Posts about Children's literature
TW: descriptions of fictional child abuse
As a 10 year old fundie girl, I was given the wildly popular "Elsie Dinsmore: A Life of Faith" series. Here is a summary of some of the themes and content included in the series. The text below is an abridged version of the article found here, with additional information from the Wikipedia page and a few notes in brackets for context.
Elsie Dinsmore is the protagonist of Martha Finley’s children’s book series, originally published between 1867 and 1905. Finley wrote the Elsie books as a guide for girls on how to be the ideal Christian daughter. In 1999, Elsie became hugely popular within Evangelical and Fundamental Christian circles, prompting a doll line, activity books, and Bible study curriculums.
When Elsie is first introduced as a 7-year-old, she lives with her grandparents on a plantation [with 200-300 slaves] in the Antebellum South. Elsie is a spoiled little rich girl, presented as the pinnacle of piety, with a faultless moral compass. Elsie’s religious obsession is worrisome for someone so young. She is terrified of making mistakes, of upsetting anyone, and is frequently harshly over-punished. Elsie is constantly anxious about doing what her family wants and what she’s supposed to do.
Elsie’s two main personality traits are "perfect" and "weeping". When she isn’t being perfect to the point of being robotic, she is crying. Crying, crying, crying, about feeling guilty, or because someone else wasn’t as perfect as she is. Elsie is quick to obey authority figures, which isn’t necessarily a negative , but she does so without any defiance or personality. For those who grew up in the Evangelical church, you may remember the adage of having “immediate and cheerful” obedience. That’s Elsie, because even walking too slow while doing as you’re told is sinful. Even as Elsie grows up in the series, marries, and raises her own children, she still remains a meek, childlike character with no desire for responsibility.
At the hands of her step-grandmother, Elsie is abused emotionally and physically. When Elsie’s [non-christian] father Horace returns from his travels, he takes Elsie home with him. Elsie worships him, despite Horace’s strict disciplinary style. Horace puts the little girl on a diet of bread and water, as punishment [for refusing to "sin" by listening to music on Sundays or reading fiction]. At one point, jealous Horace forbids Elsie from speaking with anyone, including writing and receiving letters [for 6+ months]. Elsie is so distraught that she has a nervous breakdown. In a famous scene that was later removed, Horace drags Elsie and beats her with a whip as punishment.
[From Wikipedia] "Their "war of wills" culminates in Elsie coming very near to death, to the point that they shave her head hoping to abate her "brain fever". When Horace thinks that she has died, he finds her Bible, comes to a knowledge of Jesus, and converts to Christianity. Elsie comes back from the brink of death, but her recovery is slow, and due to this her father is very protective of her."
There is another factor to Elsie and Horace’s relationship. They embrace, cuddle, and kiss full on the mouth like a romantic couple. Elsie is described with sensual language, even from a young age. Horace’s friend Edward is blatantly in love with the 8-year-old Elsie. He voices that he wishes she were ten years older. Edward eventually marries adult Elsie [and they have 8 children together].
I'm considerably older than my sister, so I could and should be spending more quality time with her building a bond between the two of us. And I seem blessed by the age difference in terms of reading with her.
So I'm wondering if there's any kind of consensus here about what might be the best classic book to read with my sister. She's quick as a whip, very witty, and speaks and reads with a fluency far beyond her years, so I think there is a broader age range in terms of what she can read but of course I wouldn't want to be reading anything risqué like they have in teenage fiction. Perhaps something from the 19th or 20th century would be up her street. I would also like to get her a decent edition, bound well for example, that I could present to her almost as a keepsake before we go on to read together, something to remember I guess.
She doesn't have a lot of hobbies, beyond dancing, watching YouTube videos, and playing Roblox, so I think basically anything you could suggest would be a big change.
Thanks in advance!
I seem to remember that Tolkien wrote (maybe in one of his letters) that adults do a disservice to children by sheltering them too much from scary things and danger. Did Tolkien write something like this somewhere and if so where? Or am I just remembering one of his theses from his Fairy Stories lecture?
Political Allegory in Children's Literature: a Review of The Ogress and The Orphans by Kelly Barnhill
Kelly Barnhill has a trademark style in her middle grade works. They read like fairy tales, have a strong good/evil viewpoint, are relentlessly optimistic, meander through viewpoint characters more than most middle grade works do, and has a voice that screams 'bedtime story read aloud'.
The Ogress and the Orphans has those qualities in spades, and will be quite familiar to fans of Barnhill's incredible Girl Who Drank the Moon. The story follows the town of Stone in Glen, once lovely, but no longer. It follows the kind Ogress who tries to help the community. It follows a house of orphans struggling to get by in such a pessimistic place. It follows a murder of crows, a dragon in the skin of a human, and a stone, among others. As life goes on in the dreary town, the orphans begin to uncover some of the mysteries of the sad nature of the town (and its bright spots), and the Ogress does her best to try and help the town heal, even though the townsfolk wish she weren't there at all.
