightmares. The cloth represents the adult protection that surrounds the boy when he is very young, whereas the new hole suggests that he is beginning to realize that adults cannot protect him from everything. He is now ready to move to the next step: sharing responsibility for his well-being with an adult. His grandmother is willing to fix the cloth of dreams for him but insists that he must collect the materials. When he forces himself to overcome his fears, he is able to gather the materials needed and, hence, become engaged in the production of the protective cloth and, by extension, in the production of authority.

In the illustrations, the boy must make a "dark crossing" to reach the light-filled safety of his grandmother's room, but his quest does not end with his dash for the security of adult space. Instead, his grandmother sends him back out: he must leave her behind on his quest for maturity. On the page that illustrates this movement, his grandmother stands enveloped in light at the bottom of the staircase the boy is climbing. Although he cannot see the light from his position on the stairs, the reader can view both the child and his grandmother and be reassured that he is anchored by the adult figure even as he moves upward and away from her.

This is far more empowering than Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour, in which the boy simply seeks the security of his parents and is content to go no further. It also emphasizes a partnership between adult and child, in contrast to Five Ugly Monsters and There's a Witch under the Stairs, both of which depict adults as forcing children to take the next step by abandoning them or showing little concern for their fear and their plight. In The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams, the boy and his grandmother collaborate in his growth: he can face and conquer his fear, knowing that his grandmother "would not let harm come to him" (n. pag.). Using the materials that he supplies, the grandmother fixes the cloth of dreams and tells him that he has "forged his own courage." Then, instead of going back to bed with the newly woven cloth of dreams, the boy runs out into the light of the "new day" to swing "higher than he ever had before." Maturing in partnership with his grandmother makes the boy feel not only secure but also newly authoritative and free. Firmly striding down the road to adulthood, the boy is not going to arrive there by simply relying on or imitating adults, but by discovering his own ways to confront and alleviate his fears.


Stephens argues that in "both society and literature, it appears that the individual strives for autonomous selfhood, and it is usual for narratives in children's literature to represent this striving as having a positive outcome" (57). This schema, however, often is problematized in books that seek to alleviate fear in children's lives. Because we have not fully worked through our own fears and ambivalence regarding childhood, at least three conflicting issues become tangled in these books: first, our desire to comfort and protect children (mingled with our need to reassure ourselves of our ability to do so);19 second, our deep-rooted fear of children's potential to be defiant and destructive; and, third, our need for children to become acceptably socialized adults. Hence these books become sites where conflicting ideologies regarding adult-child relationships become visible.

Not all books created to combat fear are equal; in spite of their surface similarities, they perform different kinds of cultural work depending on their embedded assumptions regarding the relationship between adults and children. To return to Lewis's analogy, books like Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour and Franklin and the Thunderstorm presuppose a "difference in kind" as they encourage children to seek safety through passively accepting or actively seeking the authority of their elders. As such, these books are emblematic of the oppressiveness that Nodelman explores. Go Away, Big Green Monster! also assumes a "difference in kind," even though it is a far more playful book than the other two. Although its subversive linking of the child with the monster is potentially liberating, it also reinscribes the line between adult and child rather than erasing it because it encourages the child to remain in the playfully anarchic state of childhood.

Finally, while Five Ugly Monsters, There's a Witch under the Stairs, and The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams do not challenge adult values in Lurie's sense of subversive children's literature, neither do they oppress children in quite the way that Nodelman argues children's literature does in general. Instead they depict the possibilities (at varying levels) of a powerful alliance between adults and children rather than a hierarchized struggle for authority. In her 1988 essay "The Philosopher's Child," Judith Hughes suggests what such an alliance might entail: "Growing up, maturing, emerging into autonomy is the process of the child taking from the adult more and more of the responsibility for those actions which she does knowingly. Respect for the dignity and freedom of the child consists in the recognition that the burden of responsibility shifts from the adult to the child as she herself demands it" (87). Grounded in an assumption of a difference in degree between adulthood and childhood rather than a difference in kind, these books explore the myriad possibilities for children's growth as they travel along the road that connects childhood with adulthood. In addition to delineating for child readers specific methods for dealing with their fears, they simultaneously demonstrate how children can develop into independent beings who take initiative and responsibility for themselves.


  1. This idea corresponds with Bruno Bettelheim's argument in The Uses of Enchantment that traditional fairy tales are psychologically therapeutic, and it also suggests the overtly didactic content of many fear-of-the-dark books. For more information on bibliotherapy, see Brown; Clegg; Haldeman; Hynes; Mikulas et al.; Morris; Riggs; Rubin; Sarafino; Stasio.
  2. See, e.g., Aries 100-127; Cable 107-19; Calvert 67-80; Coveney 29-90; Giroux; Greven; Hardyment 77, 201; Hays 22-50; Hazard; Jenkins, ed. 2-37; Lurie 1-15; MacLeod 143-56; Margolis 30; Nodelman; Rose 1-65; Schorsch 151-69; Spigel; Stone 255-60; and Zipes.
  3. I am referencing the 1960 edition of Neill's book, but his work has also been reissued in a more recent edition (1992) that encapsulates the earlier text and appends other pieces of his writing. The fact that his work has been reissued suggests that his ideas remain part of the cultural dialogue regarding child-rearing, while discussions of the implications of his work continue among scholars. See, e.g., Darling, "A. S. Neill on Democratic Authority," and "Summer-hill: From Neill to the Nineties"; Hart; and Small.
  4. See, e.g., Merritt; Mikulas et al.; Robinson; Sarafino; Stasio. The entire spring 1996 issue of the journal Educational Horizons is devoted to exploring children's fears in various educational contexts.
  5. See, e.g., Hazard; Jackson; Kramnick; Lurie 1-15; and Nodelman.
  6. In the revised edition of Summerhill School (1992), Neill argues that any gulf that exists between adults and children is created by adult fear: "If a gulf is there it is not made by music or other tastes: it arises from the inability of the old to understand the young. And it arises largely through fear, fear that the young will stray, fear that they are not studying enough, fear that they will not succeed in life. We can disapprove of some of the things the young do, but we must not disapprove of the young themselves" (245).
  7. Mike Males delineates and debunks such widespread misconceptions about dangerous youths in The Scapegoat Generation (1996), Framing Youth: 10 Myths about the Next Generation (1999), and magazine and newspaper articles.
  8. See, e.g., his story about "Sandy," a "defiant three-year-old" who had become a "tyrant and a dictator" (New Dare to Discipline 4). In fact, Dobson reserves spanking specifically for "willful defiance"—the moments when the child is most strongly and openly resisting the authority of an adult (Strong-Willed Child 37).
  9. See, e.g., such child-rearing manuals and conduct books as the following (listed in chronological order): Wollstonecraft (1787 and 1788); Jennings (1808) 163; Child (1831) 31-38; Abbott (1834) 108; Goodrich (1839) 31; Mann and Peabody (1870) 120-21, 147; Chavasse (1873) 104; Ballin (1902) 263-65; Kirkpatrick (1911) 99-104; Read (1916) 148, 213, 218. For more information on historical intersections of fear and childhood, see Badinter 30-39; Greven; Hardyment 85-86, 184, 247; Hays 22-50; Hazard; Stearns and Haggerty; and Thurer 158-67.
  10. See, e.g., Arnold Pictures 9, 12, 20; Hoffman; and Watts 28.
  11. Of course, there are modern books that blatantly use fear as a method of social control—one only has to think of Trina Schart Hyman's Little Red Riding Hood, for example, or of The House That Crack Built written by Clark Taylor and illustrated by Jan Thompson Dicks. But books like these often generate public outrage and censorship, and many of them do little more than expose our own fears of children. There are also many "descendants" of Heinrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter: modern stories in which children exhibit a variety of socially unacceptable behavior and are eventually cured through experiencing the consequences of such behavior. The consequences, however, are not nearly as extreme as those depicted in Struwwelpeter. See Betty MacDonald's popular Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series for good examples of this type of text.
  12. See also Darling "A. S. Neill on Democratic Authority"; Jenkins, ed. 2-37; McGillis; Rose 1-41; and Stephens 158.
  13. For further theoretical discussions of children's play, see the essays on "child's play" in Jenkins, ed. 297-453.
  14. For further discussion of implicit ideologies, see also Apple; Benson; Myers; Sutherland; and Zipes.
  15. For a recent fictional speculation about how a child might be socialized into something other than human society, see Karen Hesse's 1996 young adult novel The Music of Dolphins. Mila, raised by dolphins, is unable ultimately to join human society, but from her dolphin family she does acquire language and the ability to think complexly. Mila is one of many fictional children who are socialized by other animal species, the most famous of whom are Tarzan and Mowgli. Still, these are not wild children in the same sense as Genie and Kaspar—they have been socialized by others outside of themselves who are presumably older and "wiser." For more information on feral children, see Candland; Lane; Maclean; and Shattuck.
  16. This is a broad definition of the relationship that does not account for certain possible complexities, such as cases in which people who have been colonized by a specific group, in time, gain some measure of independence and go on to colonize a third group. The overall colonialist project, however, is grounded, according to Bhabha, in definitions that depend upon the theoretical opposition of colonizer-colonized and the inability of either party to merge or change places with the other.
  17. For further discussion, see Cummins 72; and Hughes.
  18. In a discussion of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Lyn Ellen Lacy notes that the book "assuages childhood's fears and pains by labeling as universal the inner monster we all have known, a monster that must be controlled if we are to survive emotionally" (109). Lacy is arguing that the recognition that everyone—adults and children—contains these anarchic impulses is comforting to children, but the closing part of her sentence suggests that these impulses remain within us, though under control. In Witch, the illustrations specifically suggest that our "monsters" must be expelled, not merely controlled. This emphasizes the differences between adults and children rather than their similarities (as Lacy's conception suggests). That is, in Witch, we see that adults are children who have vanquished their anarchic impulses, whereas in her discussion of Wild Things, Lacy suggests that adults still have these impulses but have learned to contain and control them.
  19. It is for this reason that The Gashlycrumb Tinies is such a disturbing and subversive text for modern adults. In addition to playing with assumptions about appropriate and inappropriate themes for children by marrying death and destruction with an alphabet book format, it also reminds adults that we cannot, in fact, keep children safe; even within the middle-class household myriad dangers lurk.

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Roni Natov (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Natov, Roni. "The Persistence of Alice." Lion and the Unicorn 3, no. 1 (1979): 38-61.

[In the following essay, Natov proposes that Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books succeed as children's literature—despite their occasionally darkly ironic themes—because Carroll was able to relate to a child's perspective.]

Lewis Carroll's children's epics have been written about, dramatized, and illustrated from so many points of view that they are obviously among the great classics of all times. And yet it is curious that the Alice stories are hardly read by children anymore. But this is misleading: children are familiar with the characters and the stories through Disney's cartoon and through the various television and children's theatre productions. However, many of these versions are distorted in some way. Disney's cartoon ignores the shape and texture of the work. Although some of the characters are vivid portrayals of Carroll's (and Tenniel's) originals—the Dutchess, the Queen, the Cheshire Cat, for example—and Disney's genius for animation cannot be underestimated, the entire effect is one of meaningless nonsense, and here I use the term literally, not the way Lewis Carroll did when he exposed the anti-sense, anti-rational underside of our existence. Most of the children's theatre productions have more successfully maintained some semblance of Carroll's intent and power in the scenes chosen for dramatization. But rarely does a theatre group present more than a part or a scene. The hugeness, the grandness of the work remains unexperienced by children. In recent years, a British television network produced a fine Alice in Wonderland which stuck fairly closely to the text; many of Carroll's lines were included and kept intact. But I had trouble relating to the voluptuous 25-35-year-old woman as Carroll's Alice. And many of the modern productions seem similarly distorted.

So, although the Alice stories have survived in other forms, much of their richness is lost unless they are read. And although there are nursery versions for the youngest children, I recommend for the child-reader the work in its entirety, though meted out in small doses, perhaps one chapter at a time. This would not harm the sense of the work or disorient the child, since each chapter stands on its own. Perhaps, also, some of the extensive verbal sophistications could be cut at the discretion of teacher, librarian, parent, always keeping in mind the particular child-audience, who may have difficulty following the connotations of Victorian idiom and humor. But the work is intrinsically interesting and universally powerful. Carroll's sense of the way children experience the world is extraordinarily astute and no matter how unsophisticated the child reader/listener, s/he can intuit some important truths about the world.

From the beginning, Carroll depicts the thinness of the line between dreams and the waking world which young children experience, and their curious lack of discomfort as they wander between the two. Alice has no trouble accepting the talking white rabbit that guides her out of reality into her underground journey; nor does Carroll note directly that Alice is dreaming. The white rabbit, with his incongruous watch, fan and gloves, introduces us to the world of reversals and unexpected combinations young children find so funny. This nonsense world is built upon the humor of incongruity and reversals.1 The animation of the inanimate—the roses that are painted red and the game pieces that are all irrepressible living things, for example—are obviously amusing to children. Games themselves—and Lewis Carroll was known to be addicted to verbal and mathematical games—are a large part of the child's world. And the childish Father William, who literally reverses his head and feet, as well as his expected role with his paternal son, is an interesting study in incongruity for children; perhaps because they often struggle with a childish parent (whether or not they realize this); or because they simply enjoy playing at being the adult. The more subtle incongruities, too, are not really lost on children. Dinah, Alice's cat, to whom she refers compulsively in moments of distress, is transformed in Wonderland into the Cheshire Cat, who sits above Alice, God-like, in the tree, appearing and disappearing at will. Note the reversal in tone: "'Dinah, my dear! I wish you were down here with me.'"2 Alice addresses her pet, with the authority of the adult. But to the cat in the sky: "'Cheshire Puss,' she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name …" (p. 51).

The Cheshire Cat is just one of the gallery of unforgettable portraits Carroll sketched with two or three clear, simple strokes. The Caterpillar, with his pipe, mushroom, and verbal tag—"You, who are you ?"—that Disney animated so well with his smoke rings, is engraved in the minds of children; and the basic primal shriek of the Queen—"Off with her head"—reverberates for children, though it be comfortably, at one remove through the distance of humor. The pleasure children receive in recognizing dependable leit motifs like the Queen's shriek, the White Rabbit's lateness, the Duchess's moralizing, is another of the many ways in which Carroll's stories can still appeal to children.

Like the persisting vitality of the characters, Carroll's jokes are still funny. Fun is made of the literalness of the child's mind; it must be particularly satisfying when Carroll allows the child to be the knowledgeable one, the one who gets the joke, since children often suffer from confusion about adult figurative language, taking it in its literal sense. (And this is true of much of Carroll's more sophisticated humor). But I doubt children would miss the humor of this famous interchange between the White King and Alice in Through the Looking Glass: "'I see nobody on the road,' said Alice. 'I only wish I had such eyes,' the King remarked in a fretful tone …" (p. 170). "All this was lost on Alice," Carroll goes on to say, but it is not lost on the child reader. Nor is the kind of verbal humor in this scene where the Red Queen asks Alice:

"How is bread made?"

"I know that !" Alice cried eagerly. "You take some flour—"

"Where do you pick the flower?" the White Queen asked: "In a garden or in the hedges?"

"Well, it isn't picked at all," Alice explained: "it's ground—"

"How many acres of ground?" said the White Queen.

(pp. 194-5)

And so on. Or Carroll's dramatization of the warning often given children by their parents in an effort to stop them from crying—"Watch out or you'll drown in your tears"—which provides humor through a similar process of literally depicting the cliché, when Alice does, in fact, swim in a huge pool of her own tears. Or the delight children take, noticeably in the early nursery rhymes, in the sound of words. They will enjoy the jokes that come about because of the way Alice is easily distracted from the meaning of words by their sounds. Of course, children will miss Carroll's full-blown philosophical exploration of the ironic nature of language: how the name of the thing can betray or limit the thing itself, though without a name a thing cannot be referred to (the problem dramatized by the famous scene between the White Knight and Alice), or the serious trouble that can arise from putting faith in labels, which, after all, are what words are. For example,

It was all very well to say "Drink me," but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. "No, I'll look first," she said, "and see whether it's marked 'poison' or not …"

However, this bottle was not marked "poison," so Alice ventured to taste it.…

(pp. 10-11)

If children miss the sophisticated joke here about language, perhaps they find it funny that Alice's use of logic in the above example, is, in reality, illogical.

Much of the delight in the Alice stories comes from the irreverent spirit of the work. For children, who are so governed by a variety of rules (many of which are obviously essential and comforting), breaking them or exposing how often they don't work can be exhilarating, within the safe confines of fantasy. Children can recognize their need for rules in Alice's obvious relief when she believes she has discovered some new ones:

"Maybe it's always pepper that makes people hot-tempered," she went on, very much pleased at having found out a new kind of rule, "and vinegar that makes them sour—and camomile that makes them bitter—and—and barley sugar and such things that make children sweet-tempered. I only wish people knew that.…"

(p. 70)

If only personality theory were so simple, children might feel a bit safer among complex and often erratic adults. How well Carroll depicts Alice's need to define, limit, control the chaos of so many of the Wonderland situations. Beginning with her free fall through space down the rabbit hole, Alice tries to find rules to relieve her discomfort. She wonders about the longitude and latitude of her position in space, she curtsies in the air, remembering the complex set of manners that rules her behavior at home. (This motif, of course, is elaborately explored in the tea party scene, and with the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Mock Turtle, and, in fact, all Alice's parental teachers). And when Alice exhausts herself trying to remember all the lessons of the schoolroom, it is a relief for the child, I would imagine, to see that the rules don't work; that fights begin and end for no apparent reason (Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Lion and the Unicorn, the caucus race which begins and ends arbitrarily with every creature a winner). This is not to imply that adults don't also enjoy Carroll's iconoclastic impulse. But I think critics often forget children's ability to follow the plot well enough (if not overwhelmed by pages and pages of it all at once) to enjoy this basic child-like rebellion against adult authority. In fact, if Alice is bossed around, frustrated, confused, disoriented—as through much of the work she is and often to an irritating degree—she has great moments of triumph and maintains throughout an almost arrogant sense of self. When the Duchess digs her sharp chin into Alice's shoulder, in a grotesque parody of maternal affection, and obsessively moralizes at her, in another parody of maternal care-taking about "what makes the world go round," Alice asserts: "'Somebody said … that it's done by everybody minding their own business!'" (p. 70) And at the climactic trial scene when the Queen turns her rage on Alice and screams the dreaded phrase, "Off with her head!" Alice is suddenly in touch with her full powers, and replies: "'Who cares for you … You're nothing but a pack of cards!'" (p. 97). This victory is for child power over the irrational claims of adults, and even as an adult, the child part of me rejoices in this affirmation.

The character of Alice herself has a curious kind of appeal in her tenacity. Alice's detachment from the potential cruelty of the Wonderland and Looking Glass creatures and from her own disorientation provides a main source of humor. We, along with children, watch her distantly remark over her odd changes in size and the peculiar incoherence of everything around her. Beginning with her potentially terrifying dream fall, she muses:

Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? "I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?" she said aloud. "I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth.…"

Down, down, down. There was nothing else to do, so Alice soon began talking again.

(pp. 8-9)

"Curiouser and curiouser!" Alice cries, as she notes the distance between her head and feet, as her neck shoots out "like the largest telescope that ever was!" (p. 14). Maintaining at all times the tone of nonsense humor, Carroll depicts what could be severe dissociation of body parts, as Alice exclaims: "Good-bye, feet!" and extends this metaphor to its most imaginatively absurd limits:3

"Oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? I'm sure I sha'n't be able! I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must manage the best way you can—but I must be kind to them," thought Alice, "or perhaps they won't walk the way I want to go! Let me see. I'll give them a new pair of boots every Christmas."

And she went on planning to herself how she would manage it. "They must go by the carrier," she thought; "and how funny it'll seem, sending presents to one's own feet! And how odd the directions will look!

Alice's Right Foot, Esq.


near the Fender,

(with Alice's love)".

(p. 15)

All this outrageous humor is not lost on children. If they find the work irritating in its verbosity, frightening in its grotesque images, the characters, including Alice, cold and arrogant, Carroll's sense of play is liberating and his sense of the unexpected delightful. Also many children read about the chaos of Alice's world with a parental arm neatly tucked around them. But for the older child, the adolescent who is experiencing in a real way much of the frustration depicted in Wonderland—often alienated from but still dependent upon adults—Alice's journeys can be relevant and painful. In recent years, this new audience has been drawn to Carroll's work because of its overriding concern with the much written about adolescent preooccupation with identity. The question Alice asks after several changes in size, "Who in the world am I!" (p. 15), is her underlying quest. Her attempts to define herself are hardly encouraging; she claims to know herself through the way she looks and what she knows, both of which fail. But the familiarity of her struggle may in itself feel like support to the adolescent.

For the growing adolescent, Alice's experience of being bossed around when she is small suggests a real sense of the position of childhood. "'Why Mary Ann,'" the White Rabbit snaps at Alice, "'what are you doing out here? Run home this moment, and fetch me a pair of gloves and a fan! Quick now!'" (p. 27). And the White Rabbit's attempt to stone Alice and smoke her out of his house when she is large may suggest to the adolescent a sense of discomfort at being a newly arrived adult. In fact, when the pigeon shrieks "Serpent!" at Alice when she is so large that her head extends above the foliage, in a scene reminiscent of a kind of distorted Eden, we are reminded that the questioning adolescent often feels like a serpent in his/her own childhood space of lost innocence. There is some relief in the fact that Alice does gradually learn to temper and control her size changes through eating the left and right sides of the mushroom alternately; and at the trial scene, when she seems unable to control her rate of growth, she asserts her right to grow:

"I wish you wouldn't squeeze so," said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her. "I can hardly breathe."

"I can't help it," said Alice very meekly: "I'm growing."

"You've no right to grow here," said the Dormouse.

