Darkly Dahl

Roald Dahl is an author of controversy. He’s lauded for being a brilliant writer; he’s shunned because of his 1920’s upbringing and racist and antisemitic writings and comments. His children’s books are considered classics of literature; his children’s books are ignored by some who complain they are too dark for children’s literature.

Too dark? Let’s look at this.

Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother was eaten by a predatory wolf, Cinderella’s stepmother made her into a slave, Hansel and Gretl were abandoned (twice!) by their parents and taken in by a cannibalistic hag; the Little Match Girl freezes to death all alone. Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda darker than that? Not quite.  

There is some truth to it – in many of Dahl’s stories, parents, if not most adults, are seen as evil, or cruel, or incompetent providers – mean teachers, poor and ever-working parents, buffoonish adults who cannot see the plight of the child (Wonka is most definitely – well, Wonky). There are elements of racial bigotry (the tiny black (yes, they were black in the book) oompa loompas living on grubs; Germans always being fat gluttons, etc). But is this so far from other children’s stories? Not so much. Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events is also darkly humorous, and few are crying foul. Dr. Doolittle bleaches a man’s skin, rather than let a black man marry a white woman. Peter Pan’s stereotypical depiction of Native Americans is downright painful and offensive on many levels. Bigotry and stereotyping is nothing new, only that fact that we now call it what it is. 

One point to remember is that parents, quite frankly, are a pain in the neck to children. They love them, while at the same time resent them for setting limits, saying no, and dragging children kicking and screaming through the process of growing up. For Dahl – and millions of others – who grew up in British boarding schools, at the mercy of bullies they couldn’t escape and teachers who were allowed to whip children, the experience left a more lasting impression (Pink Floyd, anyone?). For those in Britain who grew up in World War II, who as children hid during the Blitz or were shipped out to board with strangers, it lends another level of abandonment and trust issues to children’s literature. There’s a reason behind a lot of the dark – and for British children, it’s a shared cultural memory. Is Fantastic Mr. Fox an allegory for the war? Possibly. 

Another point to consider is children are the hero of their own story. It’s fine if Daddy vanquishes the dragon, but children would much rather be the ones doing it. Tween and Pre-tween children desperately want to be seen as competent, able to impress grown ups with their abilities. Children want to be the hero, and they can’t do that if Mummy and Daddy are with them telling them no – hence the number of orphan stories, or children alone. They can’t rely on the adults with them, or the story won’t work. A story about a child who tried and failed, who gave up and lived with their perceived oppression, isn’t a story a child wants to read about. There’s no role model there, no hero, no inspiration, no one to pretend to be. So of course Matilda has to shine, and the Peach must kill James’s wicked aunts, even if he has to find kinship with a bunch of insects, and even wacky Mr. Wonka can’t miss the good that dwells in Charlie. 

Darkness, shmarkness. The world is a dark place, and childhood a relatively new invention. In too many places, children are still locked in war-torn places, famines, camps, drug violence, and abusive situations. Our lauded fairy tales of yore – right down to Mother Goose and Aesop’s Fables – hark back to far darker times.

 Let them read. If nothing else, darker literature provides the perfect chance to discuss empathy, fantasy vs. reality, and handling tough situations – including some of the tough times we’ve been through in the past year.

The Magic Finger

Danny the Champion of the World

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Witches

The BFG

Matilda

James and the Giant Peach

Fantastic Mr. Fox

10 of the Best Opening Lines in Literature

These are some of our favorites. What are yours?

 

 

 

Passing the Bechdel Test

Have you given anything a Bechdel test? Have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test?
I’d never heard of it either (and I went to a women’s college!) until it popped up on an internet group I belong to, and I had to look it up.

The Bechdel test (or Bechdel-Wallace test) is a measure of representation of women in fiction. It first appeared in Allison Bechdel’s 1985 cartoon strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (I didn’t name it) commenting on films, brought on by a quote from Virginia Woolf, in that women in fiction might sometimes be mother and daughter, but rarely are two women friends in literature. Almost always, women were viewed by their relationship to men – wanting a man, chasing a man, depending on a man, chasing off a man, etc. (Hence Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”). Real women in real life talk to other women about more than just men (even if it’s only about their cat or dog).

