The changing aesthetics of character in children's fiction.
In his treatment of literature as the displacement of myth, Northrop Frye discerns five consecutive stages: myth, which presents characters as gods, superior to both humans and the laws of nature; romance which presents characters as idealized humans who are superior to other humans, but inferior to gods; high mimetic narrative, which presents humans who are superior to other humans, but not the laws of nature; low mimetic narrative, which presents humans who are neither superior nor inferior to other humans; and, finally, ironic narrative, which presents characters who are inferior to other characters, such as children, the mentally handicapped, animals, and so on (Frye 33-34). By this definition, all characters in children's fiction would appear at the ironic stage, since they naturally lack experience and knowledge and are therefore inferior to adults. But even a brief glance at a number of classical and contemporary children's novels demonstrates that this is not the case. Characters in children's novels are empowered in a variety of ways and operate on all the displacement levels.
According to Frye, contemporary Western literature has reached the ironic stage, at which most of the characters we meet in novels are weak, disillusioned men and women. But this is true only of quality literature, since formulaic fiction operates within the romantic mode (romance, adventure, fantasy). Further, at least some contemporary adult fiction still uses mimetic modes. Children's literature is historically a recent form of fiction. Its emergence coincides with the establishment of realism (mimetic modes) in the mainstream; therefore, Frye's five stages seem to coexist more frequently in children's literature than in the mainstream of any given period. In contemporary Western children's fiction, we meet characters from all Frye's modes.
The mythic hero is, however, not a common figure in children's fiction, for myth as such is absent in the history of Western children's literature. Since children's literature emerged long after Western civilization had lost its traditional mythical belief, this stage is not represented in children's fiction. The most important mythic figure is the cultural hero, whose story teaches his people to use fire, to hunt, and to cultivate land. Such stories were not relevant--as living narratives, essential for survival--for young readers at the time children's literature became a separate artistic form. Of course, if we treat Judeo-Christian belief as myth, we can naturally say that Bible stories retold for children are mythical children's narratives. This view would have them correspond to the mythical stories of archaic people, told indiscriminately to children and adults alike. In certain cultures, mythical stories are still prominent as instructional narratives for young people. Classic myths, such as the Gree k, Celtic, native American, or African, however, are in the Western world retold for children who have no direct belief in them--myth has been displaced and instead functions as romance.
In his study The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell presents an analysis of the monomyth, the universal mythical pattern we find in the vast majority of narratives. The movement of the monomyth, separation, initiation, and return (Campbell 30), corresponds exactly to the "basic plot" of children's fiction, identified as home, away, and homecoming (see, e.g., Nodelman). The hero in Campbell's model is a young person going through a rite of passage. In this respect, the pattern of all children's literature is similar to the monomyth, and all characters in children's fiction are a further development of the mythic hero. Like the mythic hero, the child character must depart from the ordinary situation in order for there to be a plot. In children's novels, popular devices for achieving physical dislocation are sending characters away either simply for summer vacations (Five Children and It, by Edith Nesbit), or else because of illness in the family (Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce) or some dang er (air raids in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis). The characters then receive a message about their special task and acquire help that, depending on the genre, is either natural or supernatural. At the next step, in a plot element present in all forms of narratives, the character must cross a threshold. In fantasy novels, the threshold is tangible, as the character is transported into a different world. Rarely, if ever, does children's fiction present the painful and sometimes rather graphic dismembering or annihilation of the mythical hero this threshold crossing sometimes involves. Rather, in children's fiction this element is either omitted or transferred to a secondary character, presumably to spare young readers the horrors of empathic identification with the hero's suffering.
The mythical hero is subjected to a series of trials, as is the character of children's fiction. The trials and tasks are more tangible in romantic modes (fantasy, adventure). In mimetic modes, they assume symbolic forms, for instance the quest for identity. One might argue that the central episode of Campbell's schema--the hero's meeting the Goddess--is not present in children's fiction, mainly since the purpose of such an encounter is marriage, involving initiation into sexuality. But the original myth is displaced in fiction, and in children's fiction, censorial filters may be imposed. Many child characters do indeed meet either a friend or an opponent of the opposite sex who initiates a turning point in the protagonist's life (Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson). Campbell mentions the figure of the goddess-temptress, an evil figure seducing the hero; we encounter this figure for instance as the Snow Queen in Andersen's fairy tale or the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardro be. According to Campbell, the Goddess in myth represents the hero's mother, and by marrying--mastering, conquering--her, the hero replaces his father in the universal hierarchy. While such an interpretation may seem repulsive in connection with children's fiction, the transformation of the pattern can be traced in many novels. The next stage in Campbell's schema, atonement with the father, is also frequently found in children's novels (Jess's reconciliation with his father in Bridge to Terabithia). The hero's triumph is almost indispensable, as is the following reward. Further, like the mythical hero and unlike most characters of adult fiction, the child character returns to the point of departure, sometimes through flight and rescue, crossing the return threshold to ordinary life. There is a promise of further adventure: that is, as long as children remain children, they can cross the boundaries between the ordinary and the magical world (Wendy in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan can go to the Neverland until she g rows up; Lucy in the Narnia Chronicles can return to Narnia until she becomes too old for it). This very brief comparison between Campbell's description of myth and some basic patterns of children's fiction demonstrates that although myth as such may not be part of children's fiction, the mythical hero is a major source of inspiration for children's writers (see Stephens and McCallum).
The romantic hero, superior to ordinary human beings, is one of the most common character types in children's fiction. We encounter it primarily in fairy tales and fantasy, where the child is empowered by being able to travel through space and time, by possessing magical objects, or by being assisted by magical helpers. In fairy tales retold for children, characters are usually empowered in a way that makes them superior to other human beings. They are endowed with magical agents enabling them to be transported in space, or to metamorphose into animals or other, presumably better, human beings (Cinderella's transformation from ashes to diamonds). Fairy-tale heroes, however, normally have helpers possessing stronger powers than themselves, without whom they would be unable to achieve their goals. If fairy-tale protagonists are demi-gods, their helpers are gods. Ultimately, this difference reflects the power relationship between children and adults in society.
With few exceptions, fairy tales have always been regarded as suitable for children, apparently because fairy-tale protagonists, like children, grow from being the underdog to being strong and independent. Another essential trait of fairy-tale heroes is their lack of complexity, a feature considered appropriate for young readers from a didactic viewpoint. Fairy-tale heroes know no nuances: they are one hundred percent heroic, they never doubt, fear, or despair. In fact, they are seldom individualized. If described at all, they possess a standard set of traits: brave, clever, kind, or beautiful. The exact content of these traits may change with time and culture; the behavior of fairy-tale tricksters, involving cheating, stealing, and killing, would be considered highly immoral in contemporary Western societies. Nevertheless, the fairy-tale hero or heroine, the oppressed youngest brother or sister, empowered by magical means, is decidedly the origin of contemporary character of children's novels, not only in f antasy stories, but everyday stories as well.
