Intertextuality and elitism in school stories – Julien on Darch


Heather Julien writes: “As Sheila Ray and others have observed, most girls’ school stories written in the first half of the twentieth century centered on representations of boarding schools—an environment that did not reflect the education experience of most readers and writers. A prime example of this bias toward representations of an atypically elite education experience might be Elinor Brent-Dyer’s sixty-two-book-strong Chalet School series, which ran from 1925 to 1970. The fantasy of class privilege that Brent-Dyer’s books arguably offer does not, of course, mean that other aspects of the novels lack political and social valence. …Not only Brent-Dyer’s books, of course, are set in elite institutional environments. The boarding school setting is so central to the entire genre that Beverly Lyon Clark’s book-length genre study systematically excludes any representations of day schoolsDarch’s books bucked this tendency and demonstrate that stories set in day schools can be more intensely concerned with school life than boarding school stories, which commonly incorporate extra-generic elements of mystery, fantasy, and family stories (the three chief “intergenres” with the school story).” (pp.2-3)

“The intertextuality of Darch’s novels’ per se is not what distinguishes them. As is characteristic of much children’s literature, most school stories are intertextual and might be said to engage in what have been called “reading games” with their readers. In countless school stories—for adults as well as for children—the characters read, think about, quote, and refer ironically to school stories. Joanna Lloyd’s Audrey—A New Girl even contains a disclaimer: “The names of any girls’ school stories mentioned in this book are not, to the best of the author’s belief, those of existing books.” What distinguishes Darch’s novels is the degree to which they make sense of their own and their peers’ roles and identities in school via fictional representations. In her essay on intertextuality in children’s literature, Claudia Nelson examines texts that “use devices that may seem considerably more elaborate than the more usual practice of employing a protagonist who is said to enjoy the consumption or creation of literature but showing this enjoyment from the outside”. From this vantage point, Darch’s use of intertextuality—characters read and talk about books and magazines—is quite common.
However, while they most definitely do not fit any postmodern criteria for metatextuality, her evocations of girls reading contain more significance than simply the promotion of literacy, the provision of a bookworm heroine, the salute to fellow practitioners of the genre, or the pleasures of readerly recognition. They testify to and participate in an economy of self- and institution-building in which school narratives were the local currency. Newcomers to school are especially prone to rely on fiction as a sort of conduct book and key to mythologies.” (pp.10-11)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Julien, Heather. Learning to Be Modern Girls: Winifred Darch’s School Stories The Lion and the Unicorn 32,1 january (2008) 1–21  2008

Overworked teachers in W Darch’s school stories


“[Winifred Darch’s] novels confront the myth of the underworked, overpaid woman teacher head-on especially with her description and narration of the embodied work of teachers.” (p.13)

“As is common in some adult school fiction, some of the most viscerally represented scenes of overwork involve grading homework and exams”  (p.13)

Ref: Julien, Heather. Learning to Be Modern Girls: Winifred Darch’s School Stories The Lion and the Unicorn 32,1 january (2008) 1–21  2008

Winifred Darch’s school stories and the democratic possibilities of schooling for girls


I’ve been reading Heather Julien’s study of Winifred Darch’s school stories. According to her: “Of all of the twentieth-century school story authors, Winifred Darch is perhaps the one most concerned with the democratic possibilities of schooling for girls. More than many writers in the genre, she wrote about state-funded schools and their role in the continuing democratization of social institutions. She was also interested in school as a workplace for women. Darch’s books connect conversations about teachers and education policy with representations of schoolgirls. As a career teacher herself, she was aware that professional “educationists”—librarians and theorists as well as school administrators and teachers—played a role (or at least attempted to) in the success or failure of school story writers.
As with other examples of the genre, her books—published by Oxford University Press’s juvenile division—targeted girl readers. Some books seem to be pitched to a young teenage or preteen audience. However, equally important is the possibility of an actual readership that included adults. …Consideration of Darch’s prolific output in the context of a crossover readership illustrates her complex negotiation of the politics of professionalism, workplace justice, institutional authority, and the training of “modern girls.”” (p.1)