"Don't talk nonsense," said Alice more boldly.…

(p. 88)

Adolescents seem to sense the anti-establishment code of the work, its cultish drug imagery and quirkiness—what may feel "trippy," "far out," uninhibited.4 The Alice stories are peculiarly au courant; the modern sensibilities of Ionesco, Beckett, and the theatre of the absurd playwrights seem closer to Carroll, in many ways, than the temperaments of his own contemporaries. In their grasping after some kind of certainty, particularly after Darwin's explosion of their sense of order, the Victorians seem very modern—perhaps similar to the existentialists in their search for meaning. But they were far from the kind of contemporary vision we see in Carroll's grim humor. Carlyle and Tennyson passed through their "dark night of the soul" into religious certainty; Dickens optimistically depended upon the common man's basic nobility; George Eliot affirmed that self-knowledge would ultimately serve us; Arnold believed that culture and education would save us; Mill and Huxley assured us that technology and science, if used constructively, could provide us with the sense of hope we need and with good lives. In mid-Victorian England, Lewis Carroll stood alone revealing the essential meaninglessness of life. As Carroll's omnipotent, omniscient Cheshire Cat says: "we're all mad here." And as Carroll dazzles with his brilliance and wit his most sophisticated audience, the millions of adults who read, reread, and write about the Alice stories, he exposes the uncertainty of our lives. Perhaps it is exhilarating to name all the deepest terrors of our modern existence and exaggerate them to the point of absurdity. So we laugh at the constructs, institutions, customs that give us a sense of stability, lend order to our lives, and make us feel sane. Carroll shows us how language, logic, education, manners, time, and space are all relative, unreliable emblems, self-perpetuated myths; that it is nearly impossible for us to depend upon our human ability to communicate with each other—how words are often the very things that keep up separate. Alice and the Fawn walk lovingly through the Wood With No Names, until at the end of the forest:

the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice's arm. "I'm a Fawn!" it cried out in a voice of delight. "And, dear me! you're a human child!" A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.

(p. 137)

In addition, he shows us how by our very nature, by the fact that we are after all only ourselves, we are unable to communicate. It is virtually impossible to get outside ourselves, to ever view the world through anything but our own eyes. Alice continually alienates the mouse and all the bird-creatures who partake in the caucus race by referring to her cat, Dinah: to Alice, Dinah is synonymous with love, comfort, security; to mice and birds, cat means enemy and danger. And no matter how direct the message—the mouse shrieks at Alice, "'Would you like cats, if you were me?'" (p. 19)—Alice is driven by her need to comfort herself with references to Dinah.

Carroll's is the darkest vision, that goes beyond questioning social mores and societal structures. It calls into question the very nature of our existence, and he offers no solutions or even possibilities for solutions. It is not possible, he seems to suggest, to be certain of anything, not even that you exist. No point in fretting over who you are if it is impossible to be sure if you are. In the much quoted passage from Through the Looking Glass, Alice comes across the Red King dreaming:

"He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee: "and what do you think he's dreaming about?"

Alice said "Nobody can guess that."

"Why, about you !" Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. "And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?"

"Where I am now, of course," said Alice.

"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!"

"If that there King was to wake," added Tweedledum, "you'd go out—bang!—just like a candle!"

"I wouldn't!" Alice exclaimed indignantly. "Besides, if I'm only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?

"Ditto," said Tweedledum.

"Ditto, ditto!" cried Tweedledee.

He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn't help saying "Hush! You'll be waking him, I'm afraid, if you make so much noise."

"Well, it's no use your talking about waking him," said Tweedledum, "when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real."

"I am real!" said Alice, and began to cry.

"You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying," Tweedledee remarked: "there's nothing to cry about."

"If I wasn't real," Alice said—half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—"I shouldn't be able to cry."

"I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?" Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

(p. 145)

Her attempts to prove her existence through her tears, as the physical manifestations of her thoughts and feelings, are reminiscent of the Wonderland scene in which the Cheshire Cat shows us how the body disappears first, the senses being the least reliable instrument with which to test reality; the head goes next; and what's left reigning in the sky as emblematic of our lives is the grin of ambiguity.

The Alice stories don't end, however, with a total sense of despair. A dialectic pervades. We may feel trapped and stifled in Wonderland. But there is also a sense of freedom which comes from recognizing the truth and being forced to laugh at it, from understanding the chaos and uncertainty we have always sensed about our lives. It's a relief when such deep and basic struggles surface. And if there is something profoundly sad about the Alice stories, modern readers, whether we are children, adolescents, or adults, are somewhat used to this. Our literature abounds with defensive structures which serve to alleviate the pain of that basic truth. Humor is the greatest of these and the most satisfying.


  1. For a complete discussion of nonsense as an art form, see Elizabeth Sewell, The Field of Nonsense (London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1952).
  2. Alice in Wonderland, ed. Donald J. Gray (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1971), p. 9. All further references will be to this edition and will appear in the text.
  3. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has more of this kind of imaginative playfulness than does Through the Looking Glass. The Looking Glass world is a more mechanical working out of the same themes as in Wonderland. It is more intellectual, theoretical, and less interesting to children.
  4. In the late sixties, for example, the rock group Jefferson Airplane's hit about drugs and the drug culture was called "White Rabbit."

Thomas J. Morrissey and Richard Wunderlich (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Morrissey, Thomas J., and Richard Wunderlich. "Death and Rebirth in Pinocchio." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 64-75.

[In the following essay, Morrissey and Wunderlich attempt to characterize Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio as a dark journey of spiritual rebirth from Pinocchio's origins as a selfish and angry marionette to his eventual salvation—images that run contrary to the more modern Walt Disney interpretation of the story.]

What epic hero worth the title does not undergo some form of death and resurrection? This primal motif manifests itself in a number of ways in mythology and literature. Gods can die and be reborn, or rise from the dead. Such mythological events probably imitate the annual cycle of vegetative birth, death, and renascence, and they often serve as paradigms for the frequent symbolic deaths and rebirths encountered in literature. Two such symbolic renderings are most prominent: re-emergence from a journey to hell and rebirth through metamorphosis. Journeys to the underworld are a common feature of Western literary epics: Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, and Dante all benefit from the knowledge and power they put on after such descents. Rebirth through metamorphosis, on the other hand, is a motif generally consigned to fantasy or speculative literature. Philomela, the Frog-Prince (in his many incarnations), the Beast of Beauty and the Beast, and Frost of Zelazny's "For a Breath I Tarry" are a few individuals who undergo such changes. These two figurative manifestations of the death-rebirth trope are rarely combined; however, Carlo Collodi's great fantasy-epic, The Adventures of Pinocchio, is a work in which a hero experiences symbolic death and rebirth through both infernal descent and metamorphosis. Pinocchio is truly a fantasy hero of epic proportions.

At first glance, American readers are likely to scoff at the greatness and symbolic importance of Pinocchio, for Collodi's masterpiece has suffered considerable deformation at the hands of adaptors and publishers.1 To most of us Pinocchio is a light-hearted, light-headed tale of youthful mischief. Walt Disney's film capitalized on what was already, in 1939, a well-established tradition of simplification and misinterpretation. A few American critics, such as Glauco Cambon and James Heisig, have resisted the trend, and so have many American families; faithful translations of Pinocchio are readily available, even after ninety years of desecration. Our bibliographic research shows that, counting abridgements and adaptations, an average of two or more new Pinocchios have appeared annually since the first U.S. printing in 1892. In Italy, moreover, Pinocchio has long been held a national treasure. Its author (born Carlo Lorenzini in 1826) was an often satirical journalist and a veteran of the military and political campaign for Italian reunification. He was both a man of letters and a man of the world whose social criticism did not always escape the censors. The period from 1981 to 1983 marks the Pinocchio centennial, and the Fondazione nazionale Carlo Collodi, a serious literary society, has tried to make sure that the world remembers the real Pinocchio.

Pinocchio is a fast-moving novel with engaging characters and crisp dialog. Much of the humor is ironic, usually at the expense of the heedless puppet. Furthermore, as a hero of what is, in the classic sense, a comedy, Pinocchio is protected from ultimate catastrophe, although he suffers quite a few moderate calamities. Collodi never lets the reader forget that disaster is always a possibility; in fact, that is just what Pinocchio's mentors—Gepetto, the Talking Cricket, and the Fairy—repeatedly tell him. Although they are part of a comedy, Pinocchio's adventures are not always funny. Indeed, they are sometimes sinister. The book's fictive world does not exclude injury, pain, or even death—they are stylized but not absent. How could Collodi write a true picaresque novel without accommodating the harsher facts of mortal existence? Accommodate them he does, by using the archetypal birth-death-rebirth motif as a means of structuring his hero's growth to responsible boyhood. Of course, the success of the puppet's growth is rendered in terms of his metamorphic rebirth as a flesh-and-blood human. On the road to rebirth, Pinocchio suffers setbacks that are themselves symbolic deaths and resurrections. Furthermore, along the way he joins the ranks of Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hamlet by obtaining information and advice from the world beyond. Beneath the book's comic-fantasy texture—but not far beneath—lies a symbolic journey to the underworld, from which Pinocchio emerges whole.

Pinocchio is one of those fortunate souls who does not always get what he wants but most assuredly gets what he needs. His behavior, or rather misbehavior, in the book's early episodes signals his need of correction, but the correction must come in the right form: experience tempered with a little good fortune. The puppet's misfortunes are the logical consequences of his folly, but they are also lucky opportunities for personal growth. What Pinocchio lacks at the beginning of the novel are the rudiments of self-control and civilized behavior—patience and concern for others. In the first eight chapters he has a chance to learn these virtues from Gepetto and the Talking Cricket, yet his failure to do so results in his exile from home and some symbolic lessons that fore-shadow his encounters with the other world and its emissaries.

The disregard for his well-being and that of others that Pinocchio displays in the first four chapters is justly rewarded in the second four chapters, thus establishing the stimulus-response format that informs his quest throughout the book. The piece of wood that will become the hero is a bundle of amoral energy. It frightens Master Antonio with its insolence, then insults and strikes Gepetto, causing the two old men to come to blows. The carving of the puppet is like a nuclear chain-reaction in slow motion. As Gepetto liberates Pinocchio from the raw wood, he quickly learns with whom he is dealing. When the eyes are formed, they stare at the carpenter, who calls them "wicked,"2 the nose grows faster than the old man can cut, the mouth derides him with laughter, and the hands grab the poor man's wig. Gepetto begins to regret having begun Pinocchio even before he has carved the feet; when they are finished, the puppet promptly runs away, the most immediate result of which is Gepetto's arrest for puppet abuse. Left temporarily fatherless, the puppet encounters the first non-parent significant other of his young life—the venerable Talking Cricket, whose warnings about the consequences of disobedience and sloth cause Pinocchio to "lose patience" (p. 27) and splatter him on the wall with a hammer.

These acts of unbridled passion are answered specifically in chapters 5-8 with symbolic and corporeal suffering. After killing the hundred-year-old cricket, the puppet receives a lesson in the value of revering life as his intended breakfast flies out the window when he cracks open its shell. Pinocchio is an agent of death who inadvertently becomes an agent of life; he also becomes very hungry. Searching for food, he gets his first taste of hell. He goes out into the "infernal night" (p. 35) to wander alone in what appears to be the "land of the dead" (p. 31). A man douses him with a chamber pot and he returns home "a wet chicken" (p. 32), thus resembling his fugitive breakfast, surely a humbling experience. In the morning he awakens to find that the offending feet which have caused such mischief have burned in Gepetto's purgatorial brazier. Pinocchio's feet are restored, but at a heavy price. First, he must endure a lecture by Gepetto; then he receives a gently symbolic lesson when the carpenter uses the ubiquitous empty eggshell to mix the glue with which he repairs the puppet. These events do not turn Pinocchio into a model of patience, filial piety, and respect for life, but from them he does learn to love Gepetto and even vows to go to school. Yet his promises prove hard to keep when he leaves home and is tempted by the bigger world; hence, he must experience with greater ferocity more hells of his own making, and he must be helped by increasingly more mysterious agents.

Pinocchio undergoes a series of adventures that draw on the descent-to-the-underworld motif hinted at in the earlier chapters. Some involve traditional images of hellfire, one is gothic, and another classical. Fires are abundant. He is nearly used as fuel to cook the Fire-Eater's mutton; he is almost incinerated in a tree by the assassins; he eludes a disgruntled peasant who wants to sell him for firewood; and he barely escapes frying at the hands of the Green Fisherman. It takes a good scare to make Pinocchio admit the reality of death. Killing the Cricket and refusing to believe in the existence of assassins demonstrate his initial ignorance about the fragility of life, but this unrealistic attitude gives way when the possibility of his own death offers him an unforgettable object lesson in mortality. He laughs at the assassins' vain attempt to stab him, but then the hooded figures manage to hang him. Collodi makes no effort to hide the puppet's agony: "His breath failed him and he could say no more. He shut his eyes, opened his mouth, stretched his legs, gave a long shudder, and hung stiff and insensible" (p. 74). Incredibly, even hanging is not enough to impress Pinocchio, but things change when Collodi employs delightful gothic farce. Although he lies near death at the Fairy's cottage, he will not take her medicine. At first he boasts that he does not fear death, saying, "I would rather die than drink that bitter medicine," but when four ink-black rabbits carrying a bier tell him, "We are come to take you" (p. 82), he begs for the tumbler. Later, the journey to the land of Cocagne features images of Hades. The ominous Coachman is a Charon-like figure who drives a silent black coach in the dark of night. He bites off the ears of one of the boys-turned-donkeys and utters the book's only remotely ribald joke, when he says of the injured beast, "Let him cry; he will laugh when he is a bridegroom" (p. 171). Collodi gives a tantalizing hint of the Coachman's unearthly status in the fragment of song:

During the night all sleep.
But I sleep never … [p. 170]

Of course, Pinocchio and Candlewick pay no heed to imagery and must literally turn into donkeys before they see their folly, but Collodi deftly shares the truth with his readers.

Pinocchio would have survived none of these ordeals without help from his friends, especially super- or preternatural ones. Like Dante, he needs his Virgil; like Odysseus, he needs his Athene. The Talking Cricket's ghost and the Fairy are the prime benefactors who guide him in learning to follow the dictates of his basically good heart. The Cricket is master of the bon mot. Just before Pinocchio squashes him, the insect warns him that loafers inevitably end up in jail or in the hospital: Pinocchio loafs and ends up in both places (the gorilla judge's prison and the Fairy's miraculous clinic). If Pinocchio is impetuous, the Cricket is a very patient soul who holds no grudge against the puppet for hammering him, for he returns to the world three times to help the wayward hero. First, he appears in ghostly form to warn Pinocchio about the assassins, to no avail. Second, he turns up as one of the Fairy's council of physicians. He is the only doctor who knows when to keep his mouth shut, but when he does speak, he utters the stark truth that awakens Pinocchio from his coma: "That puppet there is a disobedient son who will make his poor father die of a broken heart!" (p. 78). Finally, he serves as the Fairy's go-between when Pinocchio has finally proven himself worthy in the last chapter. The Talking Cricket is throughout the book a reliable ghostly counselor.

The Fairy is the pivotal influence on Pinocchio's development. Gepetto's self-sacrifice and the Cricket's good advice are important, but the Fairy's enduring patience and magical powers are the puppet's greatest assets. She has been called Kalypso3 and the archetype of the lost mother:4 these she is and more. She is a vital link in the merger of the death-resurrection and metamorphosis motifs. Not only does she facilitate Pinocchio's resurrections and final conversion to boyhood, but she too undergoes ritual deaths, resurrections, and transmutations—all on behalf of her adopted brother-son. She is, first and foremost, a wielder of magical power. She can clap her hands three times and command a raven to fetch Pinocchio from the oak tree. This is a significant point in a book in which three is a special number. In chapter 16 the Fairy summons three doctors and forgives Pinocchio three lies. The puppet is threatened by three fires, and three times he is choked—once by a rope, once by a dog collar, and once by a donkey's halter. Gepetto searches for his son for three months and the pigeon who takes Pinocchio to him has not seen the old man for three days (p. 114). The ghost of the Cricket appears to Pinocchio three times, and the Fairy feeds the puppet a three-course meal in the Land of Industrious Bees. Also, Pinocchio has three great mentors, Gepetto, the Cricket, and the Fairy. Perhaps the frequent use of the number three is an echo of Dante; more likely, it is designed to approximate a formula or incantation reinforcing the magical quality of the fictive world personified in the Fairy-sorceress.

Although the Fairy has lived in the woods for a thousand years, she chooses to undergo death and metamorphosis in order to help Pinocchio to a better understanding of the meaning of life and love. She passes through the stages of life from child to old woman, thus serving as the puppet's only role model who undergoes the maturation process. The device is also useful because, at the time Pinocchio first sees her, he has already rejected a father's guidance and would be unlikely to heed a mother-figure. She appears first at the window as a ghostly apparition who speaks without moving her lips, in "a voice that seemed to come from the other world" (p. 74). She makes no effort to save the fleeing marionette from the assassins; instead she presents him with an image of death that should intensify his appreciation of the preciousness of life. It does not do so, of course, so that later she must summon the rabbit undertakers to amplify the image. After Pinocchio's medicinal care, he breaks his promise to return at nightfall to his would-be Fairy-sister and, as a result, loses his money, does a stint as a watchdog, and goes to prison for four months. But these lessons are not as powerful as the sight of the Fairy's grave. (A number of commentators have questioned how he could read the stone when he never had opened a book, but no matter.) Given that the Fairy has taught Pinocchio the meaning of death, it is a profoundly significant mark of his spiritual growth that he freely expresses his willingness to die that she might live (p. 112). From this point on, the Fairy plays the role of mother in Pinocchio's life, for once he has learned some semblance of filial piety, he is ready to accept guidance—although he manages to disobey his new mother by running off with Candlewick.

On a more symbolic level, however, both the Cricket and the Fairy are also emblems of death and resurrection. The Cricket dies but returns as a ghost. Whether he really remains a ghost or whether he actually returns to life in chapters 17 and 36 is not really clear. The Fairy dies twice. First, she is the dead child at the window, but she returns in child form to minister to the hanged puppet. Then she lies buried before her transformation into an old woman and mother. Whether she really dies on either of these occasions is unimportant: what matters is that Pinocchio believes she is dead. He sees, then, three striking images of victory over death, which, taken together, strengthen his courage to perform the ultimate heroic deeds—the rescue and subsequent care taking of Gepetto. Furthermore, these events help to establish for the reader the dominance of the death-resurrection motif as the paramount structural and symbolic device of the novel.

It is Pinocchio, the hero of the fantasy bildungsroman, who does the most dying and growing. Although he has a number of close calls with fires, the Serpent, and the Green Fisherman, his three major confrontations with death and the underworld involve his hanging, his descent to and escape from donkeyhood, and his rescue of Gepetto. The great resurrection is his metamorphosis in chapter 36. As mentioned earlier, Pinocchio's triumph over death by hanging is none of his own doing, but it strengthens his bond with the Fairy and his willingness to sacrifice on behalf of loved ones.

The events surrounding Pinocchio's adventures in Cocagne are of truly mythic significance. Both literally and figuratively they prepare him for his triumphant fate. The journey to Cocagne is an echo of classic descents into Hades. Once the boys arrive in Cocagne the hellish torture begins. Although they are too ignorant to realize it, the absence of schools and masters is the start of their punishment, but Pinocchio and his comrades do not face damnation until they are converted into donkeys. The punishment fits the crime in a way reminiscent of the Aeneid and the Inferno. Their dehumanization is not complete, however, for it is the nature of their torture that they be aware of what they have lost in their metamorphosis. Pinocchio has already suffered symbolic loss of his humanoid status in the episode in which he becomes a watchdog. In that instance, though, he is playing a role; in Cocagne the change is real. His failure to heed the warning implicit in the earlier chapter results in his being demoted a few links on the great chain of being.

Pinocchio was released from the kennel for his honesty—all it required was removal of the collar. The escape from donkeyhood is a more complicated matter. In an event analogous to the appearance of the dead Fairy at the window before his hanging, Pinocchio sees the Fairy in the circus audience just before he lames himself and is sold for his hide. After his preternatural reminder of the Fairy's unfailing concern, he is put in a weighted sack and submerged. The devouring of his flesh by the fish, which liberates the puppet from donkey form, is a miracle second only to his metamorphosis to boyhood. It is a sea-change akin to Ferdinand's escape from drowning in The Tempest or to Aphrodite's rise from the sea. Having proven through his admittedly ill-expressed love for Gepetto and the Fairy that his heart is basically good, Pinocchio is redeemed in this singularly symbolic fashion by his loving mother. Like a soul emerging triumphant from a dying body, or like Dionysus or Jesus who are victoriously rended and consumed, the puppet comes to the surface with irrepressible joy and enthusiasm. Exultation is a valuable emotion for him to experience, for it gives him a glimpse of what life can be like for a heroic personality just before he himself embarks on his greatest adventure. There are two crucial points to consider in this episode. First, Pinocchio is helped both because he is lucky and because he deserves it by virtue of his having learned to love. His friend Candlewick, who is unaided and unschooled in matters of the heart, dies a spent donkey. Second, although Pinocchio reassumes marionette form, he is no longer merely a puppet pulled hither and yon by good and bad influences. He emerges with a new sense of self-determination, ready to be a hero.

Pinocchio's rescue of Gepetto from the terrible shark, il pesce cane, is a voluntary heroic act which, unlike anything he has done before, he undertakes with fore-thought and single-mindedness. Entering the fish's cavernous mouth is yet another ritual descent, but it is no accident. The Tunny and Gepetto languish hopelessly in the fish's belly; it is Pinocchio who gives them the hope and will to escape. He addresses his father in the imperative mood, saying, "Get on my shoulders and put your arms tight around my neck. I will take care of the rest" (p. 209). He is Aeneas to Gepetto's Anchises, the model of filial piety and self-sacrifice.

Heroism is not enough to earn Pinocchio human form: he must shed indolence and learn to work for his bread. This he does in the final chapter, where he labors ceaselessly on behalf of the invalid Gepetto. His transformation to boyhood is as quiet and solemn as his birth to puppet-hood was raucous and disrespectful; he is changed in his sleep by the Fairy's kiss. From undisciplined puppet, hanged victim, watchdog, and donkey, Pinocchio comes to heroism and human form. Each of the deaths and resurrections in the novel is a symbolic reminder of this overall pattern. To underscore the motif, Collodi shows us Pinocchio looking at himself in a mirror "as happy and joyful as if it were the Easter holidays" (p. 221); surely this is the risen puppet's Easter.

To be reborn is not just to live again; it is to change and to grow as the Fairy does. Thus Pinocchio's picaresque journey leads him to a new status: boyhood. And what is boyhood to Collodi? It is a state of proto-adulthood, for Collodi's concept of childhood is similar to that of the medieval cultures depicted in Philippe Ariès's Centuries of Childhood. It is central to this concept that children have the same emotions, needs, and, to some extent, responsibilities, as their parents. They are not fragile ornaments to be sheltered but rather adults-in-becoming who must face, with parental guidance, the trials of the world so that they can function in it as responsible adults. Collodi does not show us Pinocchio as an adult, but he does, through epic symbolism, show us his potential to be one. The puppet-turned-boy is that hero that every loved and loving child can be. It is Collodi's tribute to children that he chooses to depict their very real trials and triumphs in terms of mythic patterns ordinarily reserved for adults.


