The various uses and functions of feline characters


I’m interested in fictional animals for various reasons. Maria Nikolajeva wrote an article some time ago in which she considers “the various uses and functions of feline characters by a discussion of some famous and less-known literary cats.” (p.248) She writes “These characters are employed for various purposes and play more or less prominent roles in the narratives, from peripheral figures used as decorative details to protagonists and plot engines. Their portrayal depends on the view of cats at different historical periods, from divine in ancient Egypt to evil during the Middle Ages in Europe, from enigmatic and exotic to sweet and friendly. Their nature reflects feline as well as human traits, and the most challenging images combine the two.” (p.248)

“During the Middle Ages in Europe, cats became connected with evil powers, which was based partly on the popular beliefs about cats’ lewdness, partly on their Christian association with Satan.” (p.250)  “Such attitudes led to cats’ connection with witches; indeed, black cats, together with ravens, frequently appear in folktales as witches’ familiars (such as Grimalkin, a cat from Celtic lore, also featured in Macbeth), and witches also turn into cats, a fact reflected in the Harry Potter books when Professor McGonnegal occasionally takes the shape of a cat. An evil cat monster appears in King Arthur stories. Bayun-Cat in Slavic folklore is a giant hostile black cat who imposes irresistible sleepiness on people, often by telling tales or singing songs. However, this image is ambivalent, since it portrays the cat as creative and wise….” (p.250)

“By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the cat’s repute was exculpated and cats became popular pets in upper- and middle-class families, which is, among other things, manifest in numerous nursery rhymes—for instance, “Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been.” This very simple rhyme tells us something essential about one of our favorite pets—not about their true nature, but rather about how we perceive cats. The versed animal can talk and recall his adventures; he can walk about as he wishes, including to Her Majesty’s chambers; but he has no respect for the high and mighty, seeing the world from his own perspective.” (p.251)

“Cats are also widely featured in fables… Eventually they enter numerous cartoons, children’s stories, and picturebooks. Cats became benign and often sweet characters, adapted to children’s and family reading. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928), and Kathleen Hale’s Orlando the Marmalade Cat (1938) are good examples. Most modern cat stories are picturebooks portraying anthropomorphic cats, representing humans. The shape is arbitrary and interchangeable: the figures could just as well be bears, rabbits, mice, or blotches of color. It is hardly worth mentioning the abundant felines rubbing against their owners’ feet or purring on their laps merely to create an atmosphere. In hundreds of books a child gets a kitten for pet. Occasionally, a black cat may prompt the idea, often erroneously, that its owner is a witch. In the Harry Potter books, a sneaky she-cat belongs to the likewise devious janitor at Hogwarts, while Hermione’s familiar is quite appropriately an orange tomcat.” (p.251)

Because of their trickster nature, cats can be easily employed as carnival figures, turning order into chaos and interrogating higher authorities. The most famous American cat is the figure created by Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957), who incorporates both the trickster and the magical helper aspect of the folklore cat. In this brilliant, hilarious, marvelously dynamic story, chaos invades the everyday order, all rules are abolished, and the whole house is literally turned upside down. This is carnival in its purest form: wild, uncontrolled, and nonsensical.” (p.254)

Quite a different use of cat images is metaphoric, symbolic, allegorical— that is, various forms of nonmimetic representation. Eugene Trivizas’s The Last Black Cat (2001), one of the relatively rare cat stories employing first-person perspective, is an allegory of the Holocaust.” (p.256)

In modern fairy tales and fantasy, cats are widely featured as magical helpers and bearers of magical powers, especially assisting the hero in transportation between the everyday and the magical realm. Among authors who are especially fond of feline characters, Lloyd Alexander and Diana Wynne Jones can be named.” (p.260)

NB Nikolajeva discusses a number of texts that make use of cats, including: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, CoralineThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, etc. The analyses she offers are thought-provoking.

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Maria Nikolajeva ‘Devils, Demons, Familiars, Friends: Toward a Semiotics of Literary Cats.’ Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2009), pp. 248–267

The removal of sexuality from children’s fairy tales


“The removal of sexuality from children’s fairy tales paralleled the evolution of housing in Europe. By the seventeenth century, living arrangements had evolved to provide segregation between quarters for working, food preparation, and sleeping. Usually there was a main room used for dining, entertaining, and receiving visitors, but servants and children began to have their own smaller, adjacent rooms. During this same century fairy tales began to transform into works intended primarily for children. The transformation of living spaces parallels the changes that greatly impacted children, including attitudes regarding teaching proper behaviour and attitudes towards dying and death.” (P.546)
I wish I had a proper reference for this, but all I know is that it was a section titled ‘Literature for Children’ (pp.543-549) in some sort of reference book!