Darch stands in a place of distinction among the most well-known, and many other school story authors for two reasons. First, she wrote about the new girls’ high schools that were created after the 1902 Education Act and that expanded in the first third of the twentieth century (Summerfield, Mitchell). Second, she wrote several main characters who were scholarship recipients. Typically, needy students appeared as minor characters in fiction by other school story authors. Darch’s more democratic subjects and settings distinguish her from many of the leading figures in the genre.” (p.2)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Julien, Heather. Learning to Be Modern Girls: Winifred Darch’s School Stories The Lion and the Unicorn 32,1 january (2008) 1–21  2008

The homelike-ness of schools in pop-Gothic texts (and canny vs. uncanny) – Jackson


In her study of The Time of the Ghost (Diana Wynne Jones, 1981), Charlotte Sometimes (Penelope Farmer, 1967) and The Haunting (Margaret Mahy, 1982), Anna Jackson addresses the question of heimlich vs. unheimlich and canny vs. uncanny (drawing on these differences for her theoretical premise). She begins:

“The first harry Potter film ends, as a proper school story should, with everyone on the platform, bags packed, saying their farewells, ready to go home; except that, as Harry says, “I’m not going home. Not really.” For Harry, the boarding school of Hogwarts, despite being haunted not only by the mostly benign school ghosts but also by Voldemort, the embodiment of evil, is home in a way that suburban life for him can never be home. / For most of the last century, the uncanny has been understood in terms of Freud’s definition of unheimlich as not quite the opposite of heimlich, and so perhaps it might not seem surprising that the Harry Potter books, the twentieth century’s most successful Gothic publishing phenomenon, should be set in a school, that home-away-from-home. Nor perhaps is it surprising that Buffy should slay her vampires on the grounds, or just a little out of bounds, of Sunnydale High. Much has been made not only of the homelike qualities of the fictional schools of pop-Gothic texts like these, but of the familiarity, the homelike-ness, of the school genre itself.” (p.157)

In this essay, Jackson “discuss[es] three children’s novels that are all about hauntings, that all draw on Gothic conventions to evoke a real sense of the uncanny.” (p.157) Having alluded briefly to the interplay between heimlich and unheimlich in The Haunting, Jackson explains:

“However, the school setting can also be understood in relation to the English word “uncanny.” Just as the German word unheimlich seemed to have little to do with the word heimlich until Freud teased out the significance of the etymological link, “uncanny” doesn’t usually operate as the opposite of the word “canny.” Like the German unheimlich, the English uncanny means both unusual and unnatural – spooky, eerie, unsettling. Canny as a recently republished children’s book Cannily Cannily (French 1981) helpfully informs the reader on its back cover, means “knowing, sagacious, shrewd, astute; skilled or expert, frugal or thrifty.” The words are not quite opposites, since the quality of uncanniness seems to belong to a situation or event, as an effect the situation or event produces, whereas canniness is a quality that properly belongs to a person. It might make sense, however, to understand the uncanny as that which cannot be understood cannily; as those events, situations or phenomena that do not allow for a knowing, sagacious, shrewd, and astute reading of them.” (p.158)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Anna Jackson (c2008) Uncanny Hauntings, Canny Children pp.157-176 in Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York and London

Perceiving other cultures through language: Gillian Lathey


In 2001, Gillian Lathey wrote an article that considers the way in which other European peoples have been (and continue to be?) represented in British children’s fiction.

Lathey argued that “Language continues to be a major sticking-point in the United Kingdom’s halting progress toward Europeanism, just as a lack of motivation to learn languages remains a fault-line running through the British school curriculum.” (I’d say we continue to have that problem in New Zealand, too!)