  1. Richard Wunderlich and Thomas J. Morrissey, "The Desecration of Pinocchio in the United States," Horn Book, 58 (April 1982), 205-11.
  2. The Adventures of Pinocchio, trans. M. A. Murray (1892; rpt. New York: Lancer Books, 1968), p. 20. All citations are taken from this edition and hereafter are cited parenthetically in the text. Although the 1892 translation has become a little dated, it is a faithful rendition of Collodi's descriptive words and phrases.
  3. Mark Van Doren, introduction to Pinocchio (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1937), p. vii.
  4. James W. Heisig, "Pinocchio: Archetype of the Motherless Child," Children's Literature, 3 (1974), 31.

Nicholas Tucker (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Tucker, Nicholas. "Vice Versa: The First Subversive Novel for Children." Children's Literature in Education 18, no. 3 (1987): 139-47.

[In the following essay, Tucker argues that F. H. Anstey's usage of dark, humorous overtones in Vice Versa is an emotive response to the pain the author suffered as a child.]

No more amusing book has been published for many a long day. It has the extraordinary merit of being as readable for juveniles as for their seniors. Not only inexhaustibly humorous, it is well and carefully written. It will be permanently popular.

Thus one reviewer among the many praising F. H. Anstey's novel Vice Versa when it appeared in 1882. These remarks still hold true. Vice Versa remains a marvelously funny book, never out of print, and every now and again doing well in stage and screen adaptations. The adventures of the pompous, middle-aged father Paul Bultitude, forced to return to school after involuntarily changing bodies with his son, Dick, is still one of the best known plots in fiction. This was an astonishing achievement for Anstey, an untried author only twenty-six years old. Different writers before and since have thought of similar plots, though never with the same effect. As another contemporary reviewer pointed out, "The book is more than wildly comic and amusing; it is in parts exceedingly pathetic." This is true; what Anstey is getting at in his black comedy goes further than merely providing a good laugh. There is also a cutting edge to this story, which carries a message about the power relationships between adults and children and the way these are commonly abused that is as uncompromising today as it was a hundred years ago, but easy to miss in a text otherwise so full of humour.

For this reason it would be superficial to explain it away simply as an attack on Victorian education. There may be a lot wrong with Crichton House, the private boarding school Mr Bultitude is forced to attend for what he describes as "one hideous week," yet the author himself describes life there as possessing "no intolerable hardships, even if it held out no exceptional attractions." At the end of the story, Dick is told by his restored father that next term he can go to Harrow instead, something he had always pleaded for. Instead of seeing this as a leap from the educational frying pan to the fire, Dick is overcome with joy. If Anstey had wanted to suggest that all schools were Hell he would hardly have finished his novel like this, even though it takes what he describes as "the mysterious glamour of a great public school" to win Dick over to these more positive attitudes.

As it is, the miseries Mr Bultitude experiences at Crichton House, once transformed into a boy, are largely due to his own insensitive, unyielding personality. Maddeningly for him, this very point is made by his own son when he visits his father at school in the form of his parent's body yet wearing "a large scarf round his neck of some crude and gaudy colour"1 instead of the formally tied black neckcloth his father had worn for a quarter of a century. But it would be overingenious to see his speech as parodying Mr Bultitude's own unfortunate remarks earlier on, when he talks glibly about "the innocent games and delights of childhood," with the hours passed as school as the very happiest in life. What Dick tells his father is far more honest. While he acknowledges that childhood—although tough—has some compensations, it is still nowhere as pleasant as being a spoilt, prosperous grown-up. So Dick has no intention of becoming young again, but if his own life as a child has not been very agreeable, he sees little reason why this should always be the case for all children, given more generous behaviour from their elders at home. Yet as the book makes clear, such generosity, particularly where Victorian fathers were concerned, was often lacking. It is this angry accusation that forms the basis for Anstey's novel: that is why it is dedicated to the British Paterfamilias in person, and subtitled "A Lesson to Fathers."

For to be blunt, Mr Bultitude has little interest in what happens to his son Dick, and what is more, makes this quite plain. Had Dick's mother been alive, Anstey writes, her loving tact might have led to less strained relationships between father and son (p. 6). But she is dead before the story begins, thus neatly avoiding unthinkable complications had Dick, in his father's body, been required to share the marriage bed with his own mother. Left on his own, Dick scavenges for affection from cook, servant, or younger brother and sister. From his own father, he receives nothing. This is hardly surprising given Mr Bultitude's attitudes towards all children, his or anyone else's:

He was one of those nervous and fidgety persons who cannot understand their own children, looking on them as objectionable monsters whose next movements are uncertain—much as Frankenstein must have felt towards his monster. He hated to have a boy about the house, and positively writhed under the irrelevant and irrepressible questions, the unnecessary noises and boisterous high spirits, which nothing would subdue; his son's society was to him simply an abominable nuisance, and he pined and yearned for a release from it from the day the holidays began.

(p. 5)

Why then does Dick never denounce this unloving patriarch for what he is? The answer is simple: in any battle for power, Mr Bultitude held all the cards. While Dick, like all children, has a need to be loved, Mr Bultitude can get along without either love or loving. While Dick, like all children again, has no money and few rights, his father is rich, dictatorial, and mean. Denied both the claims of affection and hard cash, there is virtually no way Dick can assert himself in the world around him. Earlier on, his is bitterly disappointed when his father gives him only five shillings as a leaving present, instead of the bright sovereign which, in Anstey's words, would have brought him both dignity and credit at school in terms of surreptitious luxuries. Later on, Mr Bultitude, now appearing as a boy, also finds the same five shillings distressingly inadequate, neither enough to bribe a drunken cabby to drive him home nor, once at school, to relieve various creditors to whom his son Dick owed money. It also means that Mr Bultitude's plans to escape by train fall through, since he cannot afford the fare. Like Toad in The Wind in the Willows, also turned away from a ticket office because he lacked ready cash, Mr Bultitude is forced to realise how much his previous power and security had always rested on the possession of a full pocketbook. This is exactly the economic powerlessness most children have always had to acknowledge and often suffer from, a point Anstey hammers home unsparingly.

Mr Bultitude is not alone in his ignorance of what it is like to be a child. Dr Grimstone, headmaster of Crichton House School, where most of the action takes place, is another adult who only sees what suits him in this matter. As with all tyrants, both grownups make children pay lip-service to their particular party line, Mr Bultitude through his economic and emotional power as a father, Dr Grimstone through fear of the cane. Like the torture and executions in George Orwell's 1984, corporal punishment is rarely named as such throughout Vice Versa. Instead, Dr Grimstone prefers to allude to it obliquely as if even he cannot quite bear to name the dreaded instrument directly. This leads to a splendid series of euphemisms:

Unless I perceive, sir, in a very short time a due sense of your error and a lively repentance, my disapproval will take a very practical form.

(p. 54)

A very little more eccentricity and insubordination from you, Bultitude, and you will reap a full reward—a full reward, sir!

(p. 101)

Elsewhere there are references to "a public lesson at my hands which you will never forget" (p. 186) and "a sharp corrective in the presence of your school fellows" (p. 202). And even by the last chapter we find the doctor continuing on this theme, still without any need to repeat himself:

He shall be made to repent this as long as he lives. This insult to me (and of course to you also) shall be amply atoned for. If you will have the goodness to deliver him over to my hands, tomorrow sir, I will endeavour to awaken his conscience in a way he will remember!

(p. 277)

To make matters worse, both Mr Bultitude and Dr Grimstone also believe that a system so much to their advantage is really there to benefit the children in their care. Like Stalin, who used to accept his own propaganda films as literal versions of the truth, both these dictators mistake the sycophantic reactions of their subjects for genuine responses of approval. At the same time, Dr Grimstone insists throughout the novel in talking not like an ordinary human being but in the high-flown tones of one who, in his own words, is "entrusted with the care of youth." To this end, his speech is as artificial as the behaviour he produces in his pupils, one falsehood sustaining the other, and a further way in which adults in power often distance themselves from the possibility of any reasonable communication with the young. Because of the fear he instills there is no-one beneath him with the incentive or courage to ridicule his absurd pretensions until, of all people, Mr Bultitude comes on the scene in the shape of his son Dick. It is he who quite unwittingly gets closest to calling the Doctor's bluff by also insisting on talking like the equally pompous adult that he is. To Dr Grimstone, this language on the lips of a pupil represents the most appalling cheek. To the reader, Mr Bultitude's fuddy-duddy speeches once at school are a reminder that if such sentiments sound ridiculous when spoken by a child, there is no reason why they should come over as more sensible when articulated by an adult.

At this point, it is worth enquiring what sort of experience Anstey had himself both of fathers and school which led him to write so biting a satire. In his autobiography, A Long Retrospect, published after his death under his real name, T. A. Guthrie, he asserts that his own father was both generous and popular. At his first school, Anstey continues, he did have a headmaster whose physical appearance resembled that of Dr Grimstone, but this same teacher was mostly a genial soul who used to join in pupils' charades and read out stories to the boys, occasionally rocking with laughter himself. This is a different figure from the aloof, bombastic Dr Grimstone. It is true that when this headmaster and Anstey's father met after the novel was published both agreed they recognised at least something of their characters in the book, but this was never more than a lighthearted admission. Anstey's father, in fact, offered to publish the story at his own expense should his son fail to place it elsewhere.

So what was the source of the bitter anger in Vice Versa ? Looking at Anstey's autobiography more closely, it soon becomes clear that despite various bland denials, he did indeed detest his first boarding school, which he attended from the age of eight, though he does describe his later experience as a day boy at Kings College School as "a heavenly change." At the same time, although he professes affection for his father, he writes about him in distant terms, admitting that their relationship deteriorated after the death of Anstey's mother in 1877, five years before Vice Versa was written. And even before this loss Anstey, by his own admission, was not a happy child. As he says himself, he was given to "moods of quite causeless depression and discontent with things in general … when it seemed to me that this world I found myself in was a rather wearisome affair" (p. 43). Later on at school, he describes how he "Never entirely shook off a feeling of some impending disaster which might fall when I least expected it" (p. 54). No wonder such a highly strung child was terrified of his headmaster and slightly in awe of his father, even when both were at their mildest.

In his own life, therefore, Anstey was not so much a Dick as a Kiffin, the new boy whose grief on the railway journey to Crichton House is described so poignantly:

He was a home-bred boy, without any of that taste for the companionship and pursuits of his fellows, or capacity for adapting himself to their prejudices and requirements, which give some home-bred boys a ready passport into the roughest communities. His heart throbbed with no excited curiosity, no conscious pride, at this his first important step in life; he was a forlorn little stranger, in an unsympathetic, strange land, and was only too well aware of his position.2

Yet poor Kiffin, however realistic, would make a bad model for Dick in Vice Versa, who had to be a merry, high-spirited lad, popular with his schoolfellows in order to highlight his father's failure to manage anything like so well when his time came. So rather than write autobiographically at this point, Anstey created in Dick the boy he would like to have been. Yet there are suggestions in the text that Anstey still found this idealised character difficult to identify with or even visualise. On page 10, for example, Dick's hair is described as red, but by page 22 it has turned auburn.

But while Dick is an important character, most of the action in Vice Versa is seen through the suffering eyes of Mr Bultitude turned into a boy. And the more one reads Anstey's memoirs, the clearer the pattern becomes. It is Mr Bultitude who is very much what Anstey himself was like at school as a child, except of course for the pompous language and the adult expectations. Like Mr Bultitude, Anstey hated games and had no talent for them, either those played under supervision or the rougher type waged between pupils themselves. Like Mr Bultitude, Anstey was socially prickly and had no particular friends. Like Mr Bultitude, Anstey dreaded going to school, referring to his departures as "Black Mondays." And finally, both Mr Bultitude and Anstey trembled with nerves during the various headmasterly fulminations visited on pupils during assembly and lessons. Both were also terrified of the cane, even though Anstey was rarely punished himself, and it was fear of a public flogging that finally drove Mr Bultitude to run away for good.

So although Crichton House as described in Vice Versa is a worse school than the one Anstey attended, most of Mr Bultitude's problems still derived from his own nervous, unsociable nature. As such, he also stands here for all those individuals who never get on well at school, whatever type of establishment this might be. Such pupils, as Anstey points out earlier in his novel, brood over their lot "with a dull, blank dejection which those only who have gone through the same thing in their boyhood will understand. To others, whose school life has been one unchequered course of excitement and success, it will be incomprehensible enough—and so much the better for them" (p. 11).

Such a statement could only be based on personal experience, since as Anstey writes in his memoirs, "When the working out of the main idea (for Vice Versa) had once been decided on, I had nothing to invent—I had merely to remember—my characters, incidents and background only needed selection and arrangement."3 And it is this negative attitude towards school, together with Anstey's ambiguous, often unhappy recollection of the rest of childhood at home, that gives his novel its particular impact. He describes, in short, something that every reader can sympathise with, either as a child or as an adult remembering childhood. At home, all children at times resent aspects of their parents, particularly the arbitrary and sometimes rougher authority of a father, and Vice Versa provides ample opportunity for imaginative revenge here. At one moment in the novel the newly enlarged Dick threatens to punch his father's head, and at other times Mr Bultitude is relentlessly kicked and pummelled by other children at school. There are few fathers in fiction who can have suffered more humiliation, and all with the delicious, guilt-free realisation on the part of the reader that it was entirely Mr Bultitude's own fault in the first place.

As for resentment about school, once again all readers will have disliked aspects of their education and their various fellow pupils at times, and some—like Anstey—rather more than others. Conventional school stories usually take little account of this un-manly type of wingeing, preferring to comfort us with idealised projections of ourselves like Tom Brown or other heroic child characters who never turn away from a fight and remain forever popular and positive in their attitudes. We can all usually identify with these characters, yet still know that there were other sides to our various reactions to school that by no means match this flattering picture. It is exactly these feelings that Vice Versa reflects so well in the form of Mr Bultitude's, one week of agony at Crichton House. Years later C. S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography that Anstey's novel was the only truthful school story in existence. For Lewis, all the business of the magic stone in Chapter One "really serves to bring out in their true colours the sensations which every boy had on parting from the warmth and softness and dignity of his home life to the privations, the raw and sordid ugliness, of school."4

Yet because readers on the whole dislike identifying with an obvious antihero in school stories, there tends to be a shortage of novels which reflect the more inglorious moments of our educational experiences. Vice Versa overcomes this difficulty by creating a main character who—as a man in boy's clothing—never has the effect of holding up a mirror in which we can all see our own faces reflected back. In this way, he both protects our vanity and at the same time expresses all those various humiliations and panics we too have known at moments in schools, however much we might deny it then or later on.

At the same time, by focusing on such an unheroic man-child, Anstey can reveal the unrelenting side of childhood aggression such a character brings out into the open. Left to themselves, the pupils at Crichton House are a tough-minded lot, all except the school sneak respecting the unwritten rules governing their particular oppressed class: honour your debts, fight your corner, and never inform to the teachers. This is a practical rather than an exalted philosophy, most concerned with rough justice and the survival of the fittest. Within it, church is resented as it means parting with six-pence in the collecting tray, and lessons are undermined by leading teachers off into favourite digressions. When Mr Bultitude blunders onto this scene, sneaking to Dr Grimstone, fighting shy on the games pitch, and cravenly refusing to settle his debts, an uglier side to British boyhood appears, and he is bullied without mercy both day and night.

In this way, childhood is seen as a stark, self-enclosed world following its own rules, with little time or charity for those who cannot or will not fit in. Such a world operates under the very noses of various supervisory adults who have little or no idea of what is really going on. This picture contrasts with the more romantic image of childhood, seen as a period of vulnerable, transparent sincerity, and is one that Kipling was later to develop in Stalky and Co. This century, similarly negative images of childhood have been taken to chilling extremes by Richard Hughes in A High Wind in Jamaica and William Golding in Lord of the Flies. But Anstey got there first, and this surely is what gives Vice Versa its special place in the literature of childhood. For while attacks on Victorian fathers and insensitive teachers were to become commonplace in the years to come, Anstey's unblinkered views about the nature of children once in their own society was new—not just for its own time, but well into our own century, too.

This is not to say that a negative fictional picture of childhood is the whole truth: children have positive sides as well, something Anstey also makes clear. But the overriding message of Vice Versa is pity for the child who gets on the wrong side of other children, even when this child is as unattractive a person as Mr Bultitude in boy's clothing. For the bullying he meets with still hurts, whether this involves running the gauntlet, kicks in the shins, jabs in the spine, or having his arm twisted round till it is nearly wrenched out of its socket. It is impossible not to sympathise with anyone on the receiving end of this savagery, particularly when Mr Bultitude's blustering threats to have his tormentors up for assault or bound over to keep the peace are totally futile. Although adults can demand such rights for themselves, children on the whole cannot, either from grown-ups or from other children. When Mr Bultitude finally escapes from school every reader is thoroughly on his side, especially during the awful moments when Dr Grimstone nearly discovers him hidden under the seat of a railway carriage. Before that, although his misadventures still remain funny, he also comes over as a pathetic, miserable object, perpetually at risk. As such, he is a symbol for every child who has also sometimes felt this way, and which of us has not?

With such memories still fresh in his own mind, even when he was well over seventy, it is perhaps no wonder Anstey remained a bachelor all his life. Having suffered when young from the exuberance of other children, he possibly had no intention of putting up with a second compulsory dose of the same thing. Nor might he have wished his own children to suffer in their turn, either from fellow pupils, when the time came, or from teachers ignorant of what is going on and often making things worse by imposing their own type of tyranny. Rather, he put all he knew into a best-selling novel, using humour to get over an otherwise unacceptably black view of both the young and the old, the cruelties of the one compounding the harshness of the other. The result is a splendidly subversive book, as relevant as it ever was for those parents, teachers, and children's novelists who still cannot quite bring themselves to believe that childhood and school is not necessarily the best part of life, come what may.


  1. Vice Versa, p. 195.
  2. Vice Versa, p. 53.
  3. A Long Retrospect, p. 120.
  4. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 45.


Anstey, F. H., Vice Versa. London: John Murray, 1969. (Originally published, 1882.)

Anstey, F. H. (Thomas Anstey Guthrie), A Long Retrospect. London: Oxford University Press, 1936.

Lewis, C. S., Surprised by Joy. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955.


R. A. Siegel (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Siegel, R. A. "The Little Boy Who Drops His Pants in the Crowd: Tomi Ungerer's Art of the Comic Grotesque." Lion and the Unicorn 1, nos. 1-2 (1977): 26-32.

[In the following essay, Siegel reflects upon Tomi Ungerer's adoption of the "comic grotesque" in her picture books and how the author's use of such themes signals a freedom from restrictive social customs.]

Tomi Ungerer's picture books seem to prompt solicitous comments about the psyche of their creator. "Schizophrenic," "obsessive," "neurotic": all of these terms have been used to describe Ungerer's children's books, the latter by the local children's librarian as she rather gingerly handed over a copy of Zeralda's Ogre.

Ungerer's trademarks are dripping blood and severed limbs. The heroes of his children's books include a bat and a vulture and his recent works feature macabre and violent disasters, scenes of literally swinish gluttony, and, in Zeralda's Ogre, cannibalism. On the face of it, a kind of comic Theater of Cruelty for children and little wonder that some of Ungerer's books make some adults uncomfortable and provoke speculation about the psychology of the artist.

Those who see Ungerer's picture books as collections of personal symbols expressing the warped subjectivity of the artist take too narrow a view of things. They fail to take into account the universality of his comic images and their relevance to the child's sense of humor. For whatever Tomi Ungerer's personal demons may be—and in his children's books they seem to be, by and large, merry and agreeable fellows—his humor communicates through the traditional structure of comic grotesque imagery.

The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin1 has traced the sources of this structure of grotesque imagery to the festive comic forms and symbols of medieval folk humor. Ritual spectacles like the "Feast of Fools" and verbal humor of the marketplace, parodies, and the various forms of billingsgate, all contributed to the storehouse of imagery of folk humor. In this rich and vital idiom, images of the body, especially the lower body, predominate. There is great emphasis on eating, drinking, and the digestive processes. Aspects of the body—noses, mouths, bellies—are isolated and exaggerated to comic hyperbolic dimensions. Mockery, abusive language, satire, and travesty all play a part in the comic grotesque, which is an inverted version of the official culture.

Romantic and modern artists and writers have absorbed and transformed this grotesque tradition and it has become associated with personal expressions of cynicism and alienation.2 In the folk sources, however, images of the lower body have a deeply positive character: they are images of fertility, growth, and abundance. Images of the material body connect man with the fruitful womb of the earth. Folk humor degrades in order to renew: parody and travesty provide vital correctives to an abstract and spiritual ideology. Throughout runs the spirit of popular Utopianism, the tradition of the Saturnalia, the return of Saturn's Golden Age.3

The comic forms of folk humor survive today in the oral culture of children, the lore and language collected by the Opies and other folklorists. And the utopian spirit of the folk tradition, like many forms and themes abandoned by adult literature, survives in the hopeful and regenerative endings of children's stories which are neither condescensions nor outworn conventions but rather reflections of an underlying philosophical optimism.

The comedy of Tomi Ungerer's picture books depends on grotesque bodily realism as well as on the regenerative spirit of the Saturnalia. In The Beast of Monsieur Racine, imagination and the regenerative comic spirit, in the form of the two mischievous children who disguise themselves as "the Beast," triumph over the sterile rationality and perfection of Monsieur Racine and the pompousness of the French Academy. And Monsieur Racine is himself transformed from a lonely bachelor who refuses to share, to a warm, giving friend of the two children.

Grotesque imagery, always present in Ungerer's adult works, surfaced more slowly in his children's books. This development has paralleled the change from the wiry line and watercolors of his earlier illustrations to the aggressive, intense colors and bold shapes of his later works. There are suggestions of the grotesque in the comic mishaps of the Mellops family but, with the exception of Felix Mellops' protruding backside, there is little of the gross bodily caricature which defines the grotesque. These are tidy, civilized pigs, and the stories are told with gentle humor. The best of these earlier books in Crictor which, like the Mellops series, has many affinities with Babar: the French setting, the helpful little old lady, the very civilized jungle animal. The humor in this book arises from Ungerer's exploitation of the comic potential in the situation and in the line of the snake's body, much as the humor in the Babar series depends on incongruity and the use of the solid and massive shapes of the elephants. Crictor proves to be a flexible and useful friend: he can be used as a jump rope or a slide, he goes to school and helps to spell out the alphabet.