Los desmaravilladores


los-desmaravilladores-elsa-bornemannOkay, so back to thinking about desaparecidos en literatura para jovenes. Another book that touches on the theme is Los desmaravilladores (10 cuentos de amor, humor y terror), by Elsa Bornemann. The final story (Los desmaravilladores, from which the book takes its name) addresses the problem of discovering that your adoptive parents have (in this case unwittingly) adopted you after your biological parents were disappeared.

The story is framed as a short story being submitted under a pseudonym to a historical story competition run by the Academia Nacional de Historia de la Republica de Sudaquia. This short story itself is framed by the book of short stories in which it is published and to which it gives its title. This frame seems full of meta-narrative! But the story itself is fairly straight forward.

(Question: Is setting this story in the Republic of Sudaquia like re-claiming an insult – like has been done more classically with the terms nigger or gay? There is a publishing house by the same name: and a blog but this is new to me and as far as I can tell it comes from an insult that has been reclaimed ( …I don’t know!)

NB One site describes the book: “Un libro de cuentos que habla de los primeros encuentros con el terror. Cuentos que además recrean leyendas populares o acontecimientos reales, con la valentía de quien sabe que para los chicos no existen temas difíciles. Sólo se trata de saber contarlos.”

la memoria de los seres perdidosThe story did also put me in mind of La memoria de los seres perdidos by Jordi Sierra i Fabra, though the two approach the theme quite differently.

anti-authoritarian characters in children’s fiction


hombreSo I just read another book that had me thinking about representation of the dictatorship (Argentina)…

El hombre que creía en la luna, by Esteban Valentino (Ilustraciones de Pez. Bogotá, Grupo Editorial Norma, 2000. Colección Torre de Papel; serie Torre Azul.)

I won’t argue that this is such a representation. (Metaphorically, one might make such an argument, but those kind of extrapolated readings annoy me.) What I could say is that this is a story about a village that is convinced so strongly to turn their back on the moon (refusing to mention it, discuss it, acknowledge it, etc.) that they stop going out at night and chastise their children for even hinting at it. (This is engineered by baddies who want to sell the night to turn a quick profit.) hombrecreia2So, what I really did make note of is the character of the Uncle, the lone voice who speaks out against this regime, leaving propaganda in obvious places, challenging people’s fear, talking about the moon to his nephew and generally trying to rally people back to the moon’s cause, in spite of the climate of fear he finds on his arrival. This story turns on the appearance of his character (even though it is told through the eyes of a child protagonist).

So what other books celebrate such characters?

How do child protagonists respond to such characters? (and how ‘should’ they respond?)

What about the adults in such fiction?

Are these characters contextualised by the presence of other characters (eg. here, Los Vendedores de la Noche)

Are particular characters important to the children’s literature of a society (eg. with regards to making sense of a difficult history for its young)? It seems they must be. Do such characters appear with as much regularity in one society as in another? (eg New Zealand / Argentina)… just wondering

Emil and the detectives


Just a brief thought… There is a little blurb that suggests a brief (and I don’t know how accurate) history of child detectives in the back pages of the Vintage Classics translation of Emil and the Detectives (2012, translation by Eileen Hall). There will be books on the subject, but still… under the title, ‘Child Power‘ the publishers include these words

“When Emil and the Detectives was published in Germany in 1929 Emil was one of the first child detectives to appear in a book. Emil and his friends are heroes, they stick together, they outwit the thief and accomplish something that even the policemen hadn’t been able to do. Today you can read all sorts of brilliant stories about clever child spies (The Famous Five, Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl) but little Emil Tischbein was the very first!

“The children’s author Philip Pullman loves this book because he says ‘it is a great political story: democracy in action’. And it is true, Emil and his friends are organised, they share their money, cooperate and they are extremely disciplined about a common cause – bringing a thief to justice.”

Add to that the fact that Kästner’s books were burned by the Nazi regime and I think it is an interesting analysis.

Ref: np. Author not named (emphases in bold highlight the critical focus I found interesting)

Emil and the detectives / Erich Kästner ; translated from the German by Eileen Hall ; illustrated by Walter Trier. Vintage Books London 2012

Crossover literature


On the topic of ‘crossover literature’, Regina Brooks explains:

4“A lot of people in the publishing industry believe that confusion about what constitutes YA it is heightened by the success of some titles known in the industry as “crossovers.” Publishing houses generate additional revenue from some books by marketing them to both adult and YA readers, thus crossing over from one audience to another. Francesca Lia Block’s cult novel, Weetzie Bat, written in 1989, is considered the original crossover, continuing to attract readers from fifteen to thirty-five. Two of the most commercially successful crossovers are Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Both were published in 2002 and have sold over two million copies each. Those books were adult books that crossed over into the YA market, but there are others that start out as YA and then cross over to an adult audience; for example, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series. The first became a feature film and the second a popular television series.
Author of the crossover series Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling has said she had no particular age group in mind when she started writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; however, she did know she was writing for children. The first Harry Potter novel was eventually published in 1998 by Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher and distributor of [-p.xiii] juvenile books. The company targeted Harry Potter to children nine to eleven. What happened, of course, made publishing history, with Rowling’s work garnering millions of fans worldwide, both older and younger, including a substantial segment of teens. Later, two separate editions of Harry Potter were released, identical in text but with the cover artwork on one edition aimed at children and the other at adults.
Rowling’s young wizard also cast magic on the YA world, changing the way the industry viewed the genre. Harry Potter‘s $29.99 selling price reminded publishers that young people were not only willing to shell out big bucks to read but that they also had the means to do so. In 2006 in the United States alone, teens had $94.7 billion a year to spend, a figure that increases about $1 billion a year, according to Jupiter Research.” (pp.xii-xiii)

Ref: Regina Brooks (2009) Writing Great Books for Young Adults. Sourcebooks, Inc.: Naperville, Illinois

The two Coralines: different versions of childhood – Myers


Touching on a topic that rather interests me, Lindsay Myers considers the way that fear is addressed in Henry Selick’s stop-motion film Coraline (2009). She writes:

CoralineFears about the welfare and safety of children have long dominated adult conceptions of childhood. Binary oppositions between innocence and experience, autonomy and dependency lie at the heart of modern definitions of childhood and adulthood, and attempts to break free from these essentialist dichotomies have always been fraught with difficulty. The last fifty years have witnessed major advances in the recognition of children’s rights throughout the Western world, and it is now widely acknowledged that depriving the young of their civil liberties renders them more susceptible to violence, exploitation, and abuse. Adult fears for child safety and child risk have not, however, dissipated over the course of the last few decades but rather have mutated and developed in accordance with modern advances and scientific progress (Buckingham; Beck; Best; James and Prout; Jenkins; Palmer) and concerns about the perceived menace of pedophilia, child abuse, child pornography, and childhood criminality have led to a veritable escalation in moral panic and anxiety. Progressive policies to empower the young have almost always been accompanied by discourses of protectionism that seek to control and regulate children’s lives in the service of what is perceived to be their “best interests,” and for many the process of managing and limiting child risk has become a valuable commodity (Buckingham).
CoralineThe extent to which these two parallel trends (increased autonomy on the one hand and increased regulation on the other) have impacted upon cultural representations of childhood has yet to be fully exploredAnalysis of the modern “family film” can, however, afford particularly revealing insights into this process as it necessarily unites both adult and child audiences, mediating between adult perceptions of childhood and [-p.246] a child’s understanding of adults. In contrast to children’s literature, which is predominantly author-driven, the family film is entirely market-led, a phenomenon that makes it a far more transparent portrayer of the dominant social and cultural climate than is its literary counterpart.” (pp.245-246)

“What […] are we to make [-p.247] of Selick’s creation? Is A. O. Scott of the New York Times correct when he asserts that Selick, like Gaiman, is interested in childhood, “not as a condition of sentimentalized, passive innocence but rather as an active, seething state of receptivity in which consciousness itself is a site of wondrous, at times unbearable drama”?” (pp.246-247)

Coraline - the graphic novelHaving acknowledged Gaiman’s warm reception of the film adaptation, Myers’s own reading of the two versions leads her to write: “Close comparison of the film and the book reveals that while the film initially appears to convey the “feel” of the original, underneath it is a radically conservative appropriation of the original source. Far from challenging dominant stereotypes and conventions, as does Gaiman’s literary masterpiece, Selick’s Coraline presents a fundamentally unprogressive vision of childhood, trading off the novel’s underlying theme of child empowerment for adult fears about child welfare. It constructs the child not as an autonomous protagonist but as a passive cipher, and it plays more to adult anxieties about child abuse than it does to the genuine fears and concerns of the child.
Gaiman’s Coraline is, at its heart, “a spooky, cautionary tale that works by playing on very real childhood fears” (Coats 86). It is a profoundly moving account of how one girl faces up to her deepest fears and desires, and it is, as David Rudd has observed, “centrally concerned with how one negotiates ones place in the world” (160).” (p.247) [this notion of ‘very real’ childhood fears is an interesting one, BTW]

Coraline - illustrated by Chris RiddellBy creating a long-standing kidnapping framework in which to position Coraline’s abduction, Selick not only removes the focus from Coraline but he also effectively [-p.249] renders his heroine powerless, pitting her from the outset against a devious serial killer. His recasting of Gaiman’s novel as an abduction story essentially transforms the heroine’s journey of empowerment into a panic-ridden battle against the evil “out there,” playing far more strongly to contemporary adult fears about child safety and “stranger danger” than it does to the fears and desires of the young.” (pp.248-249)