Her explanation is simple and sensible: “Since children’s perceptions of other cultures are formed—at least in part—by the books they read, children’s literature is a potential site [-p.296] for linguistic and cultural exchange. British children’s literature is limited in this respect by the lack of translations for young readers currently available and by the attitudes to other European languages portrayed in children’s texts. The language that a ‘foreign’ fictional character speaks in passages of dialogue often consists of a heavily accented English or catchphrases well known to an English-speaking audience, and acts as a stereotyping shorthand.

What, then, are the messages about the languages of Europe that child readers have absorbed from reading British children’s fiction of the twentieth century?” (pp.295-296)

Lathey looks at the tone of British Imperialism in Enid Blyton’s work and Elinor Brent-Dyer’s earlier Chalet School stories (which seem to confirm for British readers that “language learning is tedious and fluency quite simply unattainable” (p.297)). She draws our attention to the way in which foreignness is inscribed on the characters of Britain’s school story tradition (I particularly like her brief discussion of the way in which foreign-language teachers were represented… characterised by the boredom of verb conjugations!)…

“Writers who introduced pupils from other countries into that microcosm of British middle-class values, the boarding school, encoded their difference from British pupils in language as well as in appearance and behaviour.” (p.296)

“In such a context, staff from overseas employed to teach European languages, usually French, are often peripheral figures whose function is not valued by the pupils and whose pedagogical practices—the conjugation of verbs features prominently—are uninspiring.” (p.296)

Lathey’s discussion of Robert Westall‘s attempt at addressing wartime stereotypes in (Carnegie Medal winning) The Machine-Gunners is interesting. She explains: “Westall attempted to counteract the negative image of Germans in British children’s fiction about the World War II. Conscious of the wartime anti-German sentiment still prevalent in the comics and stories read particularly by boys in the 1970s, Westall created the character of Rudi, a German pilot hidden from the [-p.298] authorities by a gang of Tyneside children. Rudi is a sympathetic German who confounds the children’s expectations of a ‘Nazi,’ but it is in the representation of the German language that this figure begins to falter.” (pp.297-298) …

“Rudi’s inaccurate comic-strip German derives from a tradition of the misrepresentation of the language in British children’s fiction identified by O’Sullivan (1990).” (p.298) … “O’Sullivan traces the insidious negativity attached to the German language above all others in the British mind. She analyses, for example, the connotations of the adjective ‘guttural,’ a cypher for the alien in language generally, and in particular for a kind of linguistic brutality attributed to German. It is this legacy, and that of wartime propaganda, with which Westall perhaps attempts to seduce his readers; Rudi’s language matches their preconceptions, but his sentiments do not. In this instance language is a strategy in the deconstruction of a stereotype rather than the foundation of a realistic portrait….” (p.298)

“Westall’s intention is […] compromised by nostalgia for a wartime childhood where life was filled with excitement and danger, and the [-p.299] enemy was a clearly defined target marked by verbal and visual language (swastikas, Nazi uniforms).” (pp.298-299)

Quite rightly, Lathey points out that “language continues to be a ready source of humour and slapstick in recent publications. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000),J.K. Rowling’s Madame Maxime arrives at Hogwarts with a party of ‘foreign students’ speaking a music-hall Franglais and accented English reminiscent of the Mademoiselle figure in school stories.” (p.299) Lathey goes on to ask, however, (and this had me thinking) “whether such distorted and one-dimensional images of language and nationality (particularly in relation to Germany [which largely fuels this essay]) can yet be appreciated as wry glances at past antagonism, or whether they continue to fuel lingering prejudice.” (p.299)

“…there is naturally a more searching and diverse approach to language in the work of writers who have crossed cultural and linguistic boundaries in their own lives.” (p.299)

Ref: Gillian Lathey (2001) Where Britain Meets ‘the Continent’: Language and Cultural Exchange in Children’s Fiction Children’s Literature in Education 32(4)Dec: pp.295-303

NOTE reference is made to: O’Sullivan, Emer, Friend and Foe: The image of Germany and the Germans in British Children’s Fiction from 1870 to the Present. T¨ubingen: Gunter Narr, 1990.