For traces of grotesque forms and images in Ungerer's work during the early nineteen sixties, one turns to the various collections of poetry that he illustrated for William Cole. Oh, What Nonsense (1966) is a good example: here the subject matter is perfectly suited to Ungerer's talents with the expressive line and interest in the fantastic and comic grotesque. His illustrations in this collection invite comparison with Edward Lear and, on the whole, Ungerer's monsters and monstrosities are more cheerful than Lear's haunted grotesques. Ungerer's "Tom Tickleby," who uses his elongated nose as a flute, grins merrily at us: Lear's characters stare vacantly into space, suspended in an estranged, alienated world.

Zeralda's Ogre (1967) is the first of Tomi Ungerer's own works for children to fully employ the grotesque tradition. It is an "original" folk tale which draws on the grotesque archetype of the giant, a staple in the folk tradition. In legends and popular festive forms, giants are associated with wealth, abundance, and great appetites.4 Much of the humor in Zeralda's Ogre develops around food and eating: there is the incongruous haute cuisine midnight snack that Zeralda prepares for the ogre—Pompano Sarah Bern-hardt indeed—and there is a riotous banquet scene with a group of neighborhood ogres pictured in various stages of demented gluttony. The story line, however, adds a gruesome twist to this eating theme. The ogre has developed a taste for small children—his crest displays a sleeping infant with crossed knife and fork superimposed—and until he is tamed by Zeralda's home cooking, he ravages the town. In the end, he is transformed and the book ends with a picture of domestic bliss: "And so, it would seem, they lived happily ever after."5 It would seem so, but in the final frame Zeralda holds the newest member of the family while one of the young ogres gathered around her holds a knife and fork behind his back, hidden from his parents but in full view of the reader. He stares at the infant.

I am Papa Snap and These are My Favorite No Such Stories (1971) features a gallery of grotesques: Mr. Slop Gut, young Arson Twitch, Leo Rancid. The humor here is tougher, more sardonic, the characters more aggressively vulgar. The text assumes greater importance and the humor is astringent and absurdist: "Bunny Bunson Brittle goes fishing. He has no permit. Who cares? There are no fish."6Papa Snap is more openly satiric. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Kaboodle, two wealthy birds, purchase a nest and eggs from a "local nidologist." The eggs turn out to be rotten and the nest falls apart—a satire on human materialism and the shoddy workmanship of modern consumer products.

The Beast of Monsieur Racine is arguably the best of Tomi Ungerer's picture books to date, a delicious blend of droll fantasy and the comic grotesque. This is not to deny the special appeal of the later No Kiss For Mother which certainly has its own raucous charm, but there the text is dominant while in Monsieur Racine there is a perfect marriage of text and pictures. Here Ungerer indulges his sense of play totally: he plays with the borders around the illustrations, at times reflexively calling attention to artistic illusion, at times suggesting life bursting outside the confines of the illustrations themselves. He creates riotous street scenes which in the grotesque tradition suggest abundance, the cornucopia of life filled to the overflowing. The teeming streets, the odd people, the strange goings-on, provide a counterpoint to the serenity of Monsieur Racine's garden. Ungerer uses objects and people falling and severed parts of the anatomy to suggest a world exploding into pieces and being reborn. The artistic points of reference are Brueghel and Hogarth.

The text of the climactic episode reads, "Unspeakable acts were performed."7 And they are. But they are in keeping with a child's more innocent concept of what might be "unspeakable acts." A man's bottom is paddled with a tennis racquet, another man has hold of a woman by her ample bosom, ostensibly to keep her from falling out of a bus but is that his wife pulling him back from behind? The grin on his face speaks volumes. Another man lifts a woman by her equally ample bottom and on the previous page a woman frantically resists the obviously amorous attentions of a gendarme. The straps on the evening gown of another have broken to reveal a glimpse of decolletage while another woman tickles the hairy belly of a Parisian roustabout. All in good fun if not in good taste and very much in keeping with the carnival licentiousness of the comic grotesque. Children's humor is full of just such innocent sexual allusions and, remembering that Tomi Ungerer has some reputation as an erotic artist, perhaps it can justifiably be said that Monsieur Racine is the first "pornographic" book for children.

Tomi Ungerer dates his beginnings as a serious picture book illustrator from Monsieur Racine and dedicates the book to Maurice Sendak.8 In one of the anecdotal details he is famous for, Ungerer includes a man reading a newspaper headlined "Sendak A Paris" in the crowd at the railway station. Whatever Sendak's immediate influence on Ungerer's style, in a more general sense his importance may reside in the greater latitude to depict grotesque and monstrous forms in children's books he established in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. Sendak is himself an artist who uses comic grotesque imagery fully, and Wolfgang Kayser's definition of the grotesque—"an attempt to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects of the world"9—reads like a description of Where the Wild Things Are.

Tomi Ungerer's favorite image is said to be that of the little boy who drops his pants in a crowd.10 That, in a nutshell, defines the comic grotesque tradition within which he works: the logic of "bottoms up," the liberation from restrictions, and the reaffirmation of the body and bodily processes in a world which conceals them and surrounds them with taboos.


  1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1968). See especially the Introduction and Chapter One.
  2. Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, trans. by Ulrich Weisstein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), p. 185.
  3. Bakhtin, pp. 13-19.
  4. Ibid., pp. 343-44.
  5. Tomi Ungerer, Zeralda's Ogre (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), n. pag.
  6. Tomi Ungerer, I am Papa Snap and These are My Favorite No Such Stories (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), n. pag.
  7. Tomi Ungerer, The Beast of Monsieur Racine (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), n. pag.
  8. Selma G. Lanes, "Tomi Ungerer's Reluctant Heroes," The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1974, p. 88.
  9. Kayser, p. 188.
  10. Jack Rennert, ed., The Poster Art of Tomi Ungerer (New York: Darien House, 1971), p. 9.

Victor Kennedy (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Victor. "Mystery! Unraveling Edward Gorey's Tangled Web of Visual Metaphor." Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 8, no. 3 (1993): 181-93.

[In the following essay, Kennedy argues that illustrator/writer Edward Gorey's manipulation of dark imagery functions as an ironic reversal of the darkly Victorian reverence of death and the tragic.]

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Peter Hunt (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Hunt, Peter. "The Devil and Madame Doubtfire: Anne Fine and the Revolution in Contemporary British Children's Fiction." Lion and the Unicorn 23, no. 1 (1999): 12-20.

[In the following essay, Hunt assesses how contemporary British children's literature has evolved over the past few decades, focusing on author Anne Fine, whom Hunt believes epitomizes these changes with her "child first" mentality and tendency towards dark farce.]

The one thing I try to do in the children's books is to give children a sense that … it's not as bad as they think or even if it is as bad as they think they will somehow come to terms with it. … If the children's writer has a job, it is to interpret the world to the child. You may bring some comfort.

(Anne Fine, 1997)

The mechanism that causes the "dumbing down" of children's literature, which has been precipitous recently, is contempt for children. Let it not be forgotten that in order to dumb down the literature you offer them you have to entertain them in contempt. You lower the expectation of what they are capable of, and because they are programmed to fulfil our expectations you can render them cretinous if you are vulgar and contemptuous enough.

(Jill Paton Walsh, 1998)

The last three decades of the twentieth century have seen as great a revolution in British children's books as occurred in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Then, the modern children's book emerged, with its characteristic narrative stance and literary values—values that hardly changed over seventy years. Now, the allusive, carefully crafted books by writers such as Nina Bawden, Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh, Philippa Pearce, and Lucy Boston, which characterized the 1950s and 1960s—and epitomized a tradition running from Nesbit through Ransome—have been replaced by a new breed. The prizes are now won by writers such as Gillian Cross, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, and Anne Fine, and critics have been slow to recognize quite how profound the change has been.

Of course, all generalizations are dangerous, and we are, perforce, not dealing with the seven thousand books published each year: we are dealing with the visible, the obviously prized, the influential, the read. Therefore I am not suggesting that the modernist/classic realist text does not linger or that writers who were outstanding by pre-1970 standards, such as Jan Mark or William Mayne, do not still produce excellent writing of that type. Nor, I must hasten to add, am I making a value judgment. By Anne Fine's standards (or by the standards that validate writers like Fine), Philippa Pearce is a bad writer: disengaged, slow, obscurely allusive, and avoiding everyday visceral concerns. Equally by the standards of Pearce and her peers, Jacqueline Wilson and the rest are too passionately engaged with issues, too focused on solipsistic reactions, and too concerned with the immediate needs of their audience to be concerned with "literary" values. There is no need to establish opposition here: as Philip Pullman, a writer who successfully combines the experimental, the allusive, and traditional storytelling techniques has observed, Jan Mark and Anne Fine "can do so much with two or three characters in a simple setting—if I were a better writer, I could do that" (Fox, "Authorgraph" 13).

This revolution has now happened, but the change was clearly visible in the books of the 1970s. As Elaine Moss wrote in her survey, "The Seventies in British Children's Books," in 1980:

To write about children's books and authors in the sixties it would have been sufficient to be a responsive literary person.…Efforts … were being made to retain literary standards while accommodating valid fresh demands from those who recognized the importance … of identification with fictional situations in practical as well as emotional terms.

(49, 63, my italics)

That Moss was able (or, indeed, needed to use) the term "literary," in the confidence that it would be un-problematic is very significant, for the twentieth-century mode of mainstream British children's literature had been closely linked to literary concepts—to the word as a thing valuable of itself. The real changes, as Aidan Chambers observed in 1981, have been in terms of style, structure, technique, and attitude. Books have become, as it were, progressively more WYSIWYG (i.e., what you see is what you get), driven by themes, problems, and issues. Subtlety of language or character, the concept that it is the reader's task to interpret oblique references, and most of the elements of literary craft that were valued in earlier years and that are (ostensibly) still given lip-service in British school curricula are no longer recognized. The situation is compounded by the paradox that such texts are awarded prizes by the very people who might have been expected to—and perhaps consciously do—claim to disapprove of the kinds of writing that they represent.

These recent books are undoubtedly sincere, dedicated, committed, engaged, concerned; they certainly provide ideas, and on one level they often make compulsive reading. But the stimulus they provide is of a different kind (neither better nor worse) from that provided by the prizewinners of the 1950s and 1960s, even, arguably, by the more narrative-driven Joan Aiken or K. M. Peyton. Prose and an approach more akin to the popular writers of the mid-century, Malcolm Saville, Enid Blyton, and W. E. Johns (who were [and are] regarded as inferior, producers of "popular" literature), now, with the infusion of sociological ideas, lead the mainstream. The perceptions of writers, publishers, and teachers have shifted.

It is important to realize that the change is not solely, or even largely, one of content (whatever that may be). In the 1970s, the fashion of social realism, notably imported from the U.S.A., rang warning bells among established writers. In 1981, Jill Paton Walsh observed of "realism" that it "permits very literal-minded readings, even downright stupid ones.… Even worse, it is possible to read a realistic book as though it were not fiction at all" (Hearne and Kaye 38). This fashion has become a norm, but it is not actually a central issue.

Thus at first glance it may seem that the worlds of Penelope Lively or Philippa Pearce, or, for that matter, Ethel Turner or Louisa May Alcott, with their often rural settings, family values, and themes such as memory, growth, and time, are universes away from those of Theresa Breslin (Whispers in the Graveyard [1995]) or Melvyn Burgess (Junk [1996]), or, for that matter, Judy Blume or Robert Cormier, with their preoccupation with evil, drugs, violence, and sex. Before 1970, it might be said, adults were, on the whole, reliable: since then, they have not been. The utopian world of childhood has been replaced by dystopia—childhood has to be self-sufficient: among the best-selling books of this decade has been Zlata Filipovic's Zlata's Diary (1994), an account of life in Sarajevo from 1991 to 1993.

But I would argue that this change in content is only true in the most superficial way. Critics are (often) blamed for finding unpleasantness in the most "innocent" text—egomaniac blasphemy in the "Narnia" books (Goldthwaite 220-44), horror in Little Women (Estes and Lant), sexuality in Swallows and Amazons (Hunt and Hunt), for gratuitously imposing readings that "no child could have made." People who take this stance seem to me to be making two errors: first, they are assuming "innocence" in the writing, reading, and interpretation of texts for children. Secondly, they are failing to take into account the mind of the reader contemporary with the book. Only a repressed reader can say what a repressed text means to them; a child of 1956 reading Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword may be as close to understanding war as a child of today reading Zlata's Diary.

To consider the implications of these changes in detail, we can take the thoroughly energizing example of Anne Fine. She is the very model of the British children's writer of the end of the century. She may not challenge Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton for phenomenal sales, but she sells consistently, and her books are a presence in the bookshops. They have been filmed (Madame Doubtfire) and shown on British prime-time television (Goggle-Eyes). She speaks wittily and shrewdly at children's literature conferences; she visits schools (there is a waspish self-portrait of author-as-school-celebrity in The Book of the Banshee (7-21), and she writes well-received books for adults (notably Taking the Devil's Advice [1992]). She is unsentimental about childhood ("I am not childish. I never have been. I was not childish when I was a child. I was born aged about 45 …" [Podmore iv]), and she respects her audience ("I don't underestimate children.… They are … sophisticated and advanced in their thinking even though they may not be able to articulate their ideas" [Bierman 16]).

She is deeply committed to causes for both younger readers (sexism in Bill's New Frock [1989]) and older readers (nuclear disarmament in Goggle-Eyes [1989]); her books take on tricky problems—old age and illness (The Stone Menagerie [1980], The Granny Project [1983]), evil and determinism (The Tulip Touch [1996]), unreliable adults (Crummy Mummy and Me [1988]), and the traumas of step-children and step-parents (Step by Wicked Step [1995]). By her own account she researches thoroughly and writes meticulously [Bierman] and feels that "One of the loveliest things about being a writer is that when you feel there's social injustice, you can get out the pen" (Rosen and Burridge 67). Vitally, her books (generally) cannot be accused of betraying their subject matter with "easy endings"—as Ursula Le Guin put it, writing "as if evil were a problem, something that can be solved.… If you want the answer, you just look at the back of the book" (Haviland 112). Fine is combative, intelligent … and she wins prizes: in 1990, for example, she took the Guardian Award, the Smarties Prize, the Carnegie Medal, and she was named Children's Author of the Year. Hers are powerful books, designed not for an elite, but for the generality of children, and it is in some ways curious that there has not been powerful ("literary") criticism for (rather than of) them. Certainly, there are several aspects of her work that point up not only the radical differences between her books and earlier books, but also the (symptomatic) difficulties that critics (in the broadest sense) have had with them.

The first oddity is why she has so frequently been marketed as writing comedy when her preoccupations are generally very dark indeed. How did such a grim book as Madame Doubtfire, despite the black farce at its core, get such reviews? Here are the reviews:

Alias Madame Doubtfire is sweet and amusing. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it.

(New York Times, quoted in Fine, Madame Doubtfire 181)

A comedy about divorce … which had us howling with laughter.

(London Times Educational Supplement Books of the Year, quoted in Fine, Madame Doubtfire, cover)

And here is the text. The divorced parents, Miranda and Daniel have been having a vicious row in front of their three children, Lydia, Christopher, and Natalie:

There was so much hate between them that each was silenced. Lydia rose. Her rage lent her an ashen, fierce dignity that neither parent had seen before. "I hate you both," she informed them in an unsteady voice, and, turning, she walked into her bedroom and shut the door. Christopher rose too. "So do I," he told them. He was in tears. "You are disgusting and ugly, both of you!" Instead of going into his own room, he followed his sister into hers. Natalie was left alone at the top of the stairs. Her little face crumpled. After the first split second of shock, Miranda leaped towards her, to take her baby in her arms, and comfort her. But just as she came close, Christopher rushed out of Lydia's bedroom and, pushing Miranda roughly aside, snatched Natalie up in his arms. "Go on with your filthy quarrel!" he screamed. "Leave poor Natty alone!" He carried her, weeping, through the door, and banged it behind him.…


It seems likely that the answer is (much in the way that the darker side of Roald Dahl's books is generally ignored) because the reviewers have preconceptions (not to say hopes) about what a children's book should be like, and they are going to see it, despite the text. The film of the book, Mrs. Doubtfire, removed most of the bitterness and sleaziness of the original: as Chris Powling observed, "the main suspension of disbelief required of the audience concerns the breakup of this Wackily Wonderful family in the first place" (3). Filmmakers are, it seems, excellent exemplars of the general attitude of mind that says that books (and therefore films) that are only for children are no longer appropriate and that children should be exposed to the horrors and insecurities of the world while being simultaneously protected sentimentally from the implications of them.

A second, related point is that Fine breaks with much of what was accepted wisdom about children's books. She is, for example, commonly ambiguous as to the ages of her characters (as in The Summer House Loon [1978]), and she ignores conventions of structure. A remarkable example of this is her comments on Madame Doubtfire and Taking the Devil's Advice, both novels about divorce and access to children and differing views of the world, the first "for children," the second "for adults." (These comments are, it should be noted, from an interview, and should not, perhaps, be held against her.)

There is a responsibility not so much to be fair as not to let everything be totally slewed to one side or the other for psychological reasons. If you read Madame Doubtfire.…it balances out in the end.… Now, if you take Taking the Devil's Advice, you've got the same theme … [but] in the adult book it's treated completely differently; I don't feel any obligation to show fairness.

(Podmore iii)

What is interesting about this comment is that the children's book, Madame Doubtfire, does not have any resolution. There is a declaration of intent, a feeling that the children are taking control of their own destiny—but no happy ending. In Taking the Devil's Advice, on the other hand, a solution is given: the wife is free to remarry; the husband, with few regrets, if any, returns to Canada. Despite what she appears to say, Fine seems to be subscribing to the idea that children either do not need closure or can cope with a lack of it.

The third point is that Fine's prose does not excite any comment. Consider these extracts; two arrivals in strange old houses in storms:

The entrance hall was a strange place. As they stepped in, a similar door opened at the far end of the house and another man and boy entered there. Then Toseland saw that it was only themselves in a big mirror. The walls round him were partly rough stone and partly plaster, but hung all over with mirrors and pictures and china. There were three big old mirrors all reflecting each other so that at first Toseland was puzzled to find what was real, and which door one could go through straight, the way one wanted to, not sideways somewhere else. He almost wondered which was really himself.


The door grated open, over a black and white tiled floor that looked like a huge checkerboard glazed with storm water. "Try the lights." None of the switches did anything. Ralph and Pixie took turns at flicking them up and down. But no lights came on anywhere. "Storm damage, I expect," said Ralph. Mr Plumley was horrified. "You don't suppose that they'll be off all night? It's not going to be easy settling you all in one of the dormitories in the pitch dark." The thunder crashed so loud that nobody cared to mention they'd all made plans to sleep in different rooms. "We'll go up these stairs here—ouch!" Poor Mr Plumley had marched straight into a giant floor-to-ceiling looking glass that reflected the wide curve of stairs sweeping out of the shadows behind them.


What is most striking is that the second extract, from Anne Fine's Step by Wicked Step (1995) introduces a far more serious—and for many readers, far more immediately harrowing—book, than the first, Lucy Boston's relatively gentle exploration of time, death, and relationships, The Children of Green Knowe (1954). Similarly, the discussions of truth and ethics in Fine's A Pack of Liars (1988) are as incisive as those in any of Nina Bawden's books but set in a much lighter frame. Although the direct comparison of extracts is likely to distort, a similar comparison would, I think, hold between, for example, Jenny Nimmo ("The Snow Spider" trilogy [1986-1989]) and Susan Cooper ("The Dark is Rising" quintet [1965-1977], Mary Norton (The Borrowers [1952]), and Sylvia Waugh (The Mennyms [1993]) or between the books of the versatile Gillian Avery and Gillian Cross.

I suspect, however, that many of the contemporary authors might find the comparison invidious, so strong is the residual idea of the "literary" text. But I hope that I have made it clear that in my view (pace Jill Paton Walsh, quoted as epigraph), we are observing a change, not a decline. Anne Fine's first books, from The Summer House Loon to Round behind the Ice House (1981) are rooted in this earlier tradition, echoing writers like Jane Gardam and P. G. Wodehouse. A comparison between these books and The Granny Project (1983) and its successors shows a highly sophisticated shift of technique and attitude, not a change in quality. Fine's books, like those of Jacqueline Wilson, in which serious and essentially tragic material (as in The Story of Tracy Beaker [1991] or Double Act [1995]) is presented in apparently simple, first-person prose with cartoon-style illustration, in a sense exist for a multimedia age. What might have been seen as weaknesses in an earlier concept of the well-made book might well be seen as strengths.

In the face of this situation, criticism has remained virtually silent (Fox et al.), perhaps largely because both the readers and writers of (academic, as well as non-academic) criticism are not equipped to deal with texts that generally display little regard for previously conventional virtues. Equally, the position of the book at a time when readers are being influenced by many other media is ambivalent, and it is not surprising that to many, a change of form seems to imply a change of content, which in turn implies a change in childhood, and a change (= decline) in values (for a summary of this, see Head 28-29, 32). Children's books have been (quite rightly) seen in the past as fundamentally conservative, with radical work—notably in picture books and multi-media—occurring at the periphery. It could be said that a majority of children's books now encapsulate a kind of postmodernism, where the boundaries between high and low culture have collapsed, and along with them, various certainties. How, then can/should critics respond?

In his Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler makes a telling point about the distinction between literary studies and cultural studies which incidentally sums up a great deal about the way in which children's books are criticized—and also about the way they are now written. Literary studies involve "close reading," a reading that is "alert to the details of narrative structure and attends to complexities of meaning," whereas cultural studies tend to "symptomatic interpretation," to a "socio-political analysis" of general themes. He then contrasts the "dispositions" which are "valuable … for reading literature" ("the suspension of the demand for immediate intelligibility, the willingness to work at the boundaries to meaning, opening oneself to unexpected, productive effects of language and imagination, and the interest in how meaning and pleasure are produced") with those for "cultural studies," whose practitioners "often hope that work on present culture will be an intervention in culture rather than mere description" (52-53).

Herein lies the difference of British children's literature of the last thirty years. The idea of interventionist literature (a very old idea) has been linked to the empowering of the child (a relatively new idea) through a medium that is in opposition to that valued by the past generation (a recurrent idea). And the result? The book—and the very idea of narrative as it has been known—now exists in a world where child readers (in a broad, but, I think, sustainable generalization) have different modes of attention, different reading skills, and access to different modes of story and different value-systems, from thirty years ago. The revolution in British writing for children has, like it or not, and with very little critical observation, repositioned and redefined the book in a period of radical social and intellectual change.

Works Cited

Bierman, Valerie. "Authorgraph 69: Anne Fine." Books for Keeps 69 (1991): 16-17.

