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Studying The Realism Of Childrens Stories English Literature Essay

Early children’s literature was predominantly didactic and moralising with the first major shift towards realism and fantasy occurring in the nineteenth-century. Changing views on the depiction and position of the child in society were taking place, which directly reflected the range and variety of writings addressed to children. Realism came in the form of the domestic novel like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) which purports to give a realistic account of Victorian family life. Fantasy was bound up with the idea of creating imaginary worlds populated by imaginary people, evidenced in Lewis Carroll's ‘Alice’ adventures books.The contributions and innovations continued into the twentieth century and although there was less moralizing, pre-war literature was still heavily influenced by domestic norms of social class and gender roles. ‘Realistic’ fiction for the most part featured idealised child characters, portrayed a romantic view of the world, and was free from personal and social problems. Publications of this period include Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (1930) and Enid Blyton’s Five on Treasure Island (1947) which present middle-class children engaged in adventure activities on fun-filled holidays. Frances Hodgson Burnett blends realism with fantasy in The Secret Garden (1911), combining the orphan child with melodrama, adventure and the ‘magic’ of a secret garden. But the fantasy genre achieved a distinct place in children’s literature through the work of J.R.R. Tolkien , whose secondary worlds resonate with myth and legend, and in C. S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ series where the Pevensie children step through a wardrobe and find themselves valiantly fighting the forces of evil in an Arcadian world. From the nineteen sixties onward the gradually changing face of society in terms of technology, economic and social trends saw the appearance of more socially relevant children’s literature. Books about dysfunctional families, sexual development, and other adolescent concerns marked a growing trend toward literature for teenagers. Judy Blume for example, writes about adolescent sexual behaviour, and Melvin Burgess’s hard-hitting novel Junk (1996) tackles teenage heroin addiction. This period also ushered in novels addressing multicultural issues such as racism and slavery. Subjects that were once taboo are now commonplace. Characters are presented with greater candour and boldness. Less emphasis is placed on duty and loyalty, and more on individual fulfillment.

Fantasy also reflects the evolution of modern day attitudes and thinking, as well as being closely connected to the development of science and technology. Modern fantasy is freeform and varied, with real world elements co-existing alongside imaginary elements. Magic, time travel, talking animals, and the supernatural appear, as well as more traditional conventions such as the conflict between good and evil, an alternative world, the heroic quest, and the young protagonist. Examples include Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy and the phenomenon of J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series. Innovations in the world, perhaps considered unbelievable in the recent past have now become part of reality, thus the concept of the fantastical has altered over time and will continue to shift in future. Similarly, because the concept of realism is relative, so the ‘problems’ or ‘issues’ book will continue to evolve, adapting itself to a changing social context and a variety of reader and publisher demands.

Fantasy in relation to reality???

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) was one of the first children’s novels to contain detailed and candid discussions about the controversial issues of slavery, racism and segregation. Taylor’s focaliser is the naïve, but strong willed, nine-year old Cassie Logan, and through her interactions with the white world, we get a sense of the intense persecution that comes from being black in nineteen thirties Mississippi. Taylor uses various incidents to demonstrate how racism and segregation affect daily life: the school bus driver’s repeated attempts to humiliate the Logan children on their walk to school, the store owner who tells Cassie to get her ‘little black self ‘ back to waiting, her forced apology to ‘Miz Lillian Jean’, and the near lynching of young T.J. Avery. Taylor’s characters are shown to stand up to the more powerful white community and challenge this oppression. The Logan children for example, use their wits and cunning to sabotage the Jefferson Davis bus by digging a trench in the road. Cassie also plots a well planned revenge on Lillian Jean Simms: after allowing Lillian Jean to think she has accepted that she is inferior, Cassie offers to carry her books saying: ‘The way I see it … we all gotta do what we gotta do. And that’s what I’m gonna do from now on. Just what I gotta’ (Taylor, p. 190). Lillian Jean interprets Cassie’s words (and behavior) as being sincere and submissive. But they convey a double meaning as Cassie also communicates her intent to obtain revenge, which she does in a very physical way. Integral to the development of Cassie is showing her reacting to historical events, being challenged and changed by them. Cassie’s actions, and those of her siblings, allow them to gain some control of their lives and not be totally dominated by the white kids. Taking matters into their own hands demonstrates what Kelly McDowell calls ‘child agency’, in that they become agents of resistance within their oppressed culture. Another way in which child agency is enabled in the novel is through the parents actions show not being cautious can lead to disastrous consequences, as represented through T.J. Avery Cassie is depicted as a vital figure whose rebellion can be seen a positive means to provoke change and validate her need for self respect.

Harry Potter

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling mixes the modern world with the magical and the supernatural, juxtaposing the bizarre with the normal. Rowling’s alternative universe, occupied by witches and wizards, is hidden within the Muggle (non-magical) world. The distinction between the two is that the Muggle functions with technology and the wizarding world has magic. However, the boundaries are not quite so clear. Not only do the two worlds share the same chronology, and geographical space, many of the settings and experiences of the characters, and how they live are also alike. Hogwarts is reminiscent of an old-fashioned boarding school. Harry and his friends talk and act like their Muggle counterparts, do their homework and study for exams, and like today’s contemporary youth, have a tendency for disregarding rules.