The romantic hero of children's fiction has, like the fairy-tale hero, a standard set of traits, such as strength, courage, loyalty, and devotion. Although the origin of this type is unmistakably the classic epic hero, the premise for the romantic child hero is the idealization of childhood begun during the Romantic era. It is based on the belief in the child as innocent and therefore capable of conquering evil. Although this ideal child is now being interrogated by some critics (see essays in McGavran), it affects the ways in which child heroes are still constructed in certain text types, especially formulaic fiction.
I have already shown how mythic patterns are displaced on the romantic level. The most important difference, that allows reiteration, is the return to the initial order, the disempowerment of the hero, and the reestablishment of adult authority. That the mythic hero kills his father and usurps his place would be highly improper in a children's book. From magical journeys to alternative worlds or histories, the child hero is brought back to the ordinary, sometimes being explicitly stripped of the attributes of previous power (most tangibly seen in the transformation of the Kings and Queens of Narnia back to children at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The magical object is irretrievably lost or loses its magical power (The Story of the Amulet, by Edith Nesbit), the magical helper is removed (Mary Poppins, by Pamela Travers), and the character once again stands alone without assistance, no longer a hero. Thus in many children's fantasy novels, the characters become displaced yet further away f rom myth, onto low mimetic and ironic levels. This displacement would appear not to be the case in high fantasy, such as Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, that at first glance follow meticulously Campbell's myth model. At the end of the five-novel cycle, however, Taran is left without magical assistance as all magic forces leave Prydain and thus suddenly transform it from a mythic realm into ordinary Britain.
Even though contemporary authors may lean heavily on myth, they will inevitably deconstruct it in some way (see Hourihan). Only in formulaic fiction can purely romantic characters still exist today. Interestingly enough, while the romantic hero has been a prominent source of influence for children's fiction, the romantic heroine, the object of the hero's desires (see Rabine), is a conspicuously absent figure. Presumably the nature of relationships between hero and heroine in a romance is irrelevant for the young characters of children's fiction. While some children's novels certainly depict romantic friendships, portraying characters such as Becky Thatcher in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, there is no correspondence in children's literature to the great romantic heroines of the mainstream.
High mimetic characters are humans superior to other humans, for instance, in terms of bravery, wisdom, or patriotism. High mimetic narratives for children emerged almost simultaneously with the early retold fairy tales. Two types are hagiographies (lives of saints) and plutarches (lives of important historical and political figures). Being superior to other humans, including the reader, high mimetic characters are supposed to serve as models not only for the other character in the story, but for the readers as well. In children's fiction, such characters are used for didactic purposes.
One of the possible modes for employing high mimetic characters is allegory. Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan, has been widely utilized as children's reading. Very few contemporary children's novels are intentionally written as allegories, and allegorical characters seem to belong in the past (there are exceptions, such as Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust, by Eve Bunting). Since allegory is by definition a didactic literary form, contemporary children's authors, who tend to avoid didacticism, seldom choose purely allegorical characters for their work. Further, it is likely that most young readers will ignore the potential allegorical interpretations of some children's novels, such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, unless these are brought to their attention. Partly such an attitude depends on the fact that contemporary readers in general are not trained in allegorical reading.
In the vast majority of pre-twentieth-century children's literature, child characters are used as models for young readers. They are virtuous beyond measure, good and kind, pious, obedient and humble. In many cases, as we read these texts today, the characters seem either ridiculous or hopelessly sentimental (for instance in Jessica's First Prayer, by Hesba Stretton). There are naturally exceptions, such as Diamond in At the Back of the North Wind, by George MacDonald. Because the purpose of all such characters is to set a good example for the reader, the positive traits of the characters are amplified beyond natural proportions. Struwwelpeter (Slovenly Peter), by Heinrich Hoffmann, has exactly the same function, only in reverse.
Modern examples of the use of characters as models can be easily found in children's literature of the former Soviet Union: young war heroes and revolutionaries, vigilant scouts who reveal spies and saboteurs, boys who save other children or adults from drowning or fire, or children who assist the country by collecting recyclable materials. These heroes have few other traits than being heroic. Similarly, in China today, stories of revolutionaries and war heroes still constitute the majority of children's fiction. In the USA, biographies of presidents published for children are popular, and in France there are dozens of books about Joan of Arc.
Another clearly didactic use of characters is their serving as mouthpieces for the authors' ideas and opinions. Here, however, an interesting difference can be noted between children's fiction and that of the mainstream. Young readers are supposed to identify with young protagonists and thus learn lessons together with them. This assumption implies that the protagonists themselves cannot be used as mouthpieces, but rather wisdom must necessarily come from a secondary character, whether adult or a child. Indeed, we see a variety of such mouthpiece figures who explain, preach, and warn, seldom leaving readers room for further contemplation. Although one would assume that such novels for children belong to the past, one recent international bestseller, mysteriously crossing over from children's fiction to mainstream, Sophie's World, by the Norwegian Jostein Gaarder, employs such an adult as didactic mouthpiece character.
Low mimetic narratives such as domestic stories, school stories, and so on, present ordinary children in ordinary situations. Although "realistic" characters seemingly have existed in children's fiction from the beginning, I would argue that characters appearing on a low mimetic level--neither superior nor inferior to other characters--are a relatively recent development. Considering the protagonists of some classic novels for children, we discover that they are portrayed as anything but ordinary. The four March sisters in Little Women are exceedingly virtuous and become still more so as they go through their self-imposed "pilgrimage." Tom Sawyer finds a treasure ensuring him a pleasurable future in the adult world. Anne of Green Gables becomes a brilliant student and is eventually described as quite good-looking. Besides inheriting great wealth, Cedric Errol in Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy is nauseatingly blameless.
We can probably regard Laura in the Little House series as an early low-mimetic character, ordinary in every respect. Modern low-mimetic characters appear on a larger scale in Western children's literature after the Second World War as a result of major changes in society, rapid urbanization, and changes in family structure, as well as the influence of child psychology. Low-mimetic characters offer the most natural subject position for contemporary young readers: they are not freed from the obligation to attend school by eternal summer holidays; they are not extremely lucky so as to be in the right place at the right time to have exciting adventures; they are not exceedingly bright, nor brave, nor handsome; they do not marry princes or millionaires; and they do not find treasures that will allow them to live happily ever after.
It has taken children's fiction a long time to venture into the ironic mode and depict characters who, in addition to being inferior to their parents and other adults, are weaker, physically and spiritually, than their peers. Unlike fairy-tale heroes, these characters are not empowered at the end of the story. At best, they remain the same (for instance in The Planet of Junior Brown, by Virginia Hamilton, or Slake's Limbo, by Felice Holman), at worst they perish, incapable of coping with surrounding reality, as do many characters in Robert Cormier's novels.