Boston, Lucy M. The Children of Green Knowe. (1954) London: Puffin (Penguin), 1975.

Chambers, Aidan. Booktalk. Occasional Writing on Literature and Children. London: The Bodley Head, 1985.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Estes, Angela M., and Kathleen M. Lant. "Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women." Children's Literature 17 (1989): 98-123.

Fine, Anne. The Book of the Banshee (1991). London: Puffin (Penguin), 1993.

——. Flour Babies (1992). New York: Laurel-Leaf (Bantam Doubleday Dell), 1995.

——. Madame Doubtfire (1987). London: Penguin, 1989.

——. Step by Wicked Step. London: Puffin (Penguin), 1995.

Fox, Geoff. "Authorgraph 102: Philip Pullman." Books for Keeps 102 (1997): 12-13.

Fox, Geoff, et al. "The Silence of the Critics." Children's Literature in Education 29:1 (1998): 1-18.

Goldthwaite, John. The Natural History of Make Believe. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Haviland, Virginia, ed. The Openhearted Audience. Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children. Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1980.

Head, Patricia, "Robert Cormier and the Postmodernist Possibilities of Young Adult Fiction." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 21:1 (1996): 28-33.

Hearne, Betsy, and Marilyn Kaye. Celebrating Children's Books. New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard, 1981.

Hunt, Sarah, and Peter Hunt. "Arthur Ransome and the Question of Gender." Mixed Moss: The Journal of the Arthur Ransome Society 3:2 (1997): 37-40.

Meek, Margaret, Aidan Warlow, and Griselda Barton, eds. The Cool Web. The Pattern of Children's Reading. London: Bodley Head, 1977.

Moss, Elaine. "The Seventies in British Children's Books." The Signal Approach to Children's Books. Ed. Nancy Chambers. Harmondsworth: Kestrel (Penguin), 1980: 48-80.

Nettell, Stephanie. "Authorgraph 109: Jill Paton Walsh." Books for Keeps 109 (1998): 8-9.

Podmore, Bryan. "The NAWE Interview: Another Little Spanner?" Writing in Education 8 (1996): insert i-viii.

Powling, Chris. "Mrs. Surefire." Books for Keeps 85 (1994): 3.

Rosen, Michael, and Jill Burridge. Treasure Islands 2. London: BBC Books, 1994.

Sandra Howard (review date 25 August 2001)

SOURCE: Howard, Sandra. "When the Worst Is Bound to Happen." Spectator 287, no. 9029 (25 August 2001): 32-3.

[In the following review, Howard evaluates Lemony Snicket and his Series of Unfortunate Events books, believing that their strength comes from Snicket's unwillingness to talk down to children and the revelry the author takes in relating unhappy occurrences.]

It is not hard to divine formulaic traits in adult bestsellers. From chick-lit and ladettes to Aga sagas to clean old sex, power and greed, the punters are out there, having holidays, soaking it all up like a sponge; rewarding sales can be coaxed and encouraged if not guaranteed.

With luck, eight- to 12-year-olds have yet to become hooked into all that stuff; they are discerning and imaginative, choosy, prey to electronic distractions and far harder to pin down in their reading needs.

Trying to find links between, say, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and J. K. Rowling isn't easy. Possibly ingenuity and curiosity and mean nasty foes are common. The Unfortunate Events series has all these and a much-heralded extra ingredient of its own, the baddie never gets his come-uppance. He escapes scot-free and pops up from book to book, an absolute menace, raring to fight another dirty day.

Two in a projected series of 13 were released here last month and instantly reprinted (two more are promised for the autumn), but it is too soon to tell if they will really catch on as the series has done, coast to coast, in America. From word-of-mouth beginnings, film and television rights have now been sold and translation rights agreed in 19 countries. American sales of well over a million are still small beer beside Harry Potter and he does of course have wizardry to shore up his impregnable position, but Unfortunate Events, satisfyingly doomy tales, full of ingenious nastiness, have an obsessive, young fan-club clamouring for more.

Lemony Snicket, the book's ostensible author and narrator, recounts the travails of the three Baudelaire orphans at the hands of their cruel, wicked distant relative, Count Olaf, but hints at dire secrets in his own past. The first book is dedicated to his 'Darling dearest dead Beatrice', the second, 'For Beat-rice—My love for you will live forever, you however did not.' He makes occasional moralising asides and uses an adult-friendly turn of phrase, frequently digressing into long-winded definitions of the more difficult words and idioms. He ensures that we wallow in misery and vicissitudes, Dickens rather than Dahl, and gives regular authorial warnings that worse is to follow and we are in for a conclusively rotten time.

Barely into the first book, three children have been orphaned and a fire has summarily dispatched their loving parents and destroyed their entire home including the vast library, the great passion of Klaus, the bookish 12-year-old middle child. Violet is two years older and loves thinking up inventions with her hair held back in a ribbon and Sunny the baby has her own one-syllable vocabulary and four usefully sharp teeth.

A family friend and banker, the muddling, coughing into a white hankie Mr Poe, has charge of the children's inheritance—a considerable fortune that the dastardly Count Olaf can't wait to get this hands on. When Poe appoints him legal guardian, he has a jolly good try. While in his 'care' the children share one lumpy mattress, cook for his friends, a menacing theatre troupe, do all manner of menial chores and live under constant threat of his very sharp knife. The baby is dangled from the roof in a basket for days. (I did worry a bit about nappy changes and such but allowed for artistic licence, a phrase I suspect L. Snicket would have digressed at length to define.)

After a very near escape from Count Olaf, in The Bad Beginning the orphans are entrusted to the care of successive dangerous or ineffective guardians in subsequent tales. In The Reptile Room their chubby guardian gets bumped off with snake poison—a situation that lands them back in a disguised Count Olaf's tender care. The children doggedly prise themselves out of terrifying predicaments with intrepid ingenuity, always solicitous for each other. Brett Helquist's lightly fiendish sketches capture their quaint personalities and give us creepy glimpses of Count Olaf in his full petrifying colours.

As a child I had an invented other child that I used to enjoy pretending to be; she had a permanently wretched time, always cruelly treated, slaving away. I'm sure Lemony Snicket's constant exhortations to expect only the direst events to occur will have a happily morbid appeal and I found myself impatient to know how the orphans were going to get out of one scrape to be ready for the next. The tales are straight-forward, no foe-defying magic, just companionable sharing of a disastrous state of affairs.

The real author, Daniel Handler, tried hard to keep his identity secret, but America found him out. He says he acts for Snicket in all matters literary, legal and social. Thirty-one, married and living in San Francisco, Handler has no children and one of the charms of the books is his respect for a child's innocent, intelligent grasp of the ways of the world. He hasn't learned, either from remoteness or too much exposure to toddler-speak, to talk down to children.

He has written eight of the books in the cycle, two adult novels and is working on a third about pirates. He says of Unfortunate Events that many Americans think he is British and that the books take place in Britain. I'll stick my neck out and say the Baudelaire orphans and Lemony Snicket will be household names here before the end of the year.

Lydia Williams (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Williams, Lydia. "We Are All in the Dumps with Bakhtin: Humor and the Holocaust." In Children's Literature and the Fin de Siècle, edited by Roderick Douglas, pp. 129-36. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

[In the following essay, Williams suggests that writing about the Holocaust for young audiences can be approached from a humorous methodology, albeit a dark one, as shown in Maurice Sendak's We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy.]

8,000 Jews were executed by the Security Service.1

The above quotation is a single line in a report of the local military headquarters in Mariupol, dated 29 October 1941. Visualizing 8,000 individuals is beyond my imaginative capacity, and six million is totally beyond my comprehension. Fiction offers a means of putting a face on these figures. Walt Whitman described literature as a "means of morally influencing the world," and in the discussion of Holocaust fiction for children, his comment seems particularly pertinent. Writing about the Holocaust for children immediately presents authors with a complex set of problems. The etiquette of writing about the Holocaust and that of writing for children dictate unusual requirements. On the one hand, writing about the Holocaust is subject to similar sets of concerns as any other historical material. On the other hand, the Holocaust is unique in terms of its enormity and implications. Certain expectations have been created, although these are usually left implicit.

My introductory comments rest upon a number of implicit conventions I would now like to make explicit:

  1. The Holocaust should be represented, in its totality, as a unique event in history.
  2. Representations of the Holocaust should be as accurate and faithful as possible. No changes, even for artistic reasons, are acceptable.
  3. The Holocaust should be treated as a solemn, even sacred, event, with a seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.
  4. All writing about the Holocaust should adopt an ethical position that fosters resistance.
  5. We must not forget.2

These conventions are not all-powerful and there are many texts that do not bow to the restrictions they would impose. Nevertheless, as a guiding set of principles, they touch the core of what writing about the Holocaust entails.

These five principles need to be combined with an equally ill-defined, but nevertheless powerful, set of principles for writing for children. This is no easy task. Holocaust stories immediately break some of the generally accepted norms of children's fiction. They introduce the child to a world in which parents are not in control, where evil is truly present and where survival does not depend upon one's wits, but upon luck. Despite these complications, the subject cannot simply be avoided. The "rule" that we must not forget places a moral obligation upon adults to tell children what happened.

Despite the emergence of so-called "problem" novels (YA books), which focus on politically correct issues and problems, the tendencies to protect the child, to seek out happy endings, and to "promise happiness"3 have remained common aspects of children's fiction. Even texts that ignore these conventions tend to provide a sense of resolution, which is not as easy when the subject matter is genocide. A further element in the etiquette of writing is based on the belief that young readers are more likely to empathize deeply or identify with fictional characters. Whether children identify with the aggressors or with the victims, they are placed in an agonizing situation. Thus readers either need to be discouraged from identifying or the protagonist must be suitable.

I'll briefly summarize: writing about the Holocaust for children requires authors to engage with conventions for writing for children and conventions that relate specifically to the Shoah as a subject. This presents authors with a challenging set of limitations. In my forthcoming book,4 I examine a range of strategies used to combine these two sets of etiquette. Some authors' attempts are so rigid their texts are static and, frankly, soulless. Some fall into the trap of writing adventure stories. Other authors, however, respond imaginatively to this challenge. Those that walk closest to the borders of breaking the rules of decorum or etiquettes of writing are often the most successful.

Blending humorous elements with Holocaust fiction has proved effective, although not all critics approve. Such humor is subversive: it challenges the requirement that the Holocaust be treated seriously, allowing no room for responses that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead. When it is successful, humor opens up new ways of seeing history. Consequently, there are a number of quality books about the Holocaust for children that employ humor to combine the two etiquettes of Holocaust fiction for children. In this chapter, I examine one such work: Maurice Sendak's We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, hereafter referred to as In the Dumps.5In the Dumps is a richly layered illustrative interpretation of the two well-known nursery rhymes: "We are all in the dumps" and "Jack and Gye."6

Sendak's illustrations make interpictorial references to such things as the homeless in modern America, the Vietnam War, the coming of the Messiah, as well as the Holocaust. None of these subjects is directly referred to in the rhymes (they predate the Shoah by almost two centuries). The mood is humorous, despite the sombre tones and diluted colors. The protagonists are Sendak's familiar "little greenhorns just off the boat. They … look as if the burdens of the world were on their shoulders."7 The other characters include a Christ-figure, whom some critics think of as a Somalian refugee and others regard as Ghandi, and some anthropomorphic kittens and rats respectively representing Jews and Nazis. The use of animal figures is one of the main elements of humor. It has been successfully used in Holocaust fiction before. Art Spiegelman's ground-breaking Maus books use comic-strip techniques to create a highly original novel.8 The Nazis are depicted as cats, the Jews as mice, the Poles as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. Sendak's decision to reverse the natural roles and depict the Jews as kittens and the Nazis as rats can be read as a commentary on Spiegelman's books. Spiegelman portrays his father as a pennypinching, bitter, warped man. Vladek Spiegelman is so cantankerous, no one enjoys his company, not even his wife. In the second Maus book, Spiegelman tells his therapist how difficult he finds it to create an anti-Semitic view of his father as a miser. Sendak, it would seem from his inversion of the logical order, is even more displeased.

The idea of combining humor with the Holocaust seems deeply distasteful, if not offensive or vulgar. It also seems not to take the Holocaust seriously. The cat and mouse iconography appears to bring the events of the Holocaust down to a grossly oversimplified level. But Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque provides a useful framework for understanding comic elements in Holocaust fiction. Carnival attacks the rules, regulations, and hierarchies that it addresses. Actuality is acknowledged, and even celebrated, but it is not accepted as final. Carnival requires the deliberate suspension of actual order in favour of an imagined order. The new order faithfully reproduces the old order, while at the same time parodying specific elements within the old order. While the festival spirit reigns, the logic of the community is preserved even though the "real" world has been turned upside down.

Carnival humor is subversive. In attacking the rules, especially the rules of decorum, carnival allows the community to temporarily step outside itself in order to gain the necessary distance for self-examination. The same holds true for fiction. All fiction attempts to displace the real world and impose an imaginary world in its stead; humorous fiction merely does so to a greater extent. Rather than getting bogged down and depressed, authors like Sendak use humor to hold their material at a distance and pass a sharp, analytical eye over the scenes. By attacking the rule of etiquette that suggests laughter should not be placed in tandem with genocide, Sendak creates a new position from which to view history. Sendak's reference to homelessness and the power of corporate America creates a particular viewpoint that is held together by comedy.

One of the few critics to examine Holocaust comedy, Terrence Des Pres,9 argues that ironic humor is often the best attitude to adopt. Since verisimilitude is impossible, realistic fiction often seems bland. A comically ironic stance allows authors freedom from having to describe. As a result, they are better equipped for analytical commentary. This position has also been more generally argued about humorous genres as a whole by Mikhail Bakhtin.10 His views are particularly appropriate for examining humorous elements in Holocaust fiction for children.

John Stephens has applied Bakhtinian theory to the study of children's literature and identified three types of carnivalesque texts: time out, inverted ideology, and endemically subversive.11 "Time Out" texts provide the child protagonist with the means to step outside the socialisation process temporarily. During the time out, the protagonist experiences the possibility to take on a new role, but returns to the established order, usually with greater self-knowledge. "Inverted Ideology" refers to texts that gently mock socially received ideas by replacing them with their opposite. Weakness is valued over strength, female values over male ones, and so on. "Endemically Subversive" texts challenge the existing order by transgressing received paradigms of authority. In the Dumps can be read in terms of a "time out" text, although the process of "socialization" is, in part, what is being interrogated. In the fantasy world of In the Dumps, the protagonists are temporarily transported from their lives in modern day New York and transported to Auschwitz. During this excursion, they take on adult responsibilities, which they maintain upon their return. I will return to the specific issue of role changing after I consider some of the other, more obvious, elements of carnival in In the Dumps.

The first, and arguably most dominant, expression of carnivalesque in In the Dumps is the unorthodox manner in which Sendak plays with the genre of nursery rhyme. Nursery rhymes form an unexpected medium for addressing the Holocaust. This genre-confusion reduces the possibility of a clichéd response. The alienation effect enables the onlooker (in this case, the reader) to listen to information afresh. On one level, we adults have become used to images of emaciated bodies lying in bunks in concentration camps. We have seen pictures of the piles of corpses and the smoke rising from the stacks. On one level we "know" about the Holocaust. On another level, how can we ever "know" all the stories of the millions of individuals who were murdered? Sendak's use of an alienating format allows sophisticated readers to reexamine what they "know."

The alienation effect is also valuable for unsophisticated readers because it prevents them from knowing more than they want to know. The picture of the kittens in their bunks is only frightening if one has already seen photographs of victims in their bunks. The kittens are drawn in a stylized manner that links the shape of their heads with the Star of David. Whether or not this is picked up depends of the reader's prior experience and background knowledge. Some of the images Sendak employs are only accessible to the most mature of readers. Neumeyer12 picks up an interpictorial association with van der Weyden's painting of the deposition, which leads to an interpretation of In the Dumps as recounting the coming of the Messiah. Neumeyer's association is well beyond the reach of most child readers (and, I suspect, a great many adult readers). Nevertheless, the image has been planted. If the reader has no prior knowledge of the Holocaust, the smoke belching out of the "bakery" chimneys will hold no sinister implications. Nevertheless, the oppressive mood of this illustration encourages a particular set of attitudes to be reawakened when the image is reencountered at a later date. Thus, even when readers lack background knowledge, the iconotext can inspire the spirit of resistance.

The distancing or alienation afforded by the use of humor also helps authors overcome one of the problems of writing about the Holocaust I mentioned earlier: identification. Stephens notes that characters in carnivalesque texts invite sympathy, not empathy. He describes a "splitting of attitude between the character and the action.… The effect is to discourage identification with the character as subject."13 Humorous fiction about the Holocaust operates in a similar manner. By discouraging identification between child-readers and protagonists, the author is able to get closer to the horror.

Jack and Guy, the heroes of In the Dumps, are two of a very limited number of characters in children's literature to actually enter a death camp. In sending them, Sendak satisfies many of the unspoken rules of etiquette governing both Holocaust fiction and writing for children. He treats the Holocaust seriously, not shying from the enormity of the events as he lays open the most frightening aspect for the reader's perusal. Despite the obvious importance of mentioning the "eerie, silent world of gas, ashes, and flame"14 if the Holocaust is to be represented "in its totality," they are generally considered too frightening to mention. In my research on Holocaust fiction for children, I have come across a considerable number of texts dealing with exile, hiding, partisans, and ghetto life, but relatively few camp stories. The crematoria, the focal point of the Holocaust, need to be addressed in Shoah fiction for children. Yet, in keeping with the basic etiquette of writing for children, that they should not be frightened, the key elements of the gas chambers and ovens are often missing.15 Humor enables Sendak to approach the camps, literally sending his protagonists crawling through the smoke belching out of the crematoria into the heart of the killing fields. At the same time, he uses humor as a means of distancing the child-reader from identifying with the young protagonists.

Let us examine the sequence of nine pictures in which Jack and Guy enter Auschwitz, since it contains many elements of carnival. The moon "in a fit" unceremoniously dumps the protagonists in a rye field. Up until this point, Jack and Guy have been parts of a single collective personality; however, their encounter with the poor little kid in the rye field causes them to split into two distinct characters. Jack stumbles over the little kid, while Guy cheerfully recognizes one of the missing kittens. The innocence of the little kid is emphasised in the naive way in which he first plays with and then kisses the rough, street-wise Jack. Jack's dandling has a distinctly awkward element, but he nevertheless lifts the baby boy into his arms in an embrace. The kiss of the little child, the Christ figure, is so confusing and threatening to Jack that he fails to notice Auschwitz. Guy, on the other hand, has seen the crematoria chimneys and can hear what the kitten is explaining. Thus when Jack expresses the regressive desire to knock the little kid on the head, Guy chooses to adopt the socialized adult role and care for both the little kid and the kittens. The adoption of the socialized position is rewarded by the arrival of the moon/Cheshire cat figure who takes the dominant role in the final destruction of the rats and the returning of the victims home. However, this physical return does not mean a return to childhood. Jack and Guy become parent figures to the little kid, although they are not alone in this task; the community steps in to help. This, again, signals the use of carnival as a means of communicating horror within the confines of the two sets of etiquette.

Community is another key element of carnival. Even though carnival humor degrades that which has been held reverent or solemn, it celebrates the regenerative powers of human community, usually by indulging in food and sex. Rejoicing in food is particularly prevalent in the context of Holocaust literature for children, which is hardly surprising given its centrality in children's fiction generally.16 The search for food and its discovery take on exaggerated importance at the plot level as survival literally comes to depend on a loaf of bread. Food, as we are aware, is often symbolic of love. Unconditional amounts of food are equated with unconditional love. In the Dumps is built around a rhyme that celebrates community spirit in the providing of bread. Guy's adoption of the role of parent is tied to his proposal that they buy the little boy some bread. With this act, Jack and Guy display their love for the socially "undesirable" elements of their community. The final scene, depicting Jack and Guy raising the little kid "as other folk do," is simultaneously a celebration of community spirit in a ghetto and a critical attack that such "sterling products" have been left outside in the cold, separated from their mainstream community.

Stephens states that carnivalesque texts take the world "less seriously,"17 and this is precisely what enables them to step outside and critically evaluate what is happening. This would imply that carnival instantly breaks one of the requirements of Holocaust writing. However, I argue that carnivalesque in the hands of a skilled craftsman like Sendak takes power structures very seriously. In the Dumps examines the implicit assumptions on which power is based; it pays attention to how power operates and, in doing so, it makes links between current policies and history. Although the tone of this examination is humorous, Sendak is clearly very serious and concerned. Humor enables Sendak to go deeper into the subject than most realistic fiction. Realistic texts tend to edit out elements such as the gas chambers, leaving children with a distorted view of the events. By an odd quirk of human sensibility, humor enables the child-reader to get closer, to bear witness, and to escape unscathed, but wiser.


  1. Raul Hilberg, "I Was Not There." In Writing and the Holocaust. Ed. Berel Lang. New York and London: Holmes & Meier, 1988, p. 18.
  2. Points 1-3 are paraphrased from Terrence Des Pres, "Holocaust Laughter?" In Writing and the Holocaust, p. 217.
  3. Fred Inglis, The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
  4. Lydia Williams, Representations of the Holocaust in Children's and Young Adult Fiction. New York and London: Garland, forthcoming.
  5. Maurice Sendak, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy: Two Nursery Rhymes with Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: Harper-Collins, 1993.
  6. See Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955, pp. 95, 143.
  7. Maurice Sendak in Selma Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1980, p. 26.
  8. Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor's Tale. New York: Penguin, 1987-1990.
  9. Des Pres, "Holocaust Laughter?", pp. 216-233.
  10. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.
  11. John Stephens, Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. London and New York: Longman, pp. 121ff.
  12. Peter Neumeyer, "We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy: Two Nursery Rhymes with Pictures by Maurice Sendak," Children's Literature in Education, 25 (1994): 38.
  13. Stephens, Language and Ideology, p. 125.
  14. Eric A. Kimmel, "Confronting the Ovens: The Holocaust and Juvenile Fiction." The Horn Book, LIII (1977): 90.
  15. Ibid., pp. 84-91.
  16. Ulla Bergstrand and Maria Nikolajeva, Lockergommarnas Kungarike Om matens roll i barnlitteraturen. Stockholm: Centrum fur barnkulturforskning vid Stockholms universitet, 1999.
  17. Stephens, Language and Ideology, p. 156.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Bergstrand, Ulla and Nikolajeva, Maria. Lockergommarnas Kungarike Om matens roll i barnlitteraturen [The Realm of Gourmands: The Role of Food in Children's Literature] Stockholm: Centrum fur barnkulturforskning vid Stockholms universitet, 1999.