Therefore, Bechdel gave three commandments for films to be considered women-friendly (and by default, TV and books):

  1. It must have at least two women in it (preferably with names)
  2. Who talk to each other (preferably for at least 60 seconds)
  3. About something besides a man

And the off-hand comment in a sarcastic lesbian cartoon strip surged until it’s become an almost a standard metric for the industry.

Seems pretty simple, right?

Various groups have researched more than 8000 films, and concluded that 42-50% of films cannot pass the test, and half of those that do pass do so only because two women are discussing marriage or babies. Being a female-oriented show about women does not mean the film or program can pass the test. Even female-cast TV shows such as Sex in the City don’t pass, because almost all the discussion is about men. Big-budget female-lead action films such as Lucy or Atomic Blonde or Salt fail, because the secondary characters are almost always men – there are no other women. Star Trek, which broke many TV taboos, can’t pass the test – there are many women, and they talk quite a bit, but almost never to each other. Lost in Space had three women trapped in a tin can together, and they almost never spoke to each other for more than one or two lines, occasionally. Firefly, for its very brief run, hits the mark more often than not. Okay, I Love Lucy wins for most realistic female friends ever, as does Gone With the Wind, thanks to Miss Melly, so time period is not a decisive factor. We haven’t necessarily gotten better with age, despite feminism.

Various groups have researched more than 8000 films, and concluded that 42-50% of films cannot pass the test, and half of those that do pass do so only because two women are discussing marriage or babies. Being a female-oriented show about women does not mean the film or program can pass the test. Even female-cast TV shows such as Sex in the City don’t pass, because almost all the discussion is about men. Big-budget female-lead action films such as Lucy or Atomic Blonde or Salt fail, because the secondary characters are almost always men – there are no other women. Star Trek, which broke many TV taboos, can’t pass the test – there are many women, and they talk quite a bit, but almost never to each other. Lost in Space had three women trapped in a tin can together, and they almost never spoke to each other for more than one or two lines, occasionally. Firefly, for its very brief run, hits the mark more often than not. Okay, I Love Lucy wins for most realistic female friends ever, as does Gone With the Wind, thanks to Miss Melly, so time period is not a decisive factor. We haven’t necessarily gotten better with age, despite feminism.

Not passing the Bechdel test does NOT make a film bad, nor does it make it not worth watching. Not every movie is going to center around women – Dunkirk, for example, a splendid movie about a specific battle in World War II. Women were just not involved in that. Stand By Me – a magnificent story of four young boys on a quest. Girls aren’t in the story, and if you skip this movie because of that, then you’re missing one of the best American movies. Nor is every film required to pass the Bechdel test. Casino passes two of the three qualifications, but women are mistreated throughout the film. Inclusion is just that – inclusion, not a judgment of how women are treated by the story, not a judgment of female competence, not a judgment of feminism (Gravity, with a female astronaut who saves the day, can’t pass the test, though The Martian, with a male lead, does). A woman may love a movie that can’t pass the test, and a man can certainly love a film that does. Movies of every genre pass or fail; there is no specific type of film to look for.

All the Bechdel test does, really, is point out films in which women – a full 50% of the population – are a larger focus of the story, and even if they aren’t, they’re portrayed as real, well-rounded people who speak to each other about real subjects, even if it’s about burning a roast, not just love-starved buttercups who are nothing without a man. So, if you’re on the lookout for films that show women – important or background characters – in a more realistic light, here are 15 various films that do pass the Bechdel test:

The Finest Hours

Little Miss Sunshine

Wonder Woman

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Last Jedi

Girl, Interrupted

Hidden Figures

Kill Bill

Thelma and Louise

The Exorcist

Chicago

Frozen

Birds of Prey

Bill and Ted Face the Music

Knives Out

Teen Book Reviews: “Concrete Rose” and “If I Tell You the Truth”

Today’s book reviews are by volunteer Ima T.

 

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

Concrete Rose serves as a prequel to the much loved story of The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas. However, it’s not necessary to have read The Hate You Give, because the Concrete Rose has its own complete, separate storyline.

The story follows Maverick Carter, who is a 17 year old living in Garden Heights. He has been involved with the King Lords gang since his father had previously been a pivotal part of it beforehand. His role is to sell small amounts of weed and recruit new members. He made a nice sum of money from this role and could help pay the bills with his mother. Yet his life turns upside down when he realizes he has a son, which leads him to attempt to leave the gang. The reason he does this since he knows that the environment he is in with a gang would not be good for his son. But things start to change once he finds it harder and harder to scrape money together for his family and the people who support him. Maverick needs to find a way to break the cycle of involvement with gangs. One heart-stopping event occurs when a close friend of Maverick’s is murdered, and once this happens, he truly has to learn how to deal with grief and trauma with people who are still relying on him.