We have recently witnessed a radical change in the narrative perspective of children's novels whereby the didactic, authoritative narrator is supplanted by character focalization. This change enables some contemporary authors to portray the world through the eyes of a naive and inexperienced child. Children's fiction authors have a wider scope of expressive means than their colleagues in the mainstream, who have to employ, for instance, mentally disturbed characters to achieve the same effect. While most narratologists are limited in exemplification of the totally naive perspective to Benjy from The Sound and the Fury, children's literature scholars can easily enumerate several dozen children's novels using the same device. An excellent example is Ramona in Beverly Cleary's series. On her first day of school, she has to learn "a puzzling song about 'the dawnzer lee light,' that Ramona did not understand because she did not know what a dawnzer was, 'Oh, say, can you see by the dawnzer lee light,' sang Miss Bi nney, and Ramona decided that a dawnzer was another word for a lamp" (Cleary 21). Apparently, the character's confusion is based on her ignorance and naivete. That readers are supposed to recognize the words gives them superiority over the character. But if for some reason they do not, the situation leaves them as helpless and puzzled as Ramona.
Low mimetic and ironic characters are the first ones historically and the only ones typologically who presuppose and allow a portrayal of internal life. Therefore we are most likely to find such characters in contemporary psychological novels for children. If, as the title of Harold Bloom's study Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human suggests, a psychological human being was invented by Shakespeare, in children's literature it was invented collaboratively by such authors as Katherine Paterson, Patricia MacLachlan, Beverly Cleary, Maria Gripe, Nina Bawden, and Michelle Magorian.
It is not always possible and still less fruitful to draw a definite boundary between low mimetic and ironic characters in children's fiction. As pointed out above, all child characters are by definition ironic, that is, inferior to their surroundings and, it would seem, to readers. In children's fiction, however, readers may be just as inexperienced and disempowered as the ironic character. In other words, young readers may find themselves at the same level as the character, as in the case of Ramona, above. Although as adult coreaders we may see the young protagonist's faults and mistakes, a young reader may fail to do so. Contemporary writers have developed means of drawing the readers' attention to the ironic status of their characters, for instance through detachment and alienation.
In traditional fiction, for children as well as for adults, readers are expected to identify and empathize with at least one character, to adopt a subject position coinciding with a character's. One of the main premises of postmodern aesthetics is the subversion of subjectivity, often achieved by making the protagonist repulsive in some way. Physically unattractive, obnoxious, morally depraved, a criminal, or even an inhuman monster, some characters in contemporary children's fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While in Burnett's The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox, repeatedly described as "disagreeable," quickly gains the reader's sympathy, because she is an orphan and exposed to the adults' indifference, a character staying unpleasant throughout a story may leave readers concerned and even frustrated. In Katherine Paterson's Flip-flop Girl, Vinnie's father is dead, and since her little brother has taken the worst damage of his death, Vinni e feels neglected. Although the situation may seem similar to that of Mary Lennox, Mary makes the most of it and improves, morally, physically and mentally, while Vinnie is consistently presented as exceedingly nasty, not to say destructive. Here, the narrative device of the filter--shifting the reader's point of view away from the character's--enables the reader to dissociate from the focalizing character.
The use of alienating characters in children's fiction is problematic, and some authors do not manage to be consistent in their creation. Stanley in Holes, by Louis Sachar, starts as a typical ironic character: he is obese, not particularly likable, and even though we are told that he is innocent of the crime for which he is punished, the way he is described provokes alienation rather than empathy. He is also presented in an oppressed position: in a labor camp, literally deprived of his freedom, humiliated, and abused. Half-way through the novel, Stanley develops more heroic, high mimetic traits as he risks his own life to save a friend; and in the end he finds a treasure ensuring him and his family a carefree life ever after. This sudden elevation of the character to the romantic mode is not only implausible, but incompatible with the ironic outset of the novel. Presumably it is the author's capitulation to the conventions of children's fiction that demand a happy ending.
Yet another possible detaching strategy is metafiction. The prefix "meta-" in the postmodern terminology refers to framing, that is, the deliberate construction of the narrative on more than one diegetic level. Patricia Waugh includes fantasy among metafictive devices (Waugh 108-14). With such a view, all characters traveling between the real and the fantastic world, or, in time-shift plots, between two real worlds by fantastic means, must be counted as metafictive. Fantasy is a considerably more conspicuous frame-breaking element in mainstream fiction than in children's fiction. Therefore I do not see any point in discussing one of the most common narrative devices in children's fiction, the magical journey, as metafiction. Instead, I will reserve the notion of a metafictive character for those who in some way transgress the frame boundaries of the narrative, for instance, by appearing on different diegetic levels or even by being aware of the existence of other levels. True, fantasy with its explicit heter otopia allows for endless metafictional options. Bastian, in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, enters the fictional world he is reading about, and one of the characters in Geraldine McCaughrean's A Pack of Lies wanders in and out of his own fiction. Too-ticki of the Moomin novels, by Tove Jansson, sometimes seems to be watching the events from another narrative level, and Snufkin is aware of being inside an adventure story. Christopher Robin is a metafictive character in the sense that he appears on two different diegetic levels. Yet we do not actually see him pass from one level to another; the passage is implicit, the metafiction covert. None of these characters really leaves the reader puzzled, since the character's ability to break the diegetic frames is perceived as part of the fantasy convention.
In a novel written in a mimetic mode, metafictive characters create a sense of uneasiness, since the reader is left uncertain as to their ontological status. Hal in Aidan Chambers's Dance on My Grave comments: "I have become my own character" (221). Ditto in Breaktime, by the same author, exists on two diegetic levels: the frame story and his own first-person narrative. Moreover, at the end of the novel, not merely the credibility of Ditto's narrative, but the very existence of the character himself is questioned. Ditto is perhaps the closest juvenile fiction has so far come to the concept of a canceled character, that is, a character totally lacking any psychological features whatsoever, existing exclusively as a textual construction, one consisting only of words. Canceled characters are no longer possible to discuss in terms of personal integrity. Some critics have pointed out that Sarah in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman has no mimetic function in the story, that she does not "represent" anyth ing. By introducing a character like that, the author breaks the illusion of mimetic reality. We can perhaps say something similar about Johnny in the Swedish Peter Pohl's Johnny My Friend. The enigmatic Johnny is a catalyst initiating a change in the protagonist without herself being affected. Yet such characters are unusual in children's fiction, since children's writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable objects of identification.
The various types of irony in character construction are especially tangible in female characters. Not surprisingly, male myths and male narrative patterns have been most influential for traditional children's fiction. We can easily discern figures such as Odysseus, Hercules, or King Arthur behind a large number of protagonists in children's fiction. Trying to recall great Western myths that have inspired female characters, we might perhaps count Joan of Arc as the model for contemporary juvenile novels about girls in disguise; otherwise our sources are extremely limited. Personally I am not convinced by attempts to squeeze female characters into Campbellian male mythical patterns (Pearson and Pope). It is hypothetically possible to put a female character in a mythical or romantic narrative, but this will be a simple gender permutation, creating a "hero in drag" (see Paul; see also Nikolajeva, From Mythic 147-49).