Des Pres, Terrence. 1988. "Holocaust Laughter?" In Lang, Writing and the Holocaust. Ed. Berel Lang. New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1988, pp. 216-233.

Hilberg, Raul. 1988. "I Was Not There." In Writing and the Holocaust, pp. 17-25.

Inglis, Fred. The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Kimmel, Eric A. "Confronting the Ovens: The Holocaust and Juvenile Fiction." The Horn Book, LIII (1977): 84-91.

Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1980.

Neumeyer, Peter. "We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy: Two Nursery Rhymes with Pictures by Maurice Sendak." Children's Literature in Education, 25 (1994): 29-40.

Sendak, Maurice. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy: Two Nursery Rhymes with Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor's Tale. New York: Penguin, 1987-1990.

Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. London and New York: Longman, 1992.

Williams, Lydia. Representations of the Holocaust in Children's and Young Adult Fiction. New York and London: Garland, forthcoming.


Mark I. West (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: West, Mark I. "The Grotesque and the Taboo in Roald Dahl's Humorous Writings for Children." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15, no. 3 (fall 1990): 115-16.

[In the following essay, West contends that, despite many critical misgivings by other writers, Roald Dahl's writings are entirely suitable for children, particularly given that the author writes what children like to hear.]

When Jacob, my godson, had his fourth birthday, I gave him a copy of Roald Dahl's The Twits. I usually mail him his present because we live in different states, but this time I gave it to him in person. The morning after his birthday, Jacob asked me to read the book to him. I agreed, and after breakfast Jacob, his mother, and I went into the living room where I began reading. The story begins with a humorous tirade against beards, especially Mr. Twit's beard. At the end of this tirade, Dahl describes some of the food particles caught in Mr. Twit's whiskers. "If you peered deep into the moustachy bristles sticking out over his upper lip," Dahl writes, "you would probably see … things that had been there for months and months, like a piece of maggoty green cheese or a moldy old cornflake or even the slimy tail of a tinned sardine" (7). Upon hearing this passage, Jacob's mother groaned, pronounced the book disgusting, and left the room. Jacob and I, however, were laughing so hard that we hardly noticed her departure. We spent the next several minutes searching through my beard and pretending to find all sorts of revolting things.

This incident came to mind while I was reading David Rees's attack on Dahl in the fall 1988 issue of Children's Literature in Education. Rees condemns nearly all of Dahl's children's books, but he singles out The Twits as one of the worst. According to Rees, the book teaches children that "bearded people are dirty and are trying to hide their real appearance" (146). He goes on to say that the book leads children "to think that all ugly people are evil" (147). Adult readers, Rees argues, would not take Dahl's statements about beards seriously, but he maintains that young children probably would. In recalling Jacob's reaction to The Twits, I cannot help but question Rees's line of reasoning. Jacob certainly did not take Dahl's attack on beards seriously, and I never got the impression that he thought of me as evil because I have a beard.

As I see it, the person who may be taking the book too seriously is Rees, but his reaction is not especially surprising. Adults often deplore as tasteless many of the stories, situations, and jokes that children find humorous. This conflict, however, involves more than taste; it also involves differences in the psychology of children and adults. These differences help explain why Dahl's books are so popular with children and so disliked by Rees and other similarly minded adults.

An aspect of The Twits that appeals more strongly to children than to adults is the disgustful nature of Mr. and Mrs. Twit. These horrid people not only look disgusting, but they do some pretty disgusting things to each other. On one occasion, Mrs. Twit puts her glass eye in Mr. Twit's beer mug, and he nearly swallows it. Another time she pours spaghetti sauce over a plateful of live worms and serves it to her unsuspecting husband. Mr. Twit is just as bad. He, for example, sticks a slimy frog in Mrs. Twit's bed and then fools her into thinking that the frog is a deadly monster. The gross pranks that the Twits play on each other generally seem funny to children, but to Rees such pranks are truly revolting.

In an attempt to explain why children often laugh at that which adults may find disgusting, Paul E. McGhee, a child psychologist and author of Humor: Its Origin and Development, finds it helpful to examine the psychological dynamics associated with toilet training. As he points out, the idea that certain things or actions are disgusting is usually absorbed while children are experiencing bladder and bowel training. "Parents," he writes, "seem to be very concerned about just when and where these acts occur, and become very upset when they occur at the wrong place or the wrong time. Even the most easy-going parents may be embarrassed or angered at untimely messes" (80). Such parental responses usually spark feelings of anxiety in children, and one way that they deal with their anxiety is through humor.

For very young children, this form of humor is expressed without a hint of subtlety. McGhee gives the example of a three-year-old who finds it hilarious to "approach another child or an adult and say 'poop' or 'kaka'" (130). Although school-age children still experience anxieties related to the pressures of measuring up to adult standards of cleanliness and neatness, they no longer find the utterance of words such as "poop" quite so funny. McGhee expands on this point in his book:

It becomes boring simply to say taboo words, so more complicated and interesting ways of expressing "toiletness" are created. This pattern continues throughout the child's development: that is, new ways of joking about the sources of tension are developed as new intellectual capacities evolve. The underlying conflict may be the same, but children generally prefer intellectually challenging ways of joking about conflicts.


Much of the humor in The Twits is very similar to the jokes that children make about cleanliness, bodily functions, and other related topics. It has scatological connotations, but there is still a facade of respectability. Thus, when Dahl calls Mr. Twit "a foul and smelly old man" (7) or describes the worm spaghetti as "too squishy" (16), he strikes a chord with many children.

The humor that runs through Dahl's depictions of revolting behavior is enhanced, at least in the opinions of children, by the fact that he often attributes such behavior to adults. Psychologists have long noted that children enjoy jokes and stories that poke fun at the moral authority of adults. In Martha Wolfenstein's seminal study entitled Children's Humor: A Psychological Analysis, published in 1954, she points out that this aspect of children's humor is tied to the unequal power relationship between children and adults:

Children find ways of making fun of the bigness, power, and prerogatives of the grown-ups whom they envy. There is another imposing aspect of adults, which is often oppressive and fearful to children, namely their moral authority; and here too children seek relief through mockery. They seize with delight on opportunities to show that the grown-ups are not infallibly good.


In creating Mr. and Mrs. Twit, Dahl provides children with two prime examples of adult characters who are by no means infallibly good. Another Dahl character who plays this role is the grandmother in George's Marvelous Medicine, the book Rees denounces as "the most repellent of all Roald Dahl's books for the young" (148). Like Mr. and Mrs. Twit, Grandma, as she is called, is physically repulsive. Dahl describes her as having "pale brown teeth and a small puckered-up mouth like a dog's bottom" (2). Her behavior, however, is worse than her looks. As Dahl puts it, "she was always complaining, grousing, grouching, grumbling, griping about something or other.…She didn't seem to care about other people, only herself. She was a miserable old grouch" (2). Grandma is especially mean to her grandson, George, always ordering him about, criticizing his every move, and trying to make him eat various insects. Dahl clearly intends for Grandma to function as a comical character, but this only partially explains why children find the book funny.

Much of the humor in George's Marvelous Medicine relates to George's decision to get even with Grandma. He creates a ghastly concoction of cleaning products, foodstuffs, automobile fluids, and practically everything else that he finds around the house and pours a little bit of it into the jar containing Grandma's medicine. When Grandma takes a spoonful of George's brew, she undergoes a whole array of ridiculous transformations before finally coming to an amazing end. As even this brief plot summary shows, George's aggression plays a major role in the story, but it is dealt with in such a humorous and whimsical manner that children often find it hilarious.

By using humor and fantasy to mitigate the aggressive elements of the story, Dahl employs essentially the same technique that children learn to use when expressing feelings of hostility. This technique was described by Sigmund Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious:

Though as children we are still endowed with a powerful inherited disposition to hostility, we are later taught … to renounce the expression of hostility by deeds.… A joke will allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy which we could not … bring forward openly or consciously.…The joke will evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible.


Like the jokes that Freud mentions, George's Marvelous Medicine and many of Dahl's other books provide children with forms of pleasure that cannot be found in many other children's books. He succeeds in doing this not just by using the same kinds of humor that children use themselves, but also by sympathizing with children in their conflicts with adults. During a recent interview, Dahl discussed this point, and in the process he came close to echoing Freud's position:

I generally write for children between the ages of seven and nine. At these ages, children are only semicivilized. They are in the process of becoming civilized, and the people who are doing the civilizing are the adults around them, specifically their parents and their teachers. Because of this, children are inclined, at least subconsciously, to regard grown-ups as the enemy. I see this as natural, and I often work it into my children's books. That's why the grown-ups in my books are sometimes silly or grotesque. I like to poke fun at grown-ups, especially the pretentious ones and the grouchy ones.

(Qtd. in West 74-75)

There can be little doubt that children enjoy the way in which Dahl treats his grouchy old characters. He is, after all, one of the bestselling children's authors of our time. However, some adults, including Rees, feel that Dahl mistreats his adult characters. Rees is especially upset at the fate of George's grandmother. He argues that Dahl is teaching children that grumpy people "deserve to be poisoned and killed" (149). This interpretation, of course, is based on a literal reading of the book and, according to a recent study, is one that most children do not share. When Charles Gerard Van Renen surveyed a group of school children about their reactions to George's Marvelous Medicine, he found that "few respondents were prepared to take the situation seriously"; they felt "that the events of this fantasy would find no ready transfer to real life" (19).

Perhaps the reason Rees interprets Dahl's books so literally and seriously is that he cannot appreciate the humor in them. It is often difficult for adults to see anything funny about children's jokes, and the same probably applies to books that are intended to appeal to the less civilized side of children's sense of humor. As Martha Wolfenstein points out, this is "because the adult and the child rarely find themselves in the same emotional situation at the same time" (214). Wolfenstein, however, holds out hope for the Reeses of the world. She argues that the key to appreciating the humor of children is to put ourselves in their place. "Children," she writes, "are not so remote from us. If we cannot always laugh with them, we can at times laugh like them" (214).

Works Cited

Dahl, Roald. George's Marvelous Medicine. London: Cape, 1981.

——. The Twits. London: Cape, 1980.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, in The Standard Edition of the CompletePsychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 8, James Strachey, trans. London: Hogarth Press, 1967.

McGhee, Paul E. Humor: Its Origin and Development. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1979.

Rees, David. "Dahl's Chickens: Roald Dahl," Children's Literature in Education, 19 (1988): 143-155.

Van Renen, Charles Gerard. A Critical Review of Some of Roald Dahl's Books for Children, with Particular Reference to a "Subversive" Element in His Writing. Master's thesis, Rhodes University, 1985.

West, Mark I. Trust Your Children: Voices against Censorship in Children's Literature, New York: Neal-Schuman, 1988.

Wolfenstein, Martha. Children's Humor: A Psychological Analysis. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Jonathon Culley (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Culley, Jonathon. "Roald Dahl: 'It's about Children and It's for Children'—But Is It Suitable?" Children's Literature in Education 22, no. 1 (1991): 59-73.

[In the following essay, Culley reviews the debate over Roald Dahl's sometimes-controversial approach to children's literature, concluding that Dahl borrows elements from classic folklore to create a modern mythology.]

Roald Dahl, who died in November 1990, was the best-selling children's author living in Britain. Born in 1916 in Wales of Norwegian parents, he was educated at Repton, and after a period abroad, he settled in England. He wrote almost twenty books for children, along with several others for adults. In early 1988 the U.S. paperback rights to his books were renewed with an advance of $1.3 million. As Brian Alderson, the children's book reviewer for The London Times, has observed, "The craze for Dahl has overtaken the craze for Blyton." The committee headed by Professor Brian Cox named him to the list of 227 acceptable authors for five- to eleven-year-olds in 1988. Yet, despite this success, Dahl has been heavily criticised for his books' vulgarity, fascism, violence, sexism, racism, occult overtones, promotion of criminal behavior, and literary technique. While Alisdair Campbell is quick to point out the inevitable "prejudice against best-seller status," there is also, certainly, a rational basis to the attacks, a basis from which springs "a fear that children will get stuck in the rut of reading only Dahl."1 In this article I shall endeavor to explain some of the fascination of Dahl's work, and I hope, in so doing, to shed some light on its nature, harmful or otherwise.

According to Eleanor Cameron, a children's author, one-time librarian, and lecturer on children's literature, Dahl's most famous work, Charles and the Chocolate Factory, contains "all those Clockwork-Orange qualities which are actually destroying the society children are growing up in."2 She accuses the book of fostering sadism in children. Anne Merrick says of the "crudely delineated" characters that "our worst instincts are appealed to, to reject them" and Catherine Itza, with special reference to The Witches, asserts that "woman hatred is at the core of Dahl's writing."3

Certainly Dahl did dwell on the particularly nasty traits of some of his characters: "… and right from the beginning they started beating poor James for almost no reason at all"; "We can't go on for ever watching these two disgusting people doing disgusting things to each other."

Dahl's treatment of these characters nearly always follows the same pattern. First, the characters are introduced along with vivid physical descriptions. They proceed to have a successful reign of terror when their behavior reaps rewards. Finally, they come to a sticky end. These characters are not given redeeming features; they are thoroughly dislikable with a generous helping of unpleasant characteristics, of which one or two are normally especially prominent. Dahl most commonly uses selfishness, gluttony, greed for power and wealth, violent anger, and cruelty, though his characters are also often covetous, slothful, and cheating. Indeed these descriptions, as well as being obvious from the characters' actions, are explicitly given in the text: "they [Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker] were selfish and lazy and cruel" (JGP [James and the Giant Peach]); "She was a selfish grumpy old woman."

Is there anything dangerous in Dahl's treatment of these dislikable characters? Sarland believes there is. Dahl he sees as holding elements of society up to ridicule and then annihilating them. He worries that the children will unconsciously pick up this underlying fascist message. However, while the reader's main sympathies and attention may lie with the hero or heroine in Dahl book, the punishment of the villains is plainly evident. This "fascist theme" of Dahl's is never subtly "underlying" the main structure of the book. The cause of the violent end is never lost sight of by the reader. The child is fully aware of what he or she perceives as the characteristic(s) which deserved punishment. So does this mean that the element Sarland isolates is merely the morality play dimension of Dahl's work? If this were so, the case against Dahl would lose most of its power. What complicates the issue is not the villains' rottenness, their temporary success, or even the violence of their demise, but Dahl's handling of their physical descriptions:

What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays … impossible to tell what he really looks like.… Perhaps … he'd rather you didn't know.… Mr Twit was one of these very hairy-faced men.… And how often did Mr Twit wash this bristly nail-brushy face of his?… NEVER … always hundreds of bits of old breakfasts and lunches and suppers sticking to the hairs around his face … a piece of maggoty green cheese … a foul and smelly old man … also an extremely horrid old man.

(TT [The Twits])

Dahl idly muses on the frequency of men with facial hair. Why do they have facial hair? Is it a cover-up? Then he introduces one almost as an example, as though this example will answer our musings. He elaborates on Mr. Twit, on his eating habits, the state of his beard, and ends with a statement of personality. There is no explicit connection. We are never told he is horrid because he is hairy. It is, however, heavily implied by the structure of the narrative. Compare this more abstract passage:

I wonder what green boxes contain.…Think of all the green boxes in the world … they must contain something … something not too big and yet not too small so as not to waste space.…I wonder if they could contain black spheres.… I found a box yesterday.… When I examined it, it was green … a green box!…and eventually, when I opened it up, … inside, ablack sphere.

It uses the same approach: categorization, speculation, postulation, corroboration, implication. A firm categorization is made, speculation is started about a quality of this category, a theory about this quality is postulated, this theory is found to hold for a sample of one, and the whole category is implicated in the quality. One is tempted to believe that all green boxes contain black spheres, just as Dahl tempts us to believe that all hairy men are horrid and foul, and capable of all the things Mr. Twit is capable of later in the book. By using vivid descriptions of villains and melding their physical characteristics with their personalities, Dahl forges an association of one with the other. Sometimes the two are already casually, if not causally, linked in most minds, child and adult, as in Augustus Gloop, who is both fat and greedy. Ugliness and hairiness, however, have no causal link with a horrid personality. Is there a genuine possibility, as I have suggested, that the two, while not synonymous, may be seen by the reader, after the book is finished, as partners? And if so, was Roald Dahl doing children a disservice?

In a questionnaire given to children between the ages of six and eleven, I asked whether any character in their favorite Roald Dahl book had come to a sticky end, and if so, whether she or she had deserved it. While most gave the expected answers concerning greed, selfishness, cruelty, and disobedience, one boy wrote: "Yes. They were ugly."

When I was talking to him about his answer, he agreed that the characters were ugly and horrible, and that, had they been ugly but kindhearted, they would not have deserved the treatment they did in fact receive. However, his initial gut reaction must give some cause for concern. The child, a young ten, was discussing The Twits, his favorite book by Roald Dahl. It is in this book that Dahl himself shows a little concern about the close association of physical and personal qualities. Taking the reader aside, he explains that "if a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face" but "you can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts … you will always look lovely". Here Dahl directly addresses the anxiety of association. He touches on this again in Danny the Champion of the World when Danny warns the reader to "watch out … when someone smiles at you with his mouth but the eyes stay the same. It's sure to be bogus." But in the majority of cases Dahl is preaching to the initiated. Most children, through experience, realize that a variety of personalities can be found within a variety of external appearances. This does not mean that while reading the book, ugly does not mean evil, since it generally does with Dahl. But the children have, I would argue, a familiarity with the conventions of folklore that allows them to operate two distinct schemes of reference, one within the book and one without. What possibly worries the more anxious teacher and parent are Dahl's additions to the conventional folklore scheme of reference. Dahl dislikes facial and nasal hair as we have established with The Twits. Captain Lancaster in Danny has "a little clipped moustache … a fiery temper [and] carrotty-coloured hairs … sprouting out of his nostrils and earholes." Miss Trunchbull in Matilda was a hammer-thrower and retains a muscular physique. Every villain is furnished with a striking physical attribute whether it be derived from traditional folklore or borrowed from a figure in Dahl's past.

To appreciate better Dahl's place in children's literature it is necessary to perceive the strength of his work's links with folklore. The two share many qualities. Both normally involve exaggerated characters with obvious good-and-evil alignment, a narrator as a sort of companion figure, the prospect of the unexpected and the fantastic happening, violence, repeated themes, vivid images, and an ending where the heroine or hero triumphs over the villain. While all of these may well be implicated in the popularity of Dahl's work, the responses to one of my questions ("What did you like best about your favorite Roald Dahl book?") suggest that it is the vivid images which are the most compelling parts of the books for their readers: "When grandma shrank"; "When the bloodbottler took a bite of the snozzcumber and Sophie went flying and got covered in snozzcumber spit"; "When Mr Twit ate some worms"; "The bit where the fat boy got stuck in a chocolate tube"; "When the little girl started to blow up like a ball and she turned purple"; "Where she put a tadpole in a jug for the headmistress."

It is clear to the reader of several books by Dahl for children that much of his style is rooted in the highly conventional tradition of folklore. Dahl himself enlarged little on his books: "I am a fantasist." Quentin Blake, however, having collaborated closely with Dahl for many years, sees the books as "fairy stories, at bottom. People who criticize him don't see that even the real people are simply ogres and witches."4 In Blake's description lies the essence of Dahl's defense.

In 1968 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was greeted by a shot across the bows from Junior Bookshelf: "The laws of Wonderland are inflexible. The writer of fantasy … breaks them at his peril." What could be more ironic? The child who comes to Dahl having embraced folklore and fairy tales, or even the child who has simply felt the need for them, can recognise the books' supposed dangers easily. The violence is familiar. It is violence that is superficially horrific, yet unreal. Eleanor Cameron disagrees. She argues that "being literarily unsophisticated children can react only to … the level of pure story."5 Cameron complains of the lack of match of the books with the perceptiveness of the children, while Anne Merrick and others complain of his crudely delineated characters and general lack of technique! Dahl's characters are generally quite simple. As is true of the body of folklore, the characters lie fairly flat on the page, with exaggerated personal qualities but relatively little roundness to them. The exceptions occur when Dahl gives us access to the thoughts of the principal characters, for example, Danny, who in fact narrates his own story much as does Huckleberry Finn.

Dahl outlines folklore characters and knows when the addition of more detail is unnecessary. Indeed it is only by keeping the characters simple that children can follow the intricate workings not only of the often "Keystone Cops" pace, but also of the delicate moral implications Dahl frequently introduces. For instance, Joy Moss's class enjoyed a lengthy discussion of the "moral questions generated" by Fantastic Mr Fox. Here the children fully appreciated the moral ambiguity: "So far … characters are either good or bad. But Mr Fox is both! He is a good character that steals, and that's bad."6 They perceive the mitigating circumstances of the animals' starvation and the farmers' meanness. By "purifying" the characters into archetypes, Dahl enables the child to focus more clearly on the dilemmas involved.

Children are given by Dahl the "daydreams which they know … to be an essential part of their growth."7 Dahl's medium is, according to Campbell, simply a "moral fairytale in modern idiom, belonging to a tradition in which violence and ruthless punishments are taken for granted and where deliberate stereotyping is a valid technique." As for Catherine Itza's accusation of sexism, she must realize that Dahl is simply drawing from his heritage full of conventionalized characters. Witches are women in folklore. She chooses to quote what in isolation might be construed as damning: "There is no such thing as a male witch"; "Real witches … look very much like ordinary women." She neglects sections that show this is merely Dahl's faithfulness to folklore conventions: "On the other hand, a ghoul is always a man. So indeed is a barghest" (TW [The Witches]). "There never was a woman giant!… Giants is always men!"

If one looks at other parts of Dahl's work, one can clearly discern antisexist elements. In Matilda Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood have two children, Matilda and Mike. Mr. Wormwood, an obnoxious, dishonest car dealer, tells Matilda that she's "too stupid" to understand his dodges but that he doesn't mind "telling young Mike here about it seeing he'll be joining me in the business one day" (M [Matilda]). Later he tells her "No-one in the world could give the right answer just like that, especially a girl!" (M). By giving the villain bald sexist statements that the reader will be able to recognize from experience, Dahl successfully ridicules this kind of everyday sexism. Feminists committed to the attack of Dahl on this front might counter that the heroes of his books are mostly male. Admittedly, most of Dahl's main heroes are male (though The Magic Finger, The BFG, and Matilda are obvious exceptions), but then Dahl was himself a male. Much of his work addresses his own experience, and consequently this bias toward heroes should not be so surprising.