Concrete Rose is a fierce novel with important themes that can be applied to everyday life. For example, in the novel, Maverick struggles with the fact that he is being constantly compared to his powerful father, who was previously part of the gang but is now in jail. Nicknamed ‘Li’l Don’, he has big shoes to fill and constantly feels as though he should be more of a man. His emotional development throughout the book gives an inside look to readers who want to learn more about the father described in The Hate You Give. Concrete Rose is an amazing read, and truly lives up to its name of describing a boy who is struggling to flourish and realize his full potential.

 

If I Tell You the Truth by Jasmin Kaur

If I Tell You the Truth by Jasmin Kaur follows the story of Kiran and her daughter Sahaara, and it is told from both of their alternating perspectives. A compelling part of the novel is the fact that some of the story is told in verse, while the rest of it reads like a normal novel. When the novel is in verse, it is often to display emotions like sadness or anger. This allows for the distressed thoughts that the characters feel to be expressed deeper. Kiran is Punjabi, and comes to Canada on an educational visa. She leaves her strict family to go to university else where, but the reader soon discovers that she has a child on the way as a result of sexual assault. Her decision to keep her future daughter strains her relationship with her family, and leaves her isolated in a foreign country. Kiran struggles with letting her daughter grow up without much money and familial support, and there is an added fear of getting deported. Kiran had to overstay her visa in Canada for her daughter since she didn’t want to go back to her home country out of fear of finding her rapist.

The first half of the book is told from Kiran’s point of view, and the rest is from Sahaara. Sahaara wants to find her own identity since she doesn’t know about Kiran’s background. When she learns about what happened to her mother, she fights to help take down the rapist and stand by her mother, while struggling with her own self identity in the process. If I Tell You the Truth is very well written, and it expands on the important theme of community and loyalty while displaying the growing relationship between mother and daughter. Kiran’s and Sahaara’s story will strike a chord in many hearts. This is an exceptional novel, and I couldn’t recommend it more.

YA Books for Theater Geeks

You have a show-tune playlist. You have a program or Playbill from every show you’ve seen.  You break out into accents in the middle of conversations. You own every season of Glee (and all the High School Musicals – admit it). You are a theater geek – embrace it, celebrate it! Read about it! The theater plays a leading role in these YA books:

1. Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg.  Emme, Sophie, Ethan, and Carter are seniors at a performing arts high school in New York City, preparing for the senior recital and feeling the pressure to perform well.

2. Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth. 15-year-old Emma is acting as stage manager for her school’s production of Hamlet when she finds herself transported to the original staging of Hamlet in Shakespearean England.

3. Drama by Raina Telgemeier. Designing sets for her middle school’s play, Callie tries to overcome limited carpentry skills, low ticket sales, squabbling crew members, and the arrival of two cute brothers.

4. Always Never Yours by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka. A contemporary romance inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet follows the efforts of a plucky but lovelorn teen theater director who is unexpectedly cast in a leading role at the same time she begins receiving relationship advice from a playwright friend

5. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen by Dyan Sheldon. Mary Elizabeth Cep, (though she calls herself “Lola,”) sets her sights on the lead in the annual drama production, and finds herself in conflict with the most popular girl in school.

6. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan. The tale of a pair of teens who meet by chance on a Chicago street corner and discover that they share a name and intertwining destinies involving an epic production of a high school musical.

7. Like It Never Happened by Emily Adrian. Gaining instant popularity after landing the lead in the school play, Rebecca breaks a pact with her new friends by dating a fellow cast member until backstage drama escalates into a life-changing accusation.

8. Ready to Fall by Marcella Pixley. Seventeen-year-old Max, struggling to come to terms with his mother’s death, is cast as the ghost in “Hamlet” and finds strength in his new theater friends.

9. Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills. Claudia agrees to coach actors in her high school’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” leading to new friendships–and maybe even new love.

10. Noteworthy by Riley Redgate. After learning that her deep voice is keeping her from being cast in plays at her exclusive performing arts school, Jordan disguises herself as a boy to gain entry into a competitive, all-male a cappella group that is looking for a singer with her vocal range.