Tue, Jun 5, 2012
Some literary qualities of children’s
and young adult books
Professor Elwyn Jenkins
Over the years, the style and content of children’s books have changed. Usually South African books have followed developments in other countries – often after a delay of a few years.
The end of World War II saw big changes in local books. Fairy stories set in South Africa, which had been fashionable for 40 years, came to an end. Cosy domestic and adventure stories for older children drew to an end in the 1960s. In the 1970s, novels for young adults emerged, and at the same time the structure of the novels became far more varied and enterprising. Picture books also became far more adventurous in their approach.
Many of the qualities of the modern young adult novel are to be found in Skyline, by Patricia Pinnock (2nd edition, 2007). These qualities are discussed below.
Departure from linear narrative
Most 19th and early 20th-century stories were straightforward, chronological (linear) narratives. At the most, the story might break off to recount what other characters were doing at the same time. Today, any sort of structure may be found. This flexibility is termed “postmodern”. Diaries are popular, some even using a postmodern technique of interrupting the diary to comment on it or report that someone has been reading it. See especially two young adult novels by Dianne Hofmeyr: Blue Train to the Moon (1993) and Boikie You Better Believe It (1994) (winner of the prestigious M-Net Prize), and two post-apartheid ones by Sarah Britten: The Worst Year of my Life –So Far (2000) and Welcome to the Martin Tudhope Show! (2002).
Multivocality is another technique: the story is told through the voices of various narrators. Time sequences can be interrupted and changed. In Skyline by Patricia Pinnock, through these techniques the stories of individuals are built up at intervals through the book until their full history is known.
Time shifts, fantasy and “magic realism” can co-occur with realism, sometimes leaving the reader not sure whether to believe that something is fantasy or fact.
Three fine young adult novels that deal with our present-day relationship with the memory of the extinct San all use the device of alternating between the present and the past: The Sound of the Gora by Anne Harries (1980) The Joining by Peter Slingsby (1996), and Runout by S.I. Brodrick (2006).
The paintings described in Skyline use the magic realism techniques of the artists Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau.
A book may be multitextual and intertextual, including passages taken from other sources (which may be factual or fictional). The Sound of New Wings by Robin Malan (1998) is set in a school and brings in a variety of the kinds of writing to be found in a school, such as notices, reports, letters and questionnaires. Intertexuality, by referring to other material, is a way of broadening the scope of the story.
An outstanding example, in this case of bringing in another medium, is the inclusion of the descriptions of the paintings in Skyline by Patricia Pinnock. At first the reader does not know what to make of these descriptions at the end of each chapter. Often they refer to incidents, or stories of incidents, recounted in the previous chapter. The titles of the paintings that are quoted are in a non-standard form of English, which gradually can be identified as that of Bernard, a refugee from Mozambique. It is only at the end that the reader learns that they are taken from the catalogue of Bernard’s paintings that was written by Mrs Rowinsky, another character in the novel. These paintings, furthermore, have the function of showing incidents in a new light – actually, through a different medium. Mrs Rowinsky’s comparisons of Bernard’s paintings with those by famous artists are another form of intertextuality. If it were possible, Pinnock would show us the paintings and not verbalise them, but the descriptions, with their lurid language (which is different from the normal language of the narrative parts of the book), are the next best thing.
Psychological and social problems
In the 1970s a wave of frankness swept children’s and youth literature around the world. Previously taboo topics were now openly discussed, and language became explicit. The problems, large and small, that children and adolescents experience formed the themes of everything from picture books for the very young to young adult novels. At one end of the age range, we have One Round Moon and a Star for Me (also in Afrikaans) (Mennen 1995), a picture book illustrated by Niki Daly about a little boy who feels threatened by the imminent birth of a baby sibling. At the other end, we have Skyline, which features an autistic child infested with bird lice. Social problems such as dysfunctional families or the plight of refugees – other themes of Skyline – feature often. This frankness, it may be noted, facilitated the introduction of race and apartheid as obvious themes in the books of the 1970s and 1980s. They would not have been acceptable to earlier generations.