Teachers in children’s story books: narrative texts serve as ‘mirrors and windows’


The public text of ‘teacher’

I just enjoyed a study of the representation of teachers in picture story books aimed at children about to start school. There are several aspects to it that could be extended to a study of adolescent fiction (in particular, the framework they borrow from Triplett and Ash around teachers’ relationships with children, and the way in which they consider the monocultural presentation of education in these books).

The authors explain: “It has been argued that narrative texts serve as ‘mirrors and windows’ (Cullinan & Galda, 1998) and that ‘children’s perceptions of the teaching profession are subtly shaped’ by what they encounter in books about school (Trousdale, 1994, p. 213). Several studies have investigated the representation of teachers and schools in children’s literature. Notable among these are Greenway’s (1993) focus on negative images of school; Barone, Meyerson and Mallette’s (1995) identification of positive and negative images of teachers; Radencich and Harrison’s (1997) images of principals; and Trousdale’s (1994) analysis of teachers in picture books.” (p.34)

“One of the few teachers who asked a lot of questions….” (p.39 Dockett et al.)

Concluding their study, the authors write that: “the overall image of teachers from the current study was of a relatively bland, caring person, who made sure that the environment was set up and ready for children, greeted children and parents, provided directions, encouraged children to play without necessarily engaging in play themselves, and who generally ensured that children were happy and comfortable. In short, many teachers seemed to be ‘nice ladies who loved children’ (Stonehouse, 1994).” (p.39)

“One of the sources of children’s knowledge about school is popular culture, which can provide a resource for children to learn about specific communities (such as school) and their roles and relationships within these communities (Haas Dyson, 1997). Weber and Mitchell (1995, p. 2) note the pervasiveness of popular culture images of school: ‘Even before children begin school, they have already been exposed to a myriad of images of teachers, classrooms and schools which have made strong and lasting impressions on them’. Once they start school, children’s own experiences of education, along with those encountered through popular culture (Hickey & Austin, 2006) contribute to the public text of ‘teacher’ (Mockler, 2004).” (p.33) [I like this phrase – the public text of teacher!]

“When children are engaged in multiple readings and ongoing conversations with others about schools and teachers, they are likely to build up specific expectations that incorporate some of these readings and conversations. Weber and Mitchell (1995; 1999) refer to this as a process of constructing cumulative cultural texts, where images from the past (such as those of parents, siblings, friends) are combined with those of the present (including those in popular culture) to ‘give members of a society a common frame of reference and a shared pool of expressive images to [-p.34] use’ that ‘blend seamlessly and often undetected into our familiar, unquestioned everyday knowledge’ (Weber & Mitchell, 1999, p. 168). Children starting school encounter and engage with a variety of popular culture images of teachers. These images can help shape how children think about teachers at school and their own identity as school students, influencing ‘relations and representations of self with and within the wider community’ (Beavis, 2000, p. 1).” (pp.33-34)


There were two really interesting points made by the authors of this study. Their interest in diversity as it is represented (and might impact on young readers) and their interest in the fact that fictional teachers generally did not change or learn suggests potential for further study. On the topic of diversity, they write: “As in other analyses of children’s books, there is a general lack of cultural and linguistic diversity represented across these teachers (Gemma, 2001; Smith-D’Arezzo, 2003). Seventy-five per cent (n = 140) of teachers reflected a white, Anglo-Celtic background. The names attributed to teachers confirm this predominance. Of major concern here is the representation of teachers as largely monocultural, where mainstream culture prevails and tensions do not arise. Gemma (2001) reports a similar finding in her analysis of North American books, noting that few ‘address many important linguistic, religious, and cultural issues and questions faced by children and teachers’ (p. 75). The omission of specific groups of people from picture storybooks, particularly in the powerful role of teacher, generates messages about who belongs at school and who is likely to succeed at school (Mendoza & Reese, 2002). One of the books that reflects and celebrates diversity among both teachers and children is Cleversticks (Ashley, 1992).” (p.38)