I hope that by showing how squarely Dahl lies within the field of folklore, I have absolved him of his supposed crimes of violence and sexism. It is difficult however to do the same for his alleged racism. This "weakness," while a major flaw in one of his most popular books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, only occurs in this book and its sequel, both written early (1964 and 1973). The problem is thus restricted to Dahl's treatment of the Oompa-Loompas. Dahl himself sees no problem, as reported by Wintle and Fisher: "No complaints at all from children or teachers, only from … slightly kinky groups."8 First, let us review the little we are told of these people:

Imported directly from Loompaland.… Nothing but thick jungles infested by the most dangerous beasts … little Oompa-Loompas living in tree houses … living on green caterpillars … tasted revolting.… Poor little Oompa-Loompas!… they longed for … the cacao bean.…An Oompa-Loompa was lucky if he found three or four … a year.…You had only to mention the word "cacao" to an Oompa-Loompa and he would start dribbling at the mouth.

Willy Wonka suggested, "in Oompa-Loompish," that they come and work, and live, in his factory, where they could have all the cacao beans they wished—he'd even pay their wages in cacao beans. The leader agrees and the whole "tribe" is smuggled over in packing cases.

They are wonderful workers.… They all speak English now. They love dancing and music.… They like jokes. They still wear the same kind of clothes they wore in the jungle.…The men wear only deer-skins. The women wear leaves, and the children wear nothing at all.

So far the similarities between the Oompa-Loompas and common visualizations of pygmy tribes are obvious. Dahl continues, however, with a physical description which is in many ways deliberately at odds with the accepted image of a pygmy: "… beautiful white teeth. His skin was rosy-white, his long hair was golden-brown and the top of his head came just above the height of Mr Wonka's knee … hopping and dancing about and beating wildly upon a number of very small drums" (CCF [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory]). The Oompa-Loompas certainly are the work force of the factory, even rowing the fantastic pink boat which is Mr. Wonka's private yacht.

Dahl himself worked in Africa before World War II, most notably in Tanzania. His treatment of the Oompa-Loompas reads not as "the author's revealed contempt for blacks,"9 but as a personal insight into imperialism and traditional relations between the industrialized and Third World countries. Such an insight has relevance in the appropriate area, perhaps even with older children working on an allied topic, but surely not as a minor aspect of a children's storybook. Doubly unfortunate is the Oompa-Loompas' success with the readers, which only strengthens the critics' attack. Indeed, in answering my questions, several children, when asked what they liked most about their favorite Roald Dahl book, named the Oompa-Loompas: "And the thing best of all was the bubble gum that did not go out of flavour for a whole week and the little green people making all of the recipes"; "But best of all I liked the Oompa-Loompas." Dahl's handling of the Oompa-Loompas, especially in such sensitive times, is bound to provoke some outcry but, more importantly, is liable to be misinterpreted by the children.

Before considering criticism of Dahl's technique, the other area of content that is often attacked, vulgarity, must be addressed. There is no doubt that he does mention what some think unmentionable. With his live of the sensual and the taboo, all of his books contain descriptions many adults find offensive: "I ran for home. I shouted, 'Mum! / Behold the prickles in my bum!'"; "'Dogs' droppings!" She yelled. "Just then I got a whiff of dogs' droppings!'" (TW); "'Everyone is whizzpopping.…But where I come from, it is not polite to talk about it'" (BFG) "'Redunculous!…If everyone is making whizzpoppers, then why not talk about it?'" (BFG) "'There's almost nothing worse to see / Than some repulsive little bum / Who's always chewing chewing-gum'" (CCF).

Adult reservations about these passages stem not, presumably, from an unfamiliarity on their part, but from a belief that the child should be shielded and not exposed to such content. It is part of a child's culture just as it is part of what was, or still is, the adult's culture. The child learns when it is acceptable to talk about such things, and the arrangement that normally arises is that children talk to each other and happily use "vulgar" words; adults talk among themselves and may use them, too, but in mixed company, the words are not generally permitted, and an adult can chastise a child for not respecting these rules. The peculiar arbitrariness occurs when the two written cultures are examined. Adult literature is unrestrained but children's literature, when it reflects much of children's culture in its use of vulgarity, is found offensive by adults.

Marshall says of good writers that they "use language not only to convey literal meaning but also to stimulate a wealth of potential child perception, response and insight."10 Time after time writers on children's literature tell us that good books should answer the questions "What will adult life be like?", that "we read to become aware of life and the world," and that children's literature "should reveal the truths of the human condition." Dahl, as a writer of folklore, does all these things. His approach to vulgarity is a consequence of his throwing his lot in with the reader, not the critic. He acts not only as the companion/narrator, but also as a guide to the surrounding adult world, highlighting particular weaknesses and exposing its hypocrisies.

Adult hypocrisy is a hobbyhorse of Dahl's. He leaves us in no doubt that adult power is often merely an abused function of age, accident, and aggression. Sometimes the hypocrisy is on a small, domestic scale immediately relevant to the children. In Matilda, the Wormwood family always has supper on trays in front of the television, watching American soap operas. Matilda asks one evening if she might read in her room. Mr. Wormwood snaps that "Supper is a family gathering and no-one leaves the table till it's over!" He later rips up one of her library books on the pretext that "if it's by an American it's certain to be filth" (M). Mrs. Wormwood lectures the children that picking one's nose is disgusting but, as Matilda points out, "grown-ups do it too, mummy. I saw you doing it yesterday in the kitchen". In his efforts to show his readers that not only are adults human in every fallible sense of the word, but they are also commonly hypocritical, Dahl has occasionally run very close to the wind. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is banned in a number of American public libraries because of the way it lampoons the president of the United States of America, and Dahl's open disgust at the future Archbishop of Canterbury showing "neither forgiveness nor Mercy" when dealing out corporal punishment at Repton must also have caused concern.

Adults are simply grown-up children. Mostly they are wiser, but often they retain their bad qualities, and it is with children, especially as parents and guardians, that "poor" adults often indulge these bad qualities with no other justification than age, and the power and strength that brings: "'Grown-up human beans is not famous for their kindness'" (BFG).

The overthrow of such arbitrary authority is a common basis for Dahl's plots. It most often takes the form of the underdogs standing up for themselves and correcting a dictatorial situation which would otherwise be perpetuated. Matilda opposes Miss Trunchbull, George opposes his grandmother, Mugglewump and the Roly-Poly Bird oppose the Twits, Danny and his father oppose Mr. Hazell, Sophie and the BFG oppose the giants. There is much of Dahl's own life in his writings. As Hazel Rochman observes, Boy often shows "the helpless and innocent trying to withstand a cruel authority."11 Dahl said of the incidents that he has "never been able to get them out of [his] mind." It is inevitable that he should use his writing to resolve the more unsatisfactory elements and to reexperience the happier ones. With the vividness of his recall, Dahl captured much of what it is like to be a child in the unhappy scenarios. His books were not only cathartic to him but are of use to children who are, or have been, caught up in similar situations. "Whatever a child reads, voluntarily, can be helpful to him." Books chosen by the child may "satisfy a subconscious need."12 One might well expect Dahl to be used by bibliotherapists exploiting his therapeutic qualities with children.

Dahl's "idiom and vocabulary are limited and repetitive," and his "humour is fairly crude"13 in Anne Merrick's view. Fadiman talks of "the degradation of our wonderful language" as the most important factor working against "the writing and reading of children's good literature today." Does Dahl let his readers down? In Matilda Mrs. Phelps the librarian tells Matilda not to "worry about the bits you can't understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music" (M). This open delight in the sensual quality of words pervades Dahl's books for children. He delights in onomatopoeia, the construction of onomatopoeic words, alliteration, puns, and verbal humor: "grizzly old grunion of a Grandma" (GMM [George's Marvellous Medicine]) "'She will be dreaming of every single little thingalingaling …'" "'Dreams … is made of zozimus'" (BFG) "'… spiders is the most tremendous natter-boxes.'" (BFG) "'You are slimy and soggy and squishous!'" (CGGE [Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator]) "STOREROOM NUMBER 77—ALL THE BEANS, CACAO BEANS, COFFEE BEANS, JELLY BEANS, AND HAS BEANS" (CCF). As one child put it, "I would read lots more of his books because the words make me interested in the story". An extreme example of the children's fascination with Dahl's use of language is furnished by the high proportion of children that spelled words like frobscottle, whizzpopping, and snozzcumber correctly in their answers to my questions without reference to a copy of The BFG.

Dahl is aware that "unusual words may create humour, impart information or indicate meaning in the context."14 A child need not know the meaning of an unfamiliar word (assuming there is one) to understand its role. One need only look to "Jabberwocky" to trace Dahl's ancestry here: "'Twas brilling, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.…""'Well, "slithy" means "lithe and slimy." "Lithe" is the same as "active." You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word'" (CARR). Compare natterboxes (a portmanteau word of natterers and chatterboxes), kid-snatched (kidnapped/snatched), and chiddlers (children/tiddlers) (BFG). One does not have to search Dahl's thoroughly to see how confidently he uses "repetition of words which give a story rhythm and a narrative quality" (Marshall).

The assumption is often made that children require conventional techniques of presentation and narrative. Dahl ignores this. He refers to pictures in the text, asking the reader to step back and view the book from outside the story. But perhaps most daringly among his narratorial techniques, he suspends the action for descriptive purposes. He demonstrates that young children can tolerate description, if the subject of the description interests them enough. By the time a child has read several books by Dahl, he or she has been introduced to most writing devices found in adult books.

Dahl was clear in his own mind about what it is that makes a good writer. His spokesperson in Matilda, Mrs. Phelps the librarian, explains that "a fine writer will always make you feel," as Matilda puts it, "right there on the spot watching it all happen" (M). He points out the one failing of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: "There are no funny bits" and "Children are not so serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh" (M). In an interview with Justin Wintle, Dahl suggested that "by the time children are nearing their teens, they ought to be reading proper adult books, instead of a lot of rubbishy things."15 Implicit is a condemnation of the "teenage novel," made concrete by Mrs. Phelps's "for some reason" rejecting her first impulse to start Matilda off with "a young teenager's romance of the kind that is written for fifteen-year-old school-girls" (M). There must be, however, a place for literature addressing "contemporary themes": racism, child abuse, handicap, sexism, and so on. Dahl's books largely ignore these areas. Certainly he was not afraid to voice opinions and challenge commonly held priorities: "'Looks is more important than books'" (M), "'So please, oh please, we beg, we pray, / Go throw your TV set away'" (CCF), "Mrs Wormwood was hooked on bingo" (M). It would have been a great contribution if Dahl, using his own highly original approach, had included more plots that touched on these areas in his books. Sometimes more damage is done by second-rate authors trying to "tell it as it is" to children, than by a complete lack of such books.

There is at present an increasing polarization between those who wish to celebrate the shortening period of childhood and those who wish to acclimatize their children to adult life. Dahl was one of the few authors for young children who could in any way bridge this widening gap. He certainly told them more of adult life than "the drug of Johns or Blyton." In 1989, in a letter to The London Times concerning the publication of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, Dahl commented that "In a civilised world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free-speech." He was more aware of the responsibility he carried as a children's author than his critics realize: "I do have power.… Children are vulnerable because they don't know they are being propogandised" (quoted in Hill).

Though Dahl would doubtless still think "it's pointless and unrewarding to try to analyse someone's work like this," I feel he would be pleased with one ten year old's analysis of his work: "It's about children and it's for children."

Postscript: Dahl as Modern Mythology

Many people would, on reading the following, consider it merely a contrived exercise in self-delusion. Hence, to avoid tainting one with the other, I have separated it from the rest of the article, which stands on its own. Yet this short discussion has, I believe, considerable bearing on children's literature generally, and on Dahl's work especially, and demands inclusion somewhere.

Sarland notes that Dahl's work contains "elements of their own contradiction."16 He maintains that these are primarily included because Dahl wishes "the largest possible readership" for his books. Marshall notes that the "evidence suggests that most legends and folk and fairy tales are founded on one or more of the following themes" and then proceeds to list a selection of binary opposites such as rich and poor. Certainly, contradictions and opposing elements recur constantly throughout Dahl's books for children. This is, I feel, the final key to his books' extreme popularity.

I have already commented on Dahl's technique and its obvious sympathy with folklore. Now I want to push this aspect one step further.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was born in 1908 and, after studying law, philosophy, and sociology, became interested in anthropology. His approach is essentially in the tradition of Sir James George Frazer, endeavoring to establish cross-cultural truths which hold good for the human mind and forms of thought, seldom concerning himself with any one society's particular organization. It is his approach to myth that is relevant to an examination of Dahl's writing. The following is an attempt to condense Lévi-Strauss on myth into an absurdly short space.

First, we must appreciate that for Lévi-Strauss, any recollection of the past is an element of the thinker's present and should not be viewed simply as history. Myth, therefore, can be thought of as containing messages transmitted down the generations to the society's novices, a sort of indoctrination. The messages themselves, address the problem of "unconscious wishes which are somehow inconsistent with conscious experience";17 they attempt to resolve contradictions inherent in society, paradoxes that can be explained in no other way. How do they do this? Myths can be broken down into what Lévi-Strauss calls "mythemes," "bundles of relations between mythic elements."18 If correctly arranged, these indicate, through their semantic ordering, a meaning which addresses a perceived contradiction in the society (Lévi-Strauss was an avowed Marxist and one can see the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis in his thinking). A contradiction, I, is treated by consideration of the solution to a similar contradiction, II. Each contradiction will occur within the myth as one of Lévi-Strauss's mythemes, for example, a and b (mytheme I) and c and d (mytheme II). By uncovering the analogy between mytheme I and mytheme II, a mediation allows the contradiction to be coped with, at least conceptually: a: b :: c: d, that is, a is to b as c is to d. Treatment of myths along the lines laid down by Lévi-Strauss involves the perception of pairs of categories that are in binary opposition, lying along axes implied by the text of the myth. The elegance of Lévi-Strauss's theory is that all versions of a myth will address the same perceived contradiction, irrespective of their culture.

At this point, there should ideally follow an example of the master's analysis of myth, perhaps most famously the legend of Asdiwal, but this is a postscript and space is limited. But what relevance has all this to Dahl? Dahl's books constantly use binary opposition and repeated themes, much as Lévi-Strauss suggests myths do. Certainly Dahl's popularity lies in his books as stories, but I can't help wondering whether his books also succeed on a subtle, unconscious level as well, as modern myths resolving contradictions that are socially felt, albeit subconsciously. In this context, I conclude a very short analysis of Matilda.

What is Matilda about? Matilda is the story of a small girl who is extremely advanced for her age. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, are coarse, uninterested parents, oblivious of her ability. They prefer to watch television, and what little parental encouragement they do show is directed at Mike, Matilda's brother, who is destined to follow Mr. Wormwood into his crooked secondhand car business. Matilda, meanwhile, begins secretly to visit the library while her mother plays bingo. Mrs. Phelps, the kindly librarian, oversees Matilda's reading, once Matilda has read all of the books in the children's section. Eventually Matilda escapes to school, where she amazes her young teacher, Miss Honey, not only with her reading but also with her mathematical ability. Miss Honey approaches the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, a violent and frightening battle axe, hoping to have Matilda moved up to the top class. Miss Trunchbull refuses, and Miss Honey is forced to help Matilda as best she can. The two become good friends. The schoolchildren play a series of tricks on Miss Trunchbull, culminating in Matilda's "willing" a jug of water containing a newt to tip over the headmistress. Miss Honey invites Matilda to tea to discuss Matilda's new power. Matilda discovers that Miss Trunchbull is in fact Miss Honey's aunt and guardian, who now enjoys the house and possessions of Miss Honey's dead parents and has the great majority of Miss Honey's income diverted to her own account. Miss Honey, consequently, is living in poverty. Matilda refines her power and, in the next weekly lesson with Miss Trunchbull, "writes" on the blackboard by levitating a piece of chalk. She scribbles a threatening message from Miss Honey's dead father, and Miss Trunchbull runs off, never to be seen again. Miss Honey regains the family house and possessions. Meanwhile Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are hurriedly preparing to flee the country to avoid legal procedures. Matilda is distraught and runs to Miss Honey, who volunteers to become Matilda's guardian. The Wormwoods are predictably indifferent, and Matilda goes to live happily ever after with Miss Honey.

First, we must isolate the "mythemes" and their analogous relationships:

ward:guardian::Miss Honey:Miss Trunchbull

These are the mythemes I have isolated; this is not to say there are not others. If these are the binary oppositions in Matilda, what is the contradiction, the "un-conscious wishes which are somehow inconsistent with conscious experience"? As in most of Dahl's children's books, the paradox inherent in society is the oppression of the powerless by an arbitrary authority, more specifically, the tyranny of Miss Trunchbull over Miss Honey and of the Wormwoods over Matilda. Each has its own mediation. In the case of Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull, mediation is effected by a transformation of Matilda into an ambiguous character in terms of the pivotal axis of age. As Miss Honey remarks at one point, "I suppose we might call you a grownup child" (M). Matilda changes from child to adult, powerless to powerful, and young to old. As for the tyranny of the Wormwoods over Matilda, that, too, is mediated by a transformation, but this time of Miss Honey. She, too, changes from young to old and powerless to powerful, but in addition, she exchanges the role of ward for that of guardian.

The structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss suggests that Matilda can be seen to have a mythical dimension. One might argue that it was always obvious that Matilda concerned itself with age, the power of adulthood, and so on. I would simply say that if, as I believe, Dahl was writing modern mythology and Lévi-Strauss was correct, then parents, teachers, and educationalists should realize that Dahl's immense popularity with children, the "novices" of our society, stems not only from a conscious appreciation but also from some unconsciously derived satisfaction.


  1. Alisdair Campbell, "Children's Writers"; Charles Sarland, "The Secret Seven vs. The Twits."
  2. Eleanor Cameron, "A Question of Taste."
  3. Ann Merrick, "The Nightwatchmen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as Books to Be Read to Children"; Catherine Itza, "Bewitching the Boys."
  4. Quoted in Hill, "Dahl: Pied Piper with a Magic Pen."
  5. Eleanor Cameron, "McLuhan, Youth and Literature."
  6. Joy F. Moss, "Paperbacks in the Classroom."
  7. D. Holbrook, English for Maturity; Campbell, "Children's Writers."
  8. Justin Wintle and Emma Fisher, The Pied Pipers.
  9. Cameron, "A Question of Taste."
  10. M. R. Marshall, An Introduction to the World of Children's Books.
  11. Hazel Rochman, "Young Adult Books."
  12. Marshall, Introduction.
  13. Merrick, "The Nightwatchman."
  14. Marshall, Introduction.
  15. Wintle and Fisher, The Pied Pipers.
  16. Sarland, "The Secret Seven vs. The Twits."
  17. Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss.
  18. Alan Jenkins, The Social Theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss.


Arthur, Anthony, "An Interview with Clifton Fadiman," Children's Literature in Education, 1975, 17.

Cameron, Eleanor, "McLuhan, Youth and Literature," in Crosscurrents of Criticism, Horn Book Essays 1968-1977, selected and edited by Paul Heins. Horn Book, 1977.

Cameron, Eleanor, "A Question of Taste," The School Librarian, 1981, 29 (2), 108-114.

Campbell, Alisdair, "Children's Writers: Roald Dahl," The School Librarian, 1981, 29 (2), 108-114.

Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking-Glass Macmillan, 1872.

Dahl, Roald, letter to The Times, The London Times, February 28, 1989.

Haigh, Gerald, "For Non Squiffletrotters Only," Times Educational Supplement, November 19, 1989, p. 35.

Hill, George, "Dahl: Pied Piper with a Magic Pen," The London Times, April 21, 1988, p. 12.

D. Holbrook, English for Maturity. Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Inglis, Fred, The Promise of Happiness. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Itza, Catherine, "Bewitching the Boys," Times Educational Supplement, December 27, 1985, p. 13.

Jenkins, Alan, The Social Theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Macmillan, 1979.

Leach, Edmund, Lévi-Strauss.: Fontana, 1970.

Marshall, M. R., An Introduction to the World of Children's Books.: Gower Publishing, 1982.

Merrick, Anne, "The Nightwatchmen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as Books to be Read to Children," Children's Literature in Education, 1975, 16, 21-30.

Moss, Joy F., "Paperbacks in the Classroom," The Horn Book Magazine, February 1981, pp. 98-104.

Rochman, Hazel, "Young Adult Books: Childhood Terror," The Horn Book Magazine, October 1985, pp. 598-602.

Sarland, Charles, "The Secret Seven vs. The Twits: Cultural Clash or Cosy Combination?" Signal, September 1983, 42 155-171.

Wintle, Justin, and Fisher, Emma, The Pied Pipers.: Paddington Press, 1974.

Wood, Michael, "The Confidence Man," New Society, December 20-27, 1979, 50 (897/898) pp. xiv-xvi.

Books by Roald Dahl

(Code letters used for citations in the text)

JGP: James and the Giant Peach. Allen & Unwin, 1961.

CCF: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Allen & Unwin, 1964.

MF: The Magic Finger. Allen & Unwin, 1966.

FMF: Fantastic Mr Fox. Allen & Unwin, 1970.

CGGE: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Allen & Unwin, 1972.

DCW: Danny the Champion of the World. Cape, 1975.

TT: The Twits. Cape, 1980.

GMM: George's Marvellous Medicine. Cape, 1981.

BFG: The BFG. Cape, 1982.

TW: The Witches. Cape, 1983.

BTC: Boy: Tales of Childhood. Cape, 1984.

DB: Dirty Beasts. Cape, 1984.

M: Matilda. Cape, 1988.

Dieter Petzold (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Petzold, Dieter. "Wish-fulfilment and Subversion: Roald Dahl's Dickensian Fantasy Matilda." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 4 (1992): 185-93.

[In the following essay, Petzold argues that there is an intended moral element in Roald Dahl's canon that uses humor to demonstrate the acceptable boundaries of naughtiness.]

Roald Dahl is much debated as an author of children's books, but there seems to be comparatively little substantial criticism of Matilda (1989), his last major work. Although the reviews I have seen are predominantly favorable (if somewhat apologetic), they also express, between the lines, a certain reservation or uneasiness. I have found even more of this attitude revealed in conversations and private correspondence. Convinced that every book a child reads will leave some lasting impression on the child's mind, people seem to fear that Dahl's books will put quite wrong ideas into children's heads. It is true that since there are no foreigners in Matilda, Dahl can hardly be accused of racism here; and in view of such outstanding female characters as Matilda, Mrs. Phelps, and Miss Honey, feminist critics have been found to fall back on such minor items as Matilda's reading list, which contains only three woman writers out of thirteen authors. I have also heard Dahl accused of snobbishness because the decidedly lower-class habits of Matilda's parents appear in a negative light. I suspect, however, that what people really object to is Dahl's radical siding with children against adults, which takes on a new dimension in Matilda since it involves a devastatingly negative picture of parents.