Annis Pratt's Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction can be regarded as a feminist reply to Campbell's overtly masculine analysis of a hero. Although Pratt's patterns are clearly connected with sexuality and eroticism, some parallels with children's fiction can still be made. For instance, the green-world archetype, a girl who lives close to nature, is one of the most common female protagonists in children's fiction. Wendy in Barrie's Peter Pan is one of these heroines, escaping into her green world away from both urban civilization and her parents' oppression, and returning to it in her recuperating memories as adult. The protagonists of Johanna Spyri's Heidi, Burnett's The Secret Garden, and Astrid Lindgren's Ronia the Robber's Daughter are further examples of the green-world heroines.
The growing-up-grotesque archetype implies meeting the incompatibility of personal freedom and societal demands by going into depression or seclusion. As Pratt observes, in literature boys grow, but girls shrink (30). This shrinking has also been described in terms of abjection, a girl's feeling of aversion towards her own body as it develops into a young woman's. The tomboy archetype in children's fiction is an excellent example of abjection. Rather than accept their own femininity, heroines such as JO March and Anne Shirley suppress it by manifesting nonfeminine behavior. Both characters have to subdue hot tempers incompatible with feminine norms. Anne is literally silenced as she abandons her imaginative, poetic language. Cross-dressing and androgyny are two more ways of denying one's body and gender. In contemporary novels, the archetype of the grotesque can be stretched quite far, since today's young women's unwomanly manners are slightly more tolerated than in Jo March's days. Louise in Katherine Pater son's Jacob Have I Loved suppresses her femininity to distance herself from her pretty and talented twin sister. She is also trying to fulfil her father's secret desire for a son. Louise dresses carelessly, has a male occupation, fishing, and seemingly makes no attempts to grow up as a "normal" woman. Portraying this survival strategy, the author explicitly describes her as unattractive (among other things, with an ugly scar from chicken pox), the way she perceives herself. A much younger Paterson heroine, Gilly Hopkins, employs a similar survival strategy by being deliberately nasty.
In children's fiction, girls are doubly oppressed: as women and as children. Such oppression implies that in a children's novel, a female character's development is more universal than that in mainstream fiction, where femininity is overt and explicit. Not least, because girls' fiction is historically a relatively recent genre, masculine patterns, as in many other fields, are "default value" in children's fiction. Paradoxically enough, the contemporary ironic character of children's fiction has inherited significantly more traits from the female archetypes as drafted by Pratt than from those of Campbell's hero with a thousand faces.
Viewing the characters' ontological status from a historical perspective, we can clearly see that contemporary characters tend to become more like "real people," since they appear on low mimetic and ironic levels. Our shifting criteria for "plausible" characters depend on several factors, for instance on our growing knowledge of human nature (a knowledge young children normally lack), on our changing values regarding human virtues and vices, and finally on the variety of human behavior. Examples of real heroes are today found only in formulaic fiction. Even when child characters are temporarily elevated to high mimetic and romantic levels, they are subsequently brought back to ordinary life, and romantic heroes are deconstructed in a variety of ways. Contemporary characters are not meant as examples for young readers to admire, but as subjectivities recognizably equal to one's own. The opposite trend, prominent in contemporary mainstream postmodern fiction, that increasingly makes characters resemble empty ve rbal constructions, is as yet extremely rare in children's fiction.
The tremendous popularity of the Harry Potter novels may be partly ascribed to J. K. Rowling's successful attempt to reintroduce the romantic character into children's fiction. The character of Harry Potter has all the necessary components of the romantic hero. There are mystical circumstances around his birth and infant years, he is displaced and oppressed until suddenly, on his eleventh birthday--a common age of initiation--he is given unlimited power. He has a whole group of gurus and supporters and an infinitely evil and powerful opponent. His innocence and his intrinsic benevolence, however, make him superior to the evil--adult--powers.
Yet, Harry Potter is a child of his time, of the twenty-first century. He appears as a reaction to a long chain of ironic characters who show ambiguity in their concepts of good and evil, transgress gender, and exhibit other tokens of the postmodern aesthetics. By contrast, Harry Potter is a very straightforward hero. We know what to expect from him. After decades of parody, metafiction, frame-breaking and other postmodern games, it may feel liberating for readers to know where to place their sympathies and antipathies. Of course it is conceivable that Harry will eventually go over to the dark side. But such a development would feel almost trivial today, especially in the wake of Star Wars--the First Episode. After so many antiheroes in children's as well as adult literature, a hero is welcome. Still, the appeal of Harry is exactly that he is not a hero of the Superman caliber, but an ordinary clumsy and bespectacled boy. A boy who turns out to have magical powers, yet receives most praise for his sporting ac hievements. A boy who is disobedient and curious, who is not at all brilliant in school, but quite average. A boy who has friends and enemies, who needs to eat and sleep, and who, in book four, is at long last awakening to the charms and mysteries of the opposite gender. Harry Potter is at once human and non-human, with the same emotions we all know: longing for mom and dad, loneliness, insecurity, curiosity about his identity and origin. In this respect, he differs from traditional romantic heroes, devoid of any such sentiments. Thus Harry is repeatedly taken down to mimetic and ironic levels, only to be elevated to hero status again at moments of decisive struggle. As critics, we might find Harry Potter conventional; for readers, he presents a welcome alternative to characters they may find too sophisticated.
A crucial question in connection with the development in children's fiction from "hero" to "character" is the adult authors' capacity to adopt a child's subject position. It would be reasonable to assume that adult writers would feel most comfortable writing from their own superior position, presenting child characters as inferior physically, morally, spiritually, in terms of knowledge, experience, economy, and societal power. Yet even a very brief glance at a number of children's novels reveals that the ironic mode is the most complex and demanding, for the writer as well as the reader. By contrast, the romantic mode allows adults to empower the child, thus creating an illusion for the character and the reader that such empowerment is indeed possible. On the high mimetic level, adult writers can use characters to provide young readers with examples and ideals. Which endeavor is to be regarded the most successful depends exclusively on the purpose authors have in writing for children. The development from her o to character in children's fiction is thus not a simple linear process. It reveals the attitude toward childhood and toward children's reading at any given moment, in any given society.
Further, subjectivity as such is an essential issue in children literature. In mythic, romantic, and high mimetic modes, subjectivity is outside the text and, moreover, frequently connected with an adult narrative agency. Subjectivity in low mimetic and ironic modes is inside the text and therefore usually connected with a child character. Thus we may regard the development from outside to inside subjectivity as a process parallel to the development from hero to character.
