“the artifice of realism in children’s fiction”


This is a topic that comes up time and again and never ceases to be interesting in the way that it reveals people’s attitudes both to children and to literature – I refer to realism in children’s fiction, of course….

Using Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, Lewis Roberts presents a compelling example of how realism can be used in children’s fiction to engage children in the act of storying and in understanding the construction of reality through story. Walk Two Moons, Roberts writes, “provides insight into two central concerns in the study of modern children’s literature: the efficacy of realism and the role of storytelling in the lives of child readers who are themselves on a quest for identity.” (p.122)

Realism in children’s fiction

Roberts also argues compellingly for the place of such realism in children’s fiction (in the face of adults who insist stories about real problems in childhood should be dealt with through make-believe), pointing to the “general misapprehension about children’s literature and specifically about realistic fiction for children. Such misconceptions,”Roberts explains, “can be found in Hal Piper’s now infamous critique of the novel in the Chicago Tribune, ‘‘Are the Plots of Kids’ Books Too Realistic?’’ Piper’s answer to his titular question reveals an assumption about children’s realism that has more to do with sentimental nostalgia than with the realities of children’s lives. Reacting to the death of Salamanca’s mother in Walk Two Moons, Piper bemoans, ‘‘This is the new realism in children’s books. No more happy families.’’ Today’s realistic fiction for children, he charges, depicts ‘‘hellish childhood nightmares instead of blissful childhood idylls.’’

Likewise, Marcia Baghban argued at the 2000 NCTE conference that reality-based stories too often make children into victims who must await rescue by adults. Baghban claimed that fantasy, which shows characters dealing with realistic problems in new and fanciful contexts, is a preferable genre for children because it enables ‘‘identification at a distance [which] makes readers feel safe.’’ This distancing effect of fantasy, then, is better able to create ‘‘hope,’’ whereas realistic stories place readers ‘‘too close to what is real’’ and thereby ‘‘unnerve readers of any age with their dreariness and despair’’ (Baghban 11).

A more pragmatically pedagogical view of children’s realism is announced by Charlotte S. Huck. ‘‘Books that honestly portray the realities of life,’’ Huck writes, ‘‘help children toward a fuller understanding of human problems and human relationships and, thus, toward a fuller understanding of themselves and their own potential’’ (528). Huck’s understanding of children’s realism stands in stark contrast to Piper’s assessment of Walk Two Moons. Piper’s claim is idealistic in its absolute contrast between ‘‘nightmares’’ and ‘‘idylls,’’ for it assumes that children must dwell in a perfect [-p.123] world, either perfectly horrible or perfectly idyllic. This, of course, is not an observation of children’s lives, but rather an imposition of adult desires onto the landscape of childhood. Huck, on the other hand, suggests that children’s literature can play a more profoundly nuanced role in the lives of its readers by promoting empathy as a means toward the construction of identity.” (pp.122-123)

“Just as with fantasy, realism often contains a didactic impulse….” (p.124)

realism does not necessarily preclude an author from utilizing other narrative techniques and borrowing from other literary genres, such as nonsense literature, symbolism and metaphor, and even fantasy. A number of realistic stories for children and adolescents employ magical realism by introducing a single element of the [-p.125] impossible into otherwise realistic settings in order to highlight or comment upon the reality that the story describes and the characters inhabit.” (pp.124-125)

“…realistic fiction, embedded as it is in language, must also deal with the arbitrary disorder inherent in language, the uncertain space and slippage between signifier and signified. Any narrative about telling stories as a natural and automatic function of human psychology must always work as the literary imposition of an artful order onto the chaotic ebb and flow of reality. Realistic narrative structures cannot simply reflect or represent unmediated reality, but rather must be understood as the creation of what we choose to recognize and name as ‘‘real.’’ In other words, children’s realistic fiction is not simply a matter of content, but rather a process of structuring content in the pursuit of literary verisimilitude. The tension is thus not between what is real and what is artificial—a narrative is of course all artificial. Instead, realism is about structuring narrative such that the question of its artifice is never raised.

Children’s fiction has tended to ignore this tension between reality and realism, favoring a nineteenth-century tradition of realistic fiction in the face of modern and [-p.131] postmodern literary challenges to the efficacy of realistic narratives. Realism is posited as ‘‘that form of writing which attempts to reduce to an absolute minimum our awareness of the language in which a story is written in order that we will take it for real’’ (Rose 65). Although Walk Two Moons appears to participate in such a realistic aesthetic, Creech complicates her use of realism by purposefully calling attention to its artificiality through both the structure of her narrative and the literary employment of language in names, metaphors, and in the therapeutic nature of storytelling itself. Character names such as Cadaver, Winterbottom, Sugar, and Prudence, and place names such as Bybanks and Euclid, disrupt the novel’s representation of a real world by calling our attention directly to the literary connections, metaphoric and symbolic, between signifier and signified….

Creech’s layering of narratives one inside another likewise challenges a strict verisimilitude by asking readers to consider how Sal as narrator imposes meaning upon, or ignores the meaning of, the events that she chooses or refuses to relate.” (pp.130-131)

“the therapeutic nature of storytelling itself participates in this deconstruction of the novel’s realism by showing how Sal’s motives, emotions, and character development are inextricably wedded to and mediated by language. Sal as narrator demonstrates an uncanny ability to avoid the pain of her mother’s death through silence while never remaining silent, to tell the story of her grief by refusing to name its source, and both to lead and mislead readers through the artfulness of her language.” (p.131)

Although we must read Walk Two Moons as the realistic story of Sal’s pursuit of a stronger, more stable identity, this lesson is announced as and embedded within a form of storytelling much older than modern realistic fiction: the quest narrative. The lesson that Sal draws from Phoebe’s story and applies to her own suggests that the telling of stories involves not merely the passive representation of the past but the active pursuit of the future.” (p.132)

Ref: Lewis Roberts (2008) ‘Nightmares, Idylls, Mystery, and Hope: Walk Two Moons and the artifice of realism in children’s fiction’ Children’s Literature in Education 39: 121-134

Abstract: “Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons is a defining example of contemporary realistic fiction for children. This article argues that Walk Two Moons models storytelling as a tool which children need to understand their own relationship to reality and to literature. Rather than employing a grim verisimilitude, as some critics have charged, Creech has created a novel of realistic character development which also challenges any simplistic understanding of children’s realistic fiction through its complex and self-referential narrative structure and use of literary language. The result is a narrative which, in the face of painful and tragic circumstances, empowers readers toward a hopeful and optimistic view of life’s mysteries.” (p.121)


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