Things come to a head when ... well, let's just say they come to a head.
Yuta Onoda continues to be one of my favorite cover artists!
On Prose, Pacing, and Characterization
Barnhill's storybook style is out in full force. The lines really make you want to read the book out loud, and is conversational in a way that many books shy away from. This is not unusual for Barnhill, and is a growing trend in middle grade work (Lalani and the Distant Sea and Starry River Meets the Sky are two great examples of a similar approach). It reads smoothly and clearly, with only a few stray moments that stick out like a sore thumb for the awkward phrasing. If you enjoy a childhood story, then the prose will resonate with you, but, as with most middle grade writing, it lacks the density that some adults desire from a book.
The Ogress and The Orphans reads, in some ways, like an unfailingly positive mirror of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett. The adults are largely useless (and don't listen to reason) and there are moments that feel just slightly absurd without venturing fully off the rails. I think Barnhill rather overdid her work here though, as the pacing slowed down in the middle of the story dwelling on the incompetence of adults. She repeated the motif just often enough that moved from mood building to tiresome at times. I think the book could haven been slimmed by 30-40 pages (out of 400) without losing much of significance.
However, one area the book shone in was characterization. For such a wide cast of characters (probably around 13 of major significance), most of whom get a point of view at some point, a lack of depth and complexity is understandable. However, for all their shallowness, Barnhill does a wonderful job of realizing them fully. Again, her storybook prose does justice here. The crows and dragon were particularly well done, but I truly found the characters in the book lovely. Yes they were cardboard cutouts of character traits. I didn't mind it though, because she told the story so wonderfully with them, and each felt so honestly different from each other.
On Political Allegory and Theme
Because not a massive amount of plot actually happens in The Ogress and The Orphans, Barnhill had plenty of time to play around with thematic ideas. Kindness, judgement, greed, generosity, hope, and neighborliness were all prevalent in the book, as was the general vibe of 'we all do better when we all do better'. Storytelling was a common motif, as is common in her earlier books. As before, I think things were perhaps pushed a little too much in this area. A stronger editing eye would have improved pacing without losing thematic umph. That said, fairy tales are meant to be didactic, so I minded it less than I would in other comparable middle grade works that focus more on plot and action.
It is however, a wonderful example of allegory in a children's book. In some ways, it actually reminds me a fair bit of Animal Farm. It reads wonderfully as a standalone book, but there's a ton of political subtext going on that add depth to the story. The focus on greed and wealth (and its lack of fair distribution) and on social safety nets echo a fair bit of modern political discourse. However, it more specifically focuses specifically on Trump Era politics and communities.
To sum things up: an immigrant who looks different from the rest of town engages in farming and ranching to provide food for a community that largely doesn't remember who the heck she is until the rich politician who hoards wealth needs a scapegoat to keep people from turning on him and sets the angry mob on her. The town blames the Ogress for everything wrong with the town, no matter how little sense it makes. It screams itself to be a representation of Trump's focus on migrant workers and undocumented immigrants as a wedge issue in American politics.
However, it gets even more clear than the simple premise of the story, as Barnhill litters the story with other clues. The mayor engages in fake news/propaganda (he loves making signs) is extremely charismatic to the point that people listen to him even when what he says makes no literal sense, and is rich beyond measure. Other details, like the Mayor saying all the things the townspoeple shouldn't do to lay out what he wants while avoiding responsibility for the consequences really solidify the mayor as a stand in for trump, as does the constant references to his blond hair. I case it wasn't obvious yet, he even makes a sign that says 'maybe we should build a wall to keep her out'.
Personally, I love allegory in writing. One of the things I adore about fantasy is how it can distill real issues into their roots to show the truth of something. To be fair, I happen to agree with much of what Barnhill's assertions are in this allegory, so I'll fully own that I'm biased on this. I haven't had any students read this book yet (I teach middle school English), and I'm curious if it's as obvious to them as it was to me. Doubtless some will find this in bad taste, which is totally ok, but I'm all for the political work that Barnhill put into this book.
The Girl who Drank the Moon was a masterpiece, and one I'll likely never forget. Barnhill's next major work, The Ogress and The Orphans, doesn't quite reach that level of brilliance. It struggles with some pacing issues and repetitive theme work beyond what was necessary. However, it remained a joy to read, and it's a story I hope to read aloud to my children in the future. She's done a great job of weaving Trumpian political allegory into a modern fairy tale, and I think they blend wonderfully. I heartily enjoyed my time with this book.
Bingo Squares: Standalone (HM), Revolutions and Rebellions, Name in the Title, Published in 2022, Non Human Protagonist, Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey (HM, very slight, but its there)