Another very prominent change in the aesthetics of character in children's fiction, one closely interconnected with the movement from hero to character, is the shift from authorial to figural discourse; from predominantly external characterization, such as that found in description, narrative statements, and presentation of actions, toward representation of inner life. Considering this shift poses about characterization a number of epistemological questions, ones such as the ways we can get to know and understand them and the strategies authors have to reveal characters for the reader. Several critics argue that while literature allows us an intrinsic knowledge of other people, in real life we have only intrinsic knowledge of ourselves and extrinsic knowledge of other people. While real people are always opaque to us, literary characters may be presented in a vast continuum from opacity to full transparency. For many critics, the appeal of literature is exactly the fact that we can more easily understand lite rary figures than we can ever learn to understand real people. Although children's literature has been for a long time utilized mainly for didactic purposes, the young readers' aesthetic appreciation of characters cannot be neglected. Literary characters are indeed transparent in a way real people can never be. Far from all means of characterization, however, allow this transparency. In children's literature, characters are usually less transparent than those in the mainstream, because children's writers for a number of reasons have a tendency to use external rather than internal characterization devices. This is an interesting paradox. On the one hand, children's literature is supposed to be simple and easy to understand. We might then expect writers to employ narrative devices that would enable readers to come closer to characters and understand them better. But on the other hand, such devices are the most complex and ambiguous and are therefore used only sparsely in children's literature. In fact, children 's literature has substantially lagged behind in the development of psychological characterization, that has to do with the aesthetic of children's literature as such. The majority of children's books are plot-oriented, that is, they focus more on actions and events than on character and characterization. Until recently, few children's books portrayed characters with personality traits other than ones suggesting good, or evil. Certain scholars of children's literature, for instance, Perry Nodelman, go so far as to maintain plot-orientation as one of the foremost aesthetic features of children's literature (192); I must hasten to add that I do not share this opinion.
The fact that children's stories often are indeed plot-oriented implies that children's writers have closely followed the conventions of Aristotelian poetics long after their colleagues in the mainstream have abandoned them in favor of psychological characterization. Aristotle claimed that characters should possess only one of the-two traits: nobility or baseness. In many cases this "rule" is also true about characters in children's fiction: they can be easily divided into "good guys" and "bad guys," for instance, in fairy tales (hero versus dragon), fantasy novels (Aslan versus the White Witch), adventure (Tom Sawyer versus Injun Joe), mystery (Nancy Drew versus the numerous villains), and so on. That characters are noble or base, good or bad is revealed to us primarily through their actions, and those traits are used to propel the plot. This type of characterization through actions is predominantly used for romantic and high mimetic characters, who are thus, in one of the common dichotomies of character ana lysis, static and flat.
In dealing with characterization, we should therefore ask what is sufficient in order to understand a character in a particular text type. In fantasy or adventure, it may be enough to know on which side to place our sympathy. We do not necessarily require romantic heroes to have ethical choices or in general to possess any ambivalent qualities. In psychological novels, ones, that is, portraying characters on low mimetic and ironic level, we normally expect them to have traits other than merely goodness or badness; moreover, we expect the traits to add up to a consistent whole. In other words, we postulate that low mimetic and ironic characters should be round and dynamic. In children's literature, the issue is especially relevant, since young readers may misjudge characters or fail to assemble a number of traits into a whole. Until recently, it was believed that young readers lack the ability to understand psychologically complex characters or the skills necessary to construct a coherent portrait from the inf ormation provided by the text, for instance, if a character's self-evaluation contradicts the other people's opinion or the narrator's overt comments. These presumptions about the cognitive capacity and aesthetic needs of the young audience have considerably impeded the development of more sophisticated characterization in children's fiction. Not unexpectedly, this belated development, coinciding with the emergence of low mimetic and ironic characters, is one that in its turn is connected with the shift toward figural discourse, toward character-oriented children's fiction.
Since conventional children's literature is plot-oriented, it is natural to expect the dominance of external representation in children's novels. Indeed, up to recently, the vast majority of characters in children's fiction were portrayed only externally: by their appearance, by narrator's explicit judgements, by their actions and reactions, and by direct speech. External representation is essentially authorial and therefore considered suitable for the didactic purposes inherent in conventional children's fiction. External representation is also the least complex way of revealing characters and therefore regarded suitable for the young audience. Although external representation is seldom the only means of characterization in a novel, we can speak about external orientation in characterization, meaning that most facts we learn about a particular character are conveyed through such external means as, for instance, description, narrator's comments, actions, and events.
The predominance of external orientation in children fiction is closely connected to several literary factors. First, it occurs in older rather than in modern texts. Comparing, for instance, Louisa M. Alcott's Little Women with Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved, that have some superficial similarities in plot and theme, we will immediately notice that the former employs external description, authorial comments, actions, and dialogue for characterization, while the latter is wholly concentrated on the character's inner life. The first-person introspective narration in Paterson's novel is the natural result of the author's focus on character.
Second, for obvious reasons external orientation is typical for plot-oriented narratives where it is more important what characters do than how they feel about it. Comparing an adventure story such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with a domestic story, such as Anne of Green Gables, we can see that the former presents characters primarily through their actions and reactions, while the latter delves deep into the protagonist's mind. Domestic stories, not least Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, sometimes have been condemned for their "lack of action," while critics have obviously missed that the novels depict internal rather than internal events.
Third, external orientation is more likely to be used in formulaic fiction than in psychological narratives. Adventure, mystery, and horror devote little attention to the psychological life of their characters, and young readers choosing to read formulaic stories are not in the first place interested in the characters' inner life.
Fourth, external orientation is more likely to be used in texts addressed to younger children. This statement does not exclude the existence of highly sophisticated picture books that allegedly are supposed to be understood by very young readers. Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Anthony Browne's The Tunnel and Gorilla, or John Burningham's Granpa show psychological dimensions well above the average middle-level children's novel. Yet it is true that books geared toward younger readers, for instance Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series or Beverly Cleary's Ramona series, reveal the characters through actions and dialogue rather than through the depiction of their mental states.
Last but not least, external orientation more or less presupposes an omniscient perspective. Description of both the characters' looks and their actions requires an external narrative voice, whether it is overt or covert. Narrator's comments are by definition authorial. As soon as the narrative perspective shifts onto a character, either through first-person narration or character focalization, an internal, subjective dimension is imposed on the story. The traditional extradiegeticheterodiegetic narrator in children's fiction allows an authoritative, didactic manipulation of the readers in their understanding of characters.
All these factors are highly relevant for the discussion of the changing aesthetics of character since they provide at least some insight into why and how these changes occur in contemporary children's fiction. Of them, description is the most elementary way of presenting a character, especially block description in the beginning of the book providing us immediately with a full and direct portrait. Its abundance in classic literature, including classic children's novels, presumably has something to do with the late eighteenth-century theory of physiognomy, directly connecting people's physical appearance with their psychological traits. Although this theory has been completely discredited in the twentieth century, its influence is manifest in children's fiction. For instance, the initial description of the protagonist in Anne of Green Gables includes a "very pointed and prominent" chin, "big eyes [. . .] full of spirit and vivacity," "sweet-lipped and expressive" mouth and "broad and full forehead," with the immediate conclusion that "no commonplace soul inhabited the body of this stray woman-child" (12).