This can be sensed, for instance, in Stephanie Owen Reeder's remark (1988) in her otherwise quite favorable review, that "the story would perhaps have been all the more effective … if it had been pruned, and had concentrated more on the central story of how Matilda outwits Miss Trunchbull and puts everything to rights for Miss Honey." Dahl's formidable schoolmistress is too clearly a monster to be taken seriously, and it is easy to applaud the "triumph of the underdog" (to use George Hill's phrase, 1988)1 in this uneven battle. But not all adults, it seems, can find it in their hearts to approve of Dahl's "anarchic disrespect of authority," or to regard the "playing out of the child's hidden desires" in Dahl's books as "healthy."2

My purpose in this article is not to decide once and for all whether Dahl is good or bad for children, but to explore the nature of these "hidden desires," in other words, to speculate about the likely reasons for the book's great success with children and the ambivalent reactions it has provoked among adults. I agree with Culley (1991) that Dahl's books probably "succeed on a subtle, unconscious level as well,"3 although I feel that in the case of Matilda the underlying "myths" are "modern" only if we take the term modern rather broadly. While the surface of Dahl's story is certainly contemporary, it seems that some of its underlying ideas, as well as narrative strategies, can be placed in quite a long-standing tradition.

A convenient way of placing the book in a literary context is by examining it in terms of genre. Although the story is set in contemporary England, and although many details are described which clearly belong to the reality we are familiar with, it is obvious that Matilda is not a realistic novel. Indeed, many commentators have pointed out that (like most of Dahl's books) it is really a fairy tale in disguise, with "all the elements of the true fairytale," "magic," "gross violence," "retribution," "no well-rounded, three-dimensional characters," "good triumph[ing] over evil" (Reeder, 1988). To this list we might add the observation that Matilda, like the typical fairy-tale hero, is "gifted" and "seemingly isolated, but has the capacity for universal relationships" (p. 143).4 Miss Trunchbull, of course, is like a fairy-tale dragon or ogre, and Miss Honey, in a somewhat less orthodox fashion, appears to be the kind helper and the princess in need of being rescued, rolled into one.

Yet, seen from another angle, the story is by no means a mere fantasy. Matilda's parents and Miss Trunchbull may not be exactly lifelike, but they are only a little larger, and uglier, than life. In other words, they are caricatures, figures made ridiculous through exaggeration. There is a strong satirical element in Matilda (again, as in most of Dahl's books), and its function is the classical aim of satire: to reaffirm norms by making deviations from these norms appear ridiculous.

The trick of combining realism and satire with a fairy-tale deep structure may seem odd, but it is not unprecedented. In fact, it can be traced back at least as far as Dickens, who seems to have been the first to use it extensively and to characteristic effect. Of course, Dickens, in contrast to Dahl, was a realist first and foremost, and he did not incorporate magic or science fiction elements into his novels, but he did occasionally describe, and ridicule, human depravity with saeva indignatio, and he did, as Kotzin (1972) and Stone (1979)5 have demonstrated, use fairy-tale plots and characters quite extensively.

Dahl's indebtedness to Dickens is apparent on several levels. First, Dickens is the only writer to appear twice on Matilda's reading list; in her reading habits Matilda seems to resemble Dahl himself, who claimed to have read, among many other classics of Western adult literature, "all of Dickens"6 before the age of ten. Another Dickens novel, Great Expectations, is the very first adult book Matilda has come across (right after The Secret Garden, written by another Dickens disciple, Frances Hodgson Burnett), and there are more references to Nicholas Nickleby later on in Matilda (p. 156). It seems that Dahl's frequent mentioning of Charles Dickens, just like Edith Nesbit's persistent hints at Rudyard Kipling in her children's books, is not just a device to lure the reader on to some other good writer, but also an acknowledgment of the author's indebtedness to his model.

Dahl's use of slightly ridiculous and curiously apt names like "Julius Rottwinkle" or "Bruce Bogtrotter" is also reminiscent of Dickens; even more so, of course, are the names of Matilda's school, Crunchem Hall, and of its headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (cf. "Dotheboys Hall" and "Wackford Squeers" in Nicholas Nickleby).7 Miss Honey's bucolic cottage has a distinctly Victorian flavor, and the fact that she, too, is a victim of Miss Trunchbull (in the melodramatic subplot of the story) smacks of Dickens's use of coincidences to create an atmosphere of a providentially ordered universe (cf. Beyer, 1976).8

The most important link between Matilda and several Dickens novels, however, is thematic. It is true that Dickens did not tell stories about child prodigies, but some of his particularly popular novels—Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations9are about sensitive, highly gifted children who are neglected, suppressed, and finally rehabilitated, just like Dahl's Matilda.

To understand the significance of this theme, and the special use Dahl made of it in Matilda, we shall first have to examine Dickens's treatment of the neglected-child theme. Dickens's books are full of orphans and otherwise neglected children, insensitive parents, monstrously sadistic teachers, and kind parent substitutes. As has often been pointed out, this is mainly a reflection of Dickens's own childhood experiences (or rather childhood memories), in particular of the famous blacking warehouse. The three novels mentioned are only the most striking cases in point. They become progressively more realistic and more complex, but at the root even of Great Expectations there is still the same fantasy of the poor neglected child, sensitive and vulnerable, who somehow manages to overcome the obstacles put in his way by thoughtless, unfeeling, or downright rascally elders and succeeds in gaining what is felt to be his birthright.

Dickens's own experience may well explain the intensity of his feelings about this motif, and the obsessiveness of its repetition, but it will hardly serve as a satisfactory explanation of its extraordinary appeal to the readers. Oliver Twist, the least displaced version of what I should like to call the "neglected-child fantasy," has always been one of the most popular of Dickens's novels, despite glaring inadequacies in characterization and plot. Recent adaptations of the story as a musical and a cartoon film featuring dogs instead of human beings seem to testify to the perennial appeal of the sujet if not of the novel as written by Dickens.

What happens to Oliver Twist is surely very different from the ordinary reader's experience. Why, then, is the story so widely popular? One reason could be that though its surface appearance of Victorian melodrama seems rather exotic to the modern reader, its central fantasy is universal or near-universal. I see at its roots the well-known conflict between a child's natural egoism and the demands of society. As we all know, even a small infant has to learn that its position in the arms of a loving, nurturing mother is really a privileged one, and necessarily impermanent. The child's inflated ego, however, considers any frustration of its wishes an encroachment on its birthright. In its narcissistic phase, every child sees itself as an exceptional child.

This may well be the reason why the "Oliver Twist theme" appeals to our subconscious in a particularly powerful way. Even though the details of the story will probably differ quite strikingly from the reader's own life, she or he will readily identify with the fictional hero, because the "neglected-child fantasy" at its roots operates primarily on a level where such differences are irrelevant. The pity we feel for Oliver in his plight and the exultation with which we greet his final success are so keen because we have all felt ourselves to be in the same situation as Oliver at one stage or another of our lives.10

The regressive nature of this fantasy will hardly diminish its appeal. It may well be that its foundations are laid in early infancy, but the resentment of the frustration of wishes and the fear of being abandoned are feelings which will continue to accompany every child's life (and every adult's, for that matter). The fact that a good many of the most widespread fairy tales elaborate the same fantasy confirms its ubiquity. "Cinderella" and "Hansel and Gretel" are obvious examples which immediately spring to mind.

Since the child's fear, and resentment, of its parents' refusal to fulfil its wishes is at the core of this fantasy, it touches the very foundations of the predominant ideology of the family, as expressed, for instance, in the Fifth Commandment. Small wonder, therefore, that it is only rarely given undisguised expression. In most fairy tales, mothers are replaced by evil stepmothers or witches, fathers by ogres or tyrannical kings. ("Hansel and Gretel" is an exception to the rule in that both parents agree to get rid of their children, but the story does contain a loving father, who is browbeaten by his shrewish wife and practically blackmailed into acquiescence.)

Kotzin (1972) and Stone (1979) have demonstrated that Dickens made extensive use of fairy-tale plots in his novels. In dealing with the "neglected-child theme," Dickens (just like the anonymous authors of fairy tales, and like other writers in that vein) usually circumvented the taboo on describing bad parents. While real parents are frequently idealized in his novels, or else nonexistent, substitute parents are introduced to represent the oppressive aspect of the child-parent relationship. Oliver, David (whose mother dies early in the novel), and Pip are all orphans. So is Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre; and in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, which owes as much to Dickens as it does to "Cinderella," the heroine has a loving but ineffective father and a termagant mother substitute (the school-mistress, Miss Minchin).11

It is here that Dahl differs most strikingly from Dickens. Matilda's parents are very much alive, and they appear in a thoroughly negative light. Dahl spares us no nasty details in his descriptions of Mr. Wormwood, "a small ratty-looking man whose front teeth stuck out underneath a thin ratty moustache" (p. 23), and of Mrs Wormwood, "a large woman whose hair was dyed platinum blonde except where you could see the mousy-brown bits growing out from the roots," and who has "one of those unfortunate bulging figures where the flesh appears to be strapped in all around the body to prevent it from falling out" (p. 27). As they are sitting in front of the telly gobbling their "TV dinners in floppy aluminium containers with separate compartments for the stewed meat, the boiled potatoes and the peas" (pp. 26-27), Matilda's parents are the very image of vulgarity. It is an image which is depressingly real while it is also scathingly funny.

From the very beginning, there has been a considerable amount of eighteenth-century enlightenment fervor in Dahl's writing for children, which finds expression both in glaring didacticism and in outright satire. In some cases, most notably in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), the chief objects of Dahl's satire are children. But even though there is a certain sadistic delight in the way these children's various punishments are described, they can really be seen as victims of parental neglect and/or spoiling. In most of Dahl's children's books, however, the satire is primarily directed against adults, although there are always positive adult figures as well.

It is easy to see why educators, like Anne Merrick, who believe that children should be taught tolerance and understanding object to this satirical element.12 Satirists are, almost by definition, unfair and intolerant. It should be noted, though, that in Matilda Dahl aimed his satirical shafts not against groups but against specific behavior in individuals. It is true that in his introductory remarks the narrator fantasizes about making some scathing comments on certain unpleasant children, but there are no such children in the story itself. Matilda's brother, Michael, appears rather dim-witted and far too obedient, but he is too much of a minor character to be of much consequence. Indeed, the book is remarkable for its implausible lack of conflict between children. All of Matilda's fellow students are polite and sensible, united in their fight against their common enemy, Miss Trunchbull. Of the five adults, two appear in a positive light, but the rest are all the worse for their total lack of any sense whatsoever of a child's needs and rights.

Any reader of Dahl's autobiography, Boy, will see that Dahl's writing for children bears unmistakable marks of his childhood memories, particularly of his early school years. Obviously, terrible Miss Trunchbull is only a slight exaggeration of how little Roald saw (or, rather, how old Roald remembered) his own headmaster at Llandaff Cathedral School, "a giant of a man with a face like a ham and a mass of rusty-coloured hair that sprouted in a tangle all over the top of his head."13

Unlike Dickens, however, Dahl apparently never experienced a traumatic loss of faith in his parents. On the contrary, his childhood memoir is full of admiration for his father and mother, and of gratitude for a happy family life. The predominantly negative view of adults in Matilda cannot be explained exhaustively by referring to the author's childhood experiences. They reflect an attitude toward the child which may seem typical of the "anti-authoritarian" 1970s and 1980s but which, in fact, can be traced back to Rousseau and the romantics. The notion that children are basically pure and innocent and need to be protected against selfish, exploitative, and power-obsessed adults who will abuse, neglect, and corrupt them is most obvious in Dickens but pervasive throughout in nineteenth-century literature.

It is easy to see why some educators object to Dahl's radical siding with children, which seems to undermine authority and to pander to the children's natural rebelliousness while missing the opportunity to teach them something about the complexities of real life. Dahl's answer to such an accusation might well have been that he meant to be "subversive," and that the purpose of children's books is to teach their readers not what it really means to be an adult, but how to avoid growing into the kind of adults we see around us daily. In interviews, Dahl repeatedly stressed his sense of responsibility. If anything, he might be accused of being too blatant an advocate of old-fashioned morality (though not in Matilda, in my opinion), of being, in Hunt's words, "simply part of the regulatory system, part of the learning process," precisely "by defining the acceptably unacceptable."14

We should not forget, however, that Dahl's books, in spite of their didacticism, set out first and foremost to give their readers pleasure. Although founded on reality, the story of Matilda takes off into pure fantasy, leaving didactic and satirical elements behind. If this fantasy strikes a responsive chord in many readers, the reason may well be that it deals with children's fears of omnipotent adults, on the one hand, and with corresponding wishes of child omnipotence, on the other.

Psychologists seem to agree that fantasies of child omnipotence are not only normal but even necessary for the development of the child. It is understandable that adult readers, when unable to identify regressively with the rebellious hero(ine), will dislike such fantasies. From the adult's point of view, after all, these fantasies may relate to unconscious fears of being superseded by one's own offspring or, more generally, by the "rising" generation.15

What keeps the book from falling apart into its disparate elements is, of course (as always in Dahl), its humor. Preposterous exaggerations serve as a means of comic distancing which takes the edge off both fears and wishful fantasies. Miss Trunchbull is certainly frightening in a way that any child who has encountered tyrannical teachers will recognize, but when she lifts children bodily up by their ears or throws them out of windows so that they "go sailing out over the garden like a Frisbee and landing with a thump in the middle of lettuces" (p. 110) she becomes simply unreal, a comic-strip figure in a nonsensical tall story that can be laughed away.

In a similar way, Matilda's intelligence is astonishing, though not beyond credibility, but when she discovers that she can move objects by mere willpower, the fantastic element in this fictional character is revealed. It, too, takes a humorous turn when Matilda uses her telekinetic power to make a piece of chalk write a message on the blackboard that shocks Miss Trunchbull into instant disappearance. Again, humor serves as a distancing device. After having allowed the reader to indulge in a fantasy of omnipotence, Dahl's ironic presentation of the story compels the reader to acknowledge that it was, after all, only a fantasy. Just as Matilda forgoes her magical powers after having succeeded in liberating herself, the child reader may find that he or she can do without the crutch of wish-fulfilling fantasy—after having enjoyed one.


  1. George Hill, "Dahl: Pied Piper with a Magic Pen."
  2. The quotations are from a review by Christina Hardyment in an English newspaper which I have unfortunately been unable to identify. German critics seem to find it easier to accept Dahl's subversiveness. In reviews of the German version (done by an outstanding translator of children's books, Sibyl Gräfin Schönfeldt) I have found phrases like "a necessary protest against the really nasty meanness of grownups" (Toll, 1989: "ein notwendiges Aufbegehren gegen richtig fiese Gemeinheiten von Erwachsenen") and, approvingly, "with Dahl, children are allowed everything in self-defense" (Ulmer-Kröll, 1989: "Bei Dahl gilt deshalb: Um sich zu wehren, ist Kindern alles erlaubt"). It seems likely that this attitude among critics is a reflection of the "antiauthoritarian" feelings current during the 1960s and 1970s, presumably the formative years of these critics. On the whole, Dahl's critical reputation seems to be much higher in Germany than in Great Britain and the United States.
  3. Jonathon Culley, "Roald Dahl—'It's about Children and It's for Children'—But Is It Suitable?" (p. 71).
  4. Max Lüthi, Once upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, p. 142.
  5. Michael C. Kotzin, Dickens and the Fairy Tale, and Harry Stone, Dickens and the Invisible World.
  6. Roald Dahl, "Books Remembered."
  7. Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby.
  8. Manfred Beyer, Zufall und Fügung im Romanwerk von Charles Dickens.
  9. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, David Copper-field, and Great Expectations.
  10. Shaner (1986), who mentions a considerable number of examples of the "neglected-child" theme in twentieth-century children's literature, similarly, but with a slightly different emphasis, points out that "the romantic traditional treatment of orphans" is "psychologically and emotionally … often more satisfying than an exact and realistic depiction of the orphaned state might be," because "the orphan is that parentless, placeless element in all of us that yearns for a sure knowledge of who we are and where we belong" (p. 48).
  11. That Burnett allowed herself to be influenced by Dickens is fairly obvious; it can be most clearly demonstrated in Little Lord Fauntleroy, where a lawyer bears the name Havisham and where minor characters like Cedric's companions Dick and Mr. Hobbs seem to be straight out of Dickens. On the other hand, the plot of Little Lord Fauntleroy reveals a Wordsworthian rather than a Dickensian context. Though a half-orphan, the protagonist is not a wronged child: rather, he is setting the wrongs of society right. His immediate forerunner is Diamond of George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind.
  12. Anne Merrick, "The Nightwatchmen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as Books to be Read to Children."
  13. Roald Dahl, Boy, p. 41.
  14. Peter Hunt, Criticism, Theory, and Children's Literature, p. 191.
  15. In this respect, Matilda may be related to science fiction stories which describe the coming of a new race of superchildren. While this motif has an ambiguous if not downright frightening flavor in stories written for adults (e.g., Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human, 1953; Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, 1953; or Howard Fast's "The First Men," 1960), it is given a positive turn in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1962), which, like most children's books, seems to be intended to be bought by adults who think it "suitable" for children.


Beyer, Manfred, Zufall and Fügung im Romanwerk von Charles Dickens. Phil. Diss. Düsseldorf, 1976.

Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre. Toronto/New York/London: Bantam, 1981.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, A Little Princess. Harmondsworth: Penguin/Puffin, 1987.

Culley, Jonathon, "Roald Dahl—'It's about Children and It's for Children'—But Is It Suitable?" Children's Literature in Education 21 (1991): 59-73.

Dahl, Roald, Boy: Tales of Childhood. Harmondsworth: Penguin/Puffin, 1986.

Dahl, Roald, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Harmondsworth: Penguin/Puffin, 1988.

Dahl, Roald, Matilda. Harmondsworth: Penguin/Puffin, 1989.

Dahl, Roald, "Books Remembered," CBS-Features 43 (1990).

Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Dickens, Charles, Nicholas Nickleby. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Hill, George, "Dahl: Pied Piper with a Magic Pen," The London Times (Apr. 21, 1988), p. 12.

Hunt, Peter, Criticism, Theory, and Children's Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Kotzin, Michael C., Dickens and the Fairy Tale. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.

Lüthi, Max, Once upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Luyken, Reiner, "Hinterm Duschvorhang: Wo der Kinderbuchautor schreibt," Die Zeit (Dec. 12, 1988), p. 33.

Merrick, Anne, "The Nightwatchmen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as Books to Be Read to Children," Children's Literature in Education, 16 (1975): 21-30.

Reeder, Stephanie Owen, "Matilda," Magpies 3 (July 1988): 4.

Shaner, Mary E., "Realism in Twentieth-Century Children's Literature," in Masterworks of Children's Literature, Vol. 8: The Twentieth Century (pp. 35-64), ed. William T. Moynihan and Mary E. Shaner. New York: Stonehill, 1986.

Stone, Harry, Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.

Toll, Claudia, "Die Kunst der Gemeinheit," Spielen und Lernen 8 (1989): n.p.

Ulmer-Kröll, Heidi, "Böse wie Frau Knüppelkuh," Die Rheinpfalz, 12 (July 1989): n.p.



Barone, Diane. "The Butter Battle Book." Children's Literature in Education 24, no. 2 (1993): 123-35.

Exploration of children's reactions to the darkly humorous treatment of war in Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book.

Boskin, Joseph. "The Giant and the Child: 'Cruel' Humor in American Culture." In Black Humor: Critical Essays, edited by Alan R. Pratt, pp. 313-21. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

Examination of the principles of cruel jokes by children and how they reflect upon American culture as a whole.

Brittain, Bill. "Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, pp. 264-68. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.

Relates root causes behind attempts to censor Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

Cox, James M. "Mark Twain: The Height of Humor." In The Comic Imagination in American Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 139-48. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Analysis of the elements of black humor in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Gollapudi, Aparna. "Unraveling the Invisible Seam: Text and Image in Maurice Sendak's Higglety Pigglety Pop!" Children's Literature 32 (2004): 112-33.

Exploration of the interplay between sadness and humor in Maurice Sendak's picture book Higglety Pigglety Pop!, which features Sendak's recently deceased dog, Jennie, as its heroine.

Gorey, Edward, and Jane Merrill Filstrup. "An Interview with Edward St. John Gorey at the Gotham Book Mart." Lion and the Unicorn 2, no. 1 (1978): 17-37.

Interview with illustrator Edward Gorey in which he discusses his influences and the reactions to his often grotesquely humorous stories for children.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. "Mixing Levity and the Grave: MacDonald's 'The Light Princess.'" In Ventures into Childhood: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity, pp. 116-49. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Examines the irreverent impulses and dark overtones of George MacDonald's "The Light Princess."

Krull, Kathleen. "Revisiting Eleanor, Marshall, and Roald: or, Having a Sense of Humor in the Millennium." Horn Book Magazine 75, no. 5 (September-October 1999): 564-71.

Reconsiders a debate regarding the appropriateness of Roald Dahl's books for children.

Lehman, Barbara A., and Patricia R. Crook. "Doubletalk: A Literary Pairing of The Giver and We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy." Children's Literature in Education 29, no. 2 (1998): 69-78.

Compares the elements of black humor in Maurice Sendak's We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy and Lois Lowry's The Giver.

Lurie, Alison. "Subversive Children's Literature." In Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature, pp. 3-15. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, and Company, 1990.

Defines types of "subversive" children's literature—works that refute the status quo of acceptable behavior.

Olson, Marilynn. "Turn-of-the-Century Grotesque: The Uptons' Golliwogg and Dolls in Context." Children's Literature 28 (2000): 73-94.

Survey of Florence K. Upton's darkly comic The Golliwogs, a series of children's books that were popular in the early twentieth century.

Rees, David. "Dahl's Chickens: Roald Dahl." Children's Literature in Education 19, no. 3 (1988): 143-55.

Argues that Dahl's works are unsuitable for young children.

Wolf, Tim. "Imagination, Rejection, and Rescue: Recurrent Themes in Dr. Seuss." Children's Literature 23 (1995): 137-63.

Asserts that Dr. Seuss revisited certain difficult emotional themes—such as the rejected child—in an attempt to identify a proper literary solution to these problems.

Zipes, Jack. "The Perverse Delight of Shockheaded Peter." In Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter, pp. 147-69. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2001.

Examines the "delight in perversity" manifested in the Heinrich Hoffman's Slovenly Peter and the resulting play based on this story, Shockheaded Peter.