Rowling’s fantasy world is both different from reality, but not too far removed from reality, and magic aside is not very different at all. Futhermore, some muggles also possess magical abilities, – those of mixed wizard and Muggle heredity otherwise known as ‘Mudbloods’ .This gives rise to a degree of prejudice amongst certain members of the pure-bred wizarding community, but it is only the evil characters in the book who will use such racist language. For example Draco Malfoy ??? t Hermione/Ron. This differs from ROTHMC, where despite LJ treatment of Cassie, LJ is ignorant of matters concerning racism. hero encounter racism between, say, whites and blacks in the American If the point of the story is to show the evils of racism, There is clear-cut, negatively-framed racism inherent in the system in its treatment of “mudbloods”. Perhaps we can all learn something from Rowling’s characters: from the Weasley family, ardent defenders of the rights of the non-wizard-born, on to Hermione, the “mud-blood” who out-wizards them all, and finally Harry, whose quest to defeat the evil Voldemort is inextricably bound up with the defense of the rights of those whom Voldemort seeks to expel, exploit and destroy.

The theme of racial prejudice is not formally introduced until Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but even in her first book, Rowling hints at what is to come with reference to Vernon Dursley's prejudice against witches and wizards and the rift this caused in Harry's own family. such as Hermione Granger, both of whose parents are Muggles, and Harry himself, whose mother, Lily, was Muggle-born, suffer the scorn of some Hogwarts classmates,

then displays a sense of superiority over the muggles and this is expressed by both children and adults alike. 

One additional point about the theme of race and race-based prejudice is worth noting

The evil Malfoy family sniffs about its ancient lineage and its pure blood; young Draco torments Hermione at school about being a “Mud-blood,” contaminated by her Muggle background.

Harry is presented as ordinary despite having extraordinary powers, although he is already something of a hero in the wizarding world.

Harry’s development as a wizard is, for the most part shown to be a normal part of his growing up since he has been born with magical abilities. His hero journey, and supernatural adventure,

we are allowed a glimpse into the inner struggles he must go through to develop into a mature young man.

Tom’s Midnight Garden

Published in the nineteen fifties, amidst Britain’s second ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature, Tom’s Midnight Garden fits into the fantasy strand of time travel. Pearce transports her protagonist Tom into a secret garden in the past and a part of Victorian history associated with grand country houses and splendid gardens. Pearce provides an authentic time shift through her descriptions, but it is the time travel element that makes the book a fantasy. Despite this magical excursion into the past, Tom and Hatty’s relationship is perfectly normal and realistic in its presentation. Pearce’s literary device for Tom’s transition is the antique grandfather clock, which not only maintains time but also functions as a gateway through time. The fantasy begins when the clock chimes the odd number of thirteen and the garden appears. Thus, the clock is both ordinary and extraordinary. Similarly, the garden is fantastical because it is the place where ‘magic’ happens, and because it acts as a link between the past and the present, but its realism adds a certain plausibility to the story. Tom and Hatty cross paths because they both long for something that eludes their current situation. The garden evokes a nostalgic longing in Hatty, and in Tom a yearning to escape his miserable confinement. For each of them, the garden is an ideal, a rural paradise.

Time operates differently in the garden, and over a series of visits Tom comes to realize that Hatty is growing up and maturing while he remains the same: ‘Hatty’s Time had stolen a march on him and had turned Hatty herself from his playmate into a grown-up woman’ (Pearce, p. ????).

Both child protagonists are outcasts in the sense that they are being ‘fostered’ in an environment in which they feel isolated and miserable. Preoccupied with his own feelings, Tom is not always considerate of others, but he gains sensitivity and maturity through his friendship with Hatty.

Unlike Harry Potter, Tom Long is a genuinely ordinary boy without the ability to call upon magic to aid him in the vicissitudes of daily life. Whereas Harry is rescued from his confinement and invited into a secondary world (to fulfil his ?, Tom’s initial entry into his secret garden is accidental.

Pearce shies away

fantasy creates a powerful nostalgic sense that our time and place is a degraded or pallid version of a more meaningful, more authentic world, which we have somehow lost; and fantasy creates the imaginative possibility that we might someday recover or return to it.

There is varied focus on the fantastic in the three novels. Tom’s Midnight Children contains a quaint dose of it, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone revels in the weird and the unthinkable, while Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is so full of realism than even the adult can grimace at what it conveys. A critical element in fantasy is its continuing believability. The reader needs to be able to connect even with fantasies; just about anything cannot possibly happen in a novel. To quote Lloyd Alexander, “The muse of fantasy wears sensible shoes.” These three books variously tap the potential of realism and fantasy to engage children’s inquisitive, susceptible and fertile minds.


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