Although we assume that descriptions have an aesthetic purpose in a children's novel, that they have implications, they may be employed merely because the author wants to have a fuller portrait of the character, or even simpler, because it has always been done in children's books. Quite often, indeed, descriptions seem to be an end in themselves, something included because "young readers like to know 'how people look"' (Little Women 5). The description is not motivated otherwise than by the presumed expectations of the implied readers. Being an authorial narrative form, external description is tangibly didactic.
Further, descriptions have different functions for different kinds of characters. In a formulaic novel, blond hair is likely to indicate innocence, while dark hair will indicate evil. In a realistic novel, the color of hair does not necessarily imply moral qualities. Yet, even in realistic modes, certain external traits, such as moles, crooked teeth, or extreme facial hair are often ascribed to evil characters. If this tendency is manifest in formulaic fiction for adults, it is all the more tangible in such mystery and adventure stories for children as the Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys books. By contrast, in contemporary children's novels, descriptions are used sparsely and mostly in figural discourse: a character is described through another character's eyes. For instance, in Bridge to Terabithia, Leslie as well as Miss Edmunds, the schoolteacher, are described through Jess's perception, one that is subjective as compared to the objective description by an omniscient narrator. Although such figural descripti ons have been widely employed in the mainstream novel since the nineteenth century, for children's fiction they remain an unusual device.
Yet, when used for overtly didactic purposes, even an authorial description may be a powerful characterization device in a children's novel. In The Secret Garden, Mary is first presented as a girl with "a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she has been born in India and had always been ill in one way or other" (7). As the story evolves, the narrator frequently returns to Mary's looks, noting successive changes in them: she is gaining weight, getting a rosy shade on her cheeks, her hair is turning thick and shiny, and so on. This physical change, as she develops from a spoiled, lazy, selfish brat into a strong-willed, active, and alert young lady, is used to emphasize the mental and moral improvement of the protagonist.
The narrator of The Secret Garden not only describes the change in Mary's looks, but also the change of her disposition. Narrative statements are frequently used in children's fiction to comment on a variety of characteristics, such as the character's external appearance (pretty, ugly, tall, fat), social position (rich, poor), intelligence (clever, stupid), actions (brave), attitudes (greedy), manners (well-behaved, kind), and finally on the character's temporary feelings (cold, hungry, tired) or state of mind (agitated, frightened, glad). They can refer to a permanent, inherent quality (brave or clever by nature) or to a concrete action or reaction (brave or clever in a particular situation). Like descriptions, narrative statements are of course also didactic; they manipulate readers toward a certain interpretation of character and are therefore often associated with traditional, didactic children's fiction: "Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, who were good little bunnies, went down the lane to gather blackberr ies/But Peter, who was very naughty [...] (Potter n.p.; emphasis added). At the time the story was written it was habitual to have such comments in children's books, as if the author did not trust her readers to recognize the three bunny girls as well-behaved and Peter as naughty. Similarly, in The Secret Garden, although the narrator frequently condemns the protagonist as lazy, inactive, and disagreeable, her actions occasionally contradict the statements. Yet because of the strong authoritative narrative voice, there is not much left for young readers to do than accept such statements as, for instance "she was a self-absorbed child" (13). As with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, it seems that the author does not trust readers themselves to make the necessary inferences from the character's actions and reactions.
Actions present characters in a more indirect way and involve at least some engagement from the reader. For instance, Pippi Longstocking repeatedly treats her friends to nice food and gives them presents. Readers are encouraged to understand that she is generous. Reactions to events can also reveal character properties: Pippi reacts strongly when she encounters injustice and violence. She does not hesitate to save two small children from a fire. But the narrator of Pippi Longstocking does not explicitly say that Pippi is generous, righteous, and brave. Although characterization by actions is external and hence authorial, readers are to a certain extent free to interpret the actions and reactions according to their own understanding. Is Tom Sawyer clever or naughty when he cheats other boys into whitewashing the fence for him? How does coming to his own funeral characterize him: is he clever, cynical, silly, thoughtless? Is Anne Shirley stupid when she gives Diana wine to drink or does she simply not know bet ter? In these cases, the authors seem to trust their young readers to draw their own conclusions, a trust that is otherwise far from common in children's fiction.
Let us agree that external orientation does not imply deficient characterization. While we today, especially in the field of adult fiction, attribute higher aesthetic quality to psychological portrayals that penetrate the innermost parts of human mind, it is wrong to assume that external characterization is artistically inferior, that it is merely a different device. Moreover, external characterization is part of the overall didactic adaptation of children's fiction to the cognitive level of its implied readers. Presumably, young readers may more easily understand and judge characters' actions, external description, or the narrator's direct statements than subtle psychological changes and motivations. Since literature is dependent on language to describe emotional life, it demands a rich and multi-faceted vocabulary to convey the nuances of meaning that young readers may not have mastered yet. Although some contemporary children's writers, such as Katherine Paterson, Patricia MacLachlan, or Virginia Hamilton , do not hesitate to use advanced vocabulary to portray their characters' internal lives, the bulk of contemporary children's fiction still resorts primarily to external means. Further, as already mentioned, in fiction for younger children, there is a clear tendency toward external characterization, while young adult fiction, frequently employing internal means, thus comes closer to the mainstream. Whether this tendency reflects the actual limitation in the young audience's cognitive capacity or, instead, the conventions of, not to say prejudices about, children's fiction, is another question.
One of the common characterization devices that I find highly problematic in children's fiction is direct speech. One would assume that is it simple and explicit, since characters' direct speech presents them immediately, through what they say as well as through how they say it. Yet, paradoxically, in children's fiction, direct speech is used far more often to carry the plot than to develop character. Further, we must once again pay attention to the didactic issues manifest in the relationship between direct speech and narration. Narrator's comments and reported speech manipulate the reader to interpret the characters' utterances in a certain way. Assuming that the narrative authority is an adult, we may notice that even when a child character is given a voice through direct speech, there is normally an adult voice accompanying it and adjusting it to guide the reader toward "correct" understanding. Although direct speech may seem a characterization device that presents characters in the most immediate manner , we should not forget that there is usually a narrative agency nearby to amend whatever impression we as readers might get. Even a specific verb, adverb, or additional comment may immediately manipulate our understanding of the character, for instance: "'Who is going to dress me?' demanded Mary" (The Secret Garden 29; emphasis added); "'I'm sorry I was late,' he said shyly" (Anne of Green Gables 12; emphasis added); "'I suppose you are Mr. Matthew Cuthbert of Green Gables?' she said in a peculiarly clear and sweet voice" (Anne of Green Gables 12; emphasis added).