In their conclusion, Dockett, Perry and Whitton add: “given that many of these books about starting school are featured in transition programs and used with the purpose of familiarising children with school, it is important to consider the nature of the images and the interactions that occur around these. Sandefur and Moore (2004, p. 42) note that these books have ‘power not just in teaching children and their parents about the culture of schooling, but in shaping it as well’. For many children, the monocultural characters in books and the stereotypical representation of teachers and teachers’ work may make identification with either characters or place problematic.” (p.39)

Teachers as learners

Dockett, Perry and Whitton pose a number of questions, but two I particularly like are:

– “Is there evidence of change in the teacher within the book?” (p.35)

– and “Are teachers presented as learners?” (p.35)

In the majority of books, teachers were represented as the keepers of knowledge. This was conveyed through images of teachers leading reading activities, providing [-p.39] directions and assisting children as they undertake tasks. Only on rare occasions was the teacher represented as a learner.” (pp.38-39) Similarly, the authors found that the teachers were not often engaging children in critical thinking, though they suggested that this could be because so many of these books were set on the first day of school when “the sense of comforting and reassuring new children predominates.” (p.39)


Children learn a great deal about school, what happens at school, and the people they will meet at school as they engage with popular culture, such as television, games and books. One of the issues raised by many children as they contemplate starting school concerns what their teacher will be like. Children’s expectations about teachers are important contributors to the relationships that develop between teachers and children. Such relationships are themselves a critical factor in children’s school engagement. Examining some of the information that contributes to children’s expectations about teachers supports a focus on children’s experiences as they start school.

This article reports a study of the images of teachers within children’s picture storybooks—an accessible form of popular culture about school. A collection of 164 English language picture storybooks spanning 1967–2007 was analysed to explore the representations of teachers in schools. Three areas of analysis were undertaken: how teachers are represented; the dominant images of teachers; and the images that are omitted. The analysis demonstrates the generally benign images of teachers and questions the understandings the books promote about teachers and the roles of teachers in schools.” (p.33) …I do like the methodology of this paper – and the questions they looked at…

I disagree, though, with their apparent disapproval of teachers in books not ‘resolving conflicts’. Such an approach presumes children to be incapable of solving their own conflicts – which I see them to be. Of course, I suspect the fictional teachers looked at in this study are equally not supporting children to resolve conflicts by themselves either…

Ref: Sue Dockett, Bob Perry, and Diana Whitton (2010) What will my teacher be like? Picture storybooks about starting school Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 35(3)September: pp.33-41

Reference is made to:

Cullinan, B. E., & Galda, L. (1998). Literature and the child (Fourth edn). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
Greenway, B. (1993). ‘Creeping like a snail unwillingly to school’: Negative images of school in children’s literature. The New Advocate, 6(2), 105–114.
Haas Dyson, A. (1997). Writing superheroes: Contemporarychildhood, popular culture and classroom literacy. Columbia, NY: Teachers College Press.
Radencich, M. C., & Harrison, M. (1997). Images of principals in children’s and young adult literature. The New Advocate, 10(4), 335–348.
Triplett, C. F., & Ash, G. E. (2000). Reflecting on the portrayal of teacher–student relationships in children’s literature. The New Advocate, 13(3), 241–257.
Trousdale, A. M. (1994). Teacher as gatekeeper. In P. B. Joseph & G. E. Burnaford (Eds), Images of schoolteachers in twentieth century America (pp. 195–214). New York: St Martins Press.
Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1995). ‘That’s funny, you don’t look like a teacher’. Interrogating images and identity in popular culture. London: Falmer Press.
Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1999). Reinventing ourselves as teachers: Beyond nostalgia. London: Falmer Press.