The shift in subject matter had to be conveyed in a different style of writing, which enables the reader to look into the thoughts and emotions of a character. Earlier books barely touched on emotions; instead they had plenty of dialogue, mostly inconsequential chatter. Compare the following passage from a children’s book, The South African Twins, written by a prominent South African novelist for adults, Daphne Rooke, in 1953, with one of the many passages of interiority in Skyline.
The best part of Dingaan’s Day, Tiensie thought, was the dressing-up. Ouma had made her costume, a replica of that worn by the Voortrekker women… All was as it should have been except for the shoes…
“What are we going to do?” Ouma was in a great fluster. “If you wear white or brown the whole effect will be ruined.”
“I know what, I’ll wear my ballet practice shoes,” said Tiensie.
Ouma looked dubious, but Tiensie liked the ballet shoes with her costume. She was preening herself when everybody else was ready to go, and Karel was sent to bring her to the car.
There stood Tiensie before the wardrobe mirror, chanting, “Goldilocks, Goldilocks, wilt thou be mine…”
“Can’t you hear Pappie blowing the horn?” Karel demanded. “Come along, we’re all waiting for you, Tiensie.”
Tiensie spun around on her heel. “Don’t you think I look like a character out of a nursery rhyme?”
“As a matter of fact, we make quite a good pair,”said Karel, looking into the mirror, “though I look more like a Voortrekker than you do, Tiensie. If only I had a beard. Gosh, this corduroy suit is hot…”
The following passage comes from the scene in Skyline when the narrator has visited her father, who has left his family, and he takes her home. Notice how the last paragraph is addressed directly to the reader.
There’s this pain inside me like a poem wanting to explode, and there is no wind, so the poem stays there burning and burning. And I know it will stay there forever, this pile of bad poetry aching inside me.
I have this longing, in his car, for the wind to blow and to batter against us, to throw us together and blow away everything that has gone wrong, blow it away like leaves. But there is no wind today. There is stillness and heat and moaning, disgusting traffic.
He drops me at Skyline, at the red robot. I want to say something but I can’t. I want to say: Is this it? Are you just going to drop me here at the robot and not come in or anything?
But I say nothing. I get out of the car without even looking at him and watch him drive off as the robot turns green. I shout out: You shit! You piece of shit! But the traffic drowns my words. The traffic thuds onto my words like a beast of prey and devours them. There are no words in the air.
So this is something you need to know, now. I never cry for him, you hear? I never, never cry for him, not now or ever. But the burning sits there in the middle of me, like a still wind. And only later, much much later, when I am grown up and can think about it all, do I get a sense of the sorrow which was stuck in his throat. Only then do I understand why he couldn’t look at me. (Pinnock 2007: 82)
Other literary devices
Writers nowadays use many other literary devices, often making no concession to young readers. An example is the leitmotiv or metaphor of the traffic in Skyline, which is introduced on page 1, becomes metaphorical on page 2, and can be seen at work in the passage quoted above.
Britten. 2000. The Worst Year of my Life –So Far. Cape Town: Tafelberg.
___. 2002. Welcome to the Martin Tudhope Show! Cape Town: Tafelberg.
Brodrick, S.I. 2006. Runout. Cape Town: OUP.
Harries, Anne. 1980. The Sound of the Gora. London: Heinemann.
Hofmeyr, Dianne. 1993: Blue Train to the Moon. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman.
___. 1994. Boikie You Better Believe It. Cape Town: Tafelberg.
Malan, Robin. 1998. The Sound of New Wings. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman.
Mennen, Ingrid and Niki Daly. 1995. One Round Moon and a Star for Me. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.
Pinnock, Patricia Schonstein. 2007. Skyline. 2nd edition. Cape Town: African Sun Press.
Rooke, Daphne. 1953. The South African Twins. London: Cape.
Slingsby, Peter. 1996. Cape Town: Tafelberg.