It is often argued that young readers prefer direct speech to narration (some metapoetic comments from writers confirm this assumption; for instance, Lewis Carroll's Alice thinks her sister's book boring because it has "no conversations"). Several pedagogical studies of children's literature, applying as one of the criteria for "readability" the ratio between narration and direct speech, claims that the abundance of dialogue makes texts more reader-friendly. This claim may be true in terms of pure reading skills. Direct speech utterances, especially coming from child characters and imitating their syntax and vocabulary, are usually shorter and simpler than authorial discourse, and a more everyday, colloquial idiom is used. A swift interchange of lines in a dialogue makes a fast progression of the plot. Besides, dialogue in conventional children's literature is most often used in combination with narrator's comments and reported speech that manipulate the reader's understanding of the characters' conversation s. So if dialogue is used exclusively or primarily for plot advancement, it is indeed a simple, reader-friendly device.
In terms of characterization, however, direct speech may be an extremely demanding and confusing form, for the absence of narrative agency leaves readers without guidance. Are the characters honest and frank in their utterances? How can we know whether they are? Empirical studies of young readers show that until a certain age children do not understand irony; they tend to interpret the characters' statements at their face value. Why would readers trust some characters, but perceive others as liars and hypocrites, unless there were narrator's comments to assist them? For instance, without the narrator's comments, would we know that the White Witch was evil if we only had the dialogue between her and Edmund to judge?
In extreme cases, when most of the text is comprised of dialogue, readers must work hard to comprehend what is going on. For some reason, Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" is frequently included in high school anthologies, but, in my experience, students find it totally incomprehensible. The dialogue in the story hides more than it reveals. The man and the woman do not mean what they are saying, and their real thoughts and feelings remain beyond the text. Their speech only characterizes them implicitly, by omission. One would assume that such a narrative form would be unlikely in a children's novel, and indeed it occurs very seldom. Red Shift, by Alan Garner, is an example of a young adult novel where the story is narrated almost wholly in direct speech, without tags. Such a "dialogue novel" is a postmodern narrative form; in Garner's case, his novel is a deliberate intellectual puzzle. Its purpose is to confuse rather than clarify, and most of its characterization lies beyond the text its elf. There are few similar novels, and Red Shift naturally implies mature readers, as does Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese, partly written in dialogue representing tape-recorded conversations. Thus if we regard direct speech as a characterization device rather than a plot engine, it is rarely used to its full capacity in children's fiction. Besides, contemporary children's writers have discovered a more efficient characterization device, one their colleagues in the mainstream have employed for many decades: internal representation.
The incentive to reflect characters' internal life is a relatively recent development also in adult Western literature, one often connected with Henry James, on the one hand, and Virginia Woolf, on the other. In Western children's literature, this tendency has become prominent only during the last twenty or thirty years; indeed, in some countries, it has not emerged yet. The development toward predominantly internal representation can be clearly described in a terminology taken from Mikhail Bakhtin as a shift from epic toward polyphone discourse, from depicting primarily an external flow of events toward attempts to convey the complex nature of human consciousness (see The Dialogic Imagination, Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics, and "Author and Hero on Aesthetic Activity"). The premise for this mode of writing--the blending of the narrator's and the character's discourse--results in a variety of narrative techniques classified as stream of consciousness, interior monologue, free indirect speech, narrated mon ologue, or dual-voice discourse. All these techniques presuppose that authors through their narrators penetrate the minds of their characters and are able to convey their state of mind to readers by means of language. This statement in itself presents a problem, for language does not always have adequate means to express vague, inarticulate thoughts and emotions. Yet in children's fiction, the prerequisites for successful internal representation are, if possible, still more disputable.
A general consensus about children's literature seems to be that adult writers can easily penetrate a child character's mind, while logically it should be infinitely more difficult to enter than the mind of another adult. By analogy, it is often questioned, especially by feminist, postcolonial and queer theories, whether male writers can successfully depict female characters, white writers--black characters, or heterosexual writers--homosexual characters. This skepticism is based on the unequal power positions, in which the "oppressors" presumably have limited possibility to understand the mentality of the "oppressed." Even though all adult writers have been children once, profound differences in life experiences as well as linguistic skills create an inevitable discrepancy between the (adult) narrative voice and the levels of comprehension of both the focalized child characters and young readers. Critics of children's literature refer to this dilemma as the "double address" (Wall 9 and passim), a term meanin g that an adult writer inevitably addresses the adult co-reader together with the child reader. Indeed, because in some cases this adult co-reader will be addressed at the expense of the child, some critics go so far as to declare, as Rose suggests in the subtitle of The Case of Peter Pan, "the impossibility of children's fiction."
The many successful attempts to breach the discrepancy--for instance, by using strong internal focalization of a child character or first-person (autodiegetic) child perspective--do not eliminate the dilemma as such. That mental representation is uncommon in children's literature naturally depends on its implied readers. We need certain life experience to be able to interpret characters' thoughts, and still more their unarticulated emotions, such as fear, anxiety, longing, or joy. Of course, a writer can simply say "He was anxious" or "She was scared." But the words "anxious" or "scared" are very simple labels for complex and contradictory mental states. Not even a long description can necessarily convey all the shades of a person's feelings. Still, the most profound consequence of the different modes of mental representation in children's fiction is the discrepancy between the (adult) narrator and the child character. Naturally, this discrepancy can also be the case in the mainstream first-person novels depi cting the protagonist's childhood, such as David Copperfield and Great Expectations, as well as third-person narration focalizing a naive child, as in What Maisie Knew. The latter example, featured in many narratological studies as a unique and innovative device of James's, corresponds to the widely used technique of internal focalization of the child protagonist in modern children's fiction. Even though children's fiction has not as yet produced a counterpart to Molly Bloom's interior monologue, we can find examples as the following:
Well, I'm eleven now, folks, and, in case you haven't heard, I don't wet my bed anymore. But I am not nice, I am brilliant. I am famous across this entire county. Nobody wants to tangle with the great Galadriel Hopkins, I am too clever and too hard to manage. Gruesome Gilly, they call me. She leaned back comfortably. Here I come, Maime baby, ready or not. (The Great Gilly Hopkins 3)
The various modes of depicting internal life also clearly show a shift from authorial toward figural discourse. Quoted monologue, corresponding to direct speech, is the most primitive way of conveying characters' state of mind, because the narrator's and the character's discourse are kept clearly apart, and the authoritative narrator can always correct whatever erroneous views the young characters may express in their own thoughts. Narrator's comments create either ironic or didactic discrepancy between the narrator's discourse and the character's discourse, emphasizing the cognitive difference between the two. Since quoted monologue is the easiest device to understand, it is used most frequently in children's literature, for instance: "'Thank goodness,' said Edmund, 'the door must have swung open of its own accord.' [. . .] 'She's angry about all the things I've been saying lately,' thought Edmund. [. . .] 'Just like a girl,' said Edmund to himself, 'sulking somewhere, and won't accept an apology"' (The Lion , the Witch and the Wardrobe 31; emphasis added). The tags "said," "thought," and "said to himself' are in this case full synonyms and do not of course imply that the character is talking aloud to himself. The novel is clearly plot-oriented, and quoted monologue has the same function as dialogue in conventional children's literature, namely, to carry plot rather than contribute to characterization.