It is not only the characters and the settings that have been altered significantly in the transposition from book to film. Gaiman’s Coraline and Selick’s Coraline are also on entirely different missions. Gaiman’s Coraline is searching for self-knowledge, self-control, and agency. At the beginning of her adventures she only knows what she is not (she is not Caroline) but by the end of the novel she has learned a great deal about herself and the world. She has faced her deepest fears and desires and she has learned that you shouldn’t always get everything you ever wanted, just like that, without it meaning anything. Selick’s Coraline, on the other hand, is not particularly interested in finding her identity. It is quite clear from the highly individual nature of her attire at the beginning of the film (blue hair, blue nails, and a funky yellow Macintosh) that she has already, at least to some degree, discovered her “alterity,” and that she has no qualms in expressing this alternative “self” publicly. All Selick’s Coraline wants to do is to get away from the predatory Other Mother, and the film is far more about depriving the Other Mother of her power than it is about empowering its young heroine.” (p.250)

CoralineGaiman’s Coraline develops her increased sense of awareness by employing a combination of strategies: reflecting on past experiences, assimilating and employing previously acquired knowledge, and articulating her feelings to others (namely to the cat). Each of these techniques is foregrounded by Gaiman in order to ensure that his reader is fully aware of the complex processes behind his heroine’s development. Coraline’s decision to go back to the alternate realm to rescue her parents is born not from a sense of duty or selfishness but from a memory that she has of when her father heroically saved her from a swarm of bees, her understanding of the nature of identity derives from her challenging conversations with the cat, and the clever trick that she uses to lure the Other Mother to the abandoned well is a reenactment of the strategy of “protective coloration” a form of camouflage employed by animals to ward off predators in the wild of which the young girl became aware while watching nature programs on television. Selick’s Coraline, by contrast, does not learn from her adventures. She has very little opportunity to reflect on the consequences of her actions, since nearly all of her most significant actions having been excised from the plot.” (p.250)

CoralineSelick’s film appears to suggest that childhood “innocence” and security can only be restored if the corrupt and fallen adult world is miraculously redeemed by the child (a trope that has recently become a common staple of many recent film adaptations of children’s classics). The figure of the child in this film comes to symbolize, as in so many nineteenth-century novels, both adult hope and adult guilt. Coraline’s task is not to find her place in the world but to save the adult world from inevitable degeneration, and it is her selfless generosity and goodness that are foregrounded rather than her self-reliance, agency, and autonomy (the qualities emphasized in the book).” (p.251)

“Although the book can be read either as an exciting adventure or as the story of a child in
trouble, the film undeniably prioritizes the latter. It does little to empower its child viewer, eliminating the child’s perspective almost entirely, perpetuating victim stereotypes and fetishizing childhood innocence.” (p.254)

“In contrast to Gaiman’s text, which teaches its heroine (and by extension its reader) that “perfect” parents are neither possible nor desirable, Selick’s film is highly critical of Coraline’s Real Parents. It goes so far as to suggest that Coraline’s vulnerability was the direct result [-p.255] of parental shortcomings, and it is especially critical of modern mothers who do not have time to tend to their children’s needs due to work commitments (Parsons, Sawers, and McInally).” (pp.254-255)

CoralineI found Myers’s analysis of the two Coralines interesting (and well-argued), but I do wonder at her definition of genres in this analysis, as in her definition of the family film in contrast with children’s literature (above, p.246), or when she writes:

“The reasons why Selick adapted Gaiman’s source text in such a radical manner surely lie in the very different cultural contexts in which the works [-p.252] are respectively positioned. Whereas Gaiman’s novel is a sophisticated literary work that consciously engages with a rich, textual heritage, Selick’s Coraline is a modern, audio-visual construct, a consumer-driven product whose success depends entirely upon its ability to tap into popular trends and desires.
coraline dollGaiman’s novel deploys, as many scholars have demonstrated, two main frames of reference—the literary fairy tale and the fantasy—both of which can be said to hold a particular affinity for the young. The split mother, the locked room, the deceptive lure, the magical talisman, and the fear of being eaten are all common fairy-tale tropes, while the eccentric cat and the magical wardrobe are indirect allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, two iconic children’s fantasies, which Gaiman, himself, has admitted exerted a considerable influence over him as a child (Austin). The main influence on Selick’s Coraline, however, is the Hollywood horror film, a genre, which until recently, was the exclusive domain of adults.” (pp.251-252)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Lindsay Myers (2012) Whose Fear Is It Anyway?: Moral Panics and “Stranger Danger” in Henry Selick’s Coraline. The Lion and the Unicorn 36, 245–257