Blended narratives, such as free indirect discourse or psychonarration, are often used in children's literature to manipulate readers, to create an illusion that the text directly reflects a character's mind, while it is in fact a narrator's discourse about a character's mind. In order not to sound false, writers must keep a delicate balance between the narrator's and the character's discourse. The best contemporary children's writers have managed to keep this balance. Katherine Paterson is one of several writers who excel in consonant psychonarration used to convey young characters' disturbed states of mind, "subverbal states." Here, a passage from Bridge to Terabithia describes Jess's attempt to come to terms with his friend Leslie's death:
It came into his mind that someone had told him that Leslie was dead. But he knew now that that had been part of the dreadful dream. Leslie could not die any more than he himself could die. But the words turned over uneasily in his mind like leaves stirred up by a cold wind. If he got up now and went down to the old Perkins place, Leslie would come to open it, P. T. jumping at her heels like a star around the moon. It was a beautiful night. Perhaps they could run over the hill and across the fields to the stream and swing themselves into Terabithia. (106)
To separate authorial and figural discourse here is virtually impossible. Such phrases as "[l]ike leaves stirred up by a cold wind" or "like a star around the moon" are similes, poetical language Jess, a non-reading and non-verbal eleven-year-old boy, would not have as a part of his idiom. Yet the passage is a poignant rendering of the boy's thoughts and feelings. The narrator is articulating them for him because Jess lacks the language to do so himself, but that does not mean he lacks the emotions. Needless to say, this technique is one more advanced than quoted monologue, and brings us closer to the character's mind. It is exactly this technique that allows the creating of ironic characters.
In blended narration, readers may be confronted with the difficulty of adopting a subject position, since at any given moment, the source of internal discourse and the textual point of view are ambiguous, as the example above shows. Whether intentionally or not, when authors lose control over the readers' subjectivity, they give them greater freedom of interpretation and demand more of them in text decoding. While internal representation in itself is the most complex characterization device, the development in children's fiction toward psychonarration has contributed to the overall complexity of contemporary novels for young readers.
Through visual illustrations, children's literature has access to a device to convey complex mental states superior even to verbal ones. When words are no longer sufficient, visual images may take over. In Anthony Browne's The Tunnel, the words merely say: "The girl was frightened." But a pictorial image accompanying the text may convey a much wider spectrum of her unspoken thoughts--memories and fantasies--and such emotions as fear and anxiety, and so on. The visual picture affects our senses in a stronger and more immediate way than words. Despite the essay by Graeme Harper in this issue of Style, little attention has so far been paid to this specific aspect of the aesthetic of children's literature; indeed, as Harper suggests, use of the device itself is a relatively recent achievement.
As my discussion has surely suggested, the different narrative modes for conveying consciousness are seldom employed consistently throughout a text, but are mixed and combined, the transition often being very vague, almost indiscernible. Further, contemporary children's and juvenile fiction has also given us examples of experimental multiple techniques, for instance, a combination of personal and impersonal narration (Breaktime), of self-narration and witness-narration (Dance on My Grave), of dialogue and self-narration (I Am the Cheese), and so on. In these novels, authorial presence is almost eliminated, while subjectivity is obscure and ambivalent. Such experiments aim at still more elaborate ways of expressing the complex inner world of a young protagonist. As we return to our initial discussion of the shift from "hero" to "character" in children's fiction, it becomes clear that the transition, successively, from authorial to figural discourse is closely interconnected with those historical changes in nar rative mode that Northrop Frye outlines in Anatomy of Criticism. For romantic and high mimetic heroes, devices of external characterization seem quite sufficient, since story is plot-oriented, and characters possess only a limited number of stock traits. Characters appearing in low mimetic and ironic modes demand complex techniques of internal representation that enable readers to partake of their psyches. Yet while this development seems to be trivial in the mainstream fiction, it is far from universally acknowledged in children's literature. In several previous studies, I have demonstrated the manifest evolution of contemporary children's fiction toward the complexity and ambiguity inherent to postmodern thinking (see, for instance, Children's Literature Comes of Age, "Exit Children's Literature," and From Mythic to Linear). In the present essay, I have shown not only the changes in the aesthetics of character but also how the changes overall contribute to the trend toward a general postmodernist aesthetics .
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
_____. Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
_____. "Author and Hero on Aesthetic Activity." Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990. 4-256.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. London: Penguin, 1995.
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Chambers, Aidan. Dance on My Grave. 1982. London: Random House, 1995.
Cleary, Beverly. Ramona the Pest. 1968. New York: Avon, 1992.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.
Hourihan, Margery. Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children's Literature. London: Routledge, 1997.
Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.
McGavran, James Halt, ed. Literature and the Child. Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999.
Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. 1908. New York: Bantam, 1992.
Nikolajeva, Maria. Children's Literature Comes of Age: Towards a New Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1996.
_____. "Exit Children's Literature?" The Lion and the Unicorn 22.2 (1998): 221-36.
_____. From Mythic to Linear. Time in Children's Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2000.
Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. New York: Longman, 1992.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. 1977. New York: Harper Collins, 1987.
_____. The Great Gilly Hopkins. 1978. New York: Harper Collins, 1987.
Paul, Lissa. "Enigma Variations. What Feminist Criticism Knows about Children's Literature." Signal 54 (1987): 186-201.
Pearson, Carol, and Katherine Pope. The Female Hero in American and British Literature. New York: Bowker, 1981.
Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. London: Wane, 1902.
Pratt, Annis, with Barbara White, Andrea Loewenstein, and Mary Wyer. Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.
Rabine, Leslie W. Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Ideology. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 1985.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Stephens, John, and Robyn McCallum. Retelling Stories, Framing Culture. Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children 's Literature. New York: Garland, 1998.
Wall, Barbara. The Narrator's Voice. The Dilemma of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1991.
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Maria Nikolajeva (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of comparative literature at Stockholm University (Sweden) and associate professor of comparative literature at Abo Akademi University (Finland). She is the author and editor of several books on children's literature, among them Children's Literature Comes of Age: Toward the New Aesthetic (1996) and From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children's Literature (2000). She has also published a large number of articles in professional journals and essay collections. Her academic honors include a Fulbright Grant at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a research fellowship at the International Youth Library, Munich, and Donner Visiting Chair at Abo Akademi University. She was the president of the International Research Society for Children's Literature in 1993-97.
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