Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Children's Book Cliches

When attacked by a large creature with fangs, prop its jaws apart with a halberd, or anything handy.

To kill a dragon, hide in a pit and stab its vulnerable underside as it crawls to the river to drink (may be myth No.794).

If your dog disappears, it will be found on a ledge in a quarry.

In caves, the walls are always “covered with a kind of phosphorescence that gives a little light.”

Nasty characters always call children “brats”.

When the heroes find a cave stuffed to the roof with gold and jewels, there's always some reason why they can't take any away: an ancient white cobra warns them off, it's guarded by a dragon, they turn into a dragon etc etc Or else a Boring Old Fart appears and lectures them on the fact that money never brings happiness, bla bla bla... or the gold weighs their pockets down and they have to leave it behind… or they take the prettiest jewels and they turn out to be glass.

A dog/horse is bought cheap/found wandering/rescued from a pound and discovered to have some flaw due to its unhappy childhood, eg compulsive head tossing. New child owners (with help of crusty old avuncular character) retrain dog/horse - will it revert to type at the gymkhana/dog show or win the prize?

An English teacher writes: it's a stepping stone on the way to the trendy adolescent novel about a teenager who's got some flaw owing to a bla bla bla and is reclaimed by a bla bla bla and will they manage to play the lead role in the school play/play solo in the piano concerto in the end-of-year concert/win at sports day bla bla bla or will they go back on the drugs etc? There are only 7 plots in the whole of world literature and this is one of them (actually quite a good one too). Examples: a naughty boy in Little Men; hero of good 70s school story, Pennington's Seventeenth Summer, countless boarding school sagas by the likes of Enid Blyton. Of course some of them had a sinister agenda - you were meant to give them to difficult but possibly gifted chldren to read and say, There, I understand your pain, just do as I say and you too could win the Olympics, sing at Covent garden, get off with the most beautiful girl in the school etc etc.

In books, it is cool to be a rebel if you do it IN THE RIGHT WAY...

This trend is bucked by the utterly brilliant Huckleberry Finn, who at the end of the novel seems all set for reclamation by kindly good people etc but decides he'd prefer just to piss off and do his own thing.


  1. Hiding in a pit to kill the dragon at least has pedigree - it's how Sigurd killed Fafnir.

  2. And almost how Bilbo killed Smaug.

  3. Well, Tolkein's academic area was Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, so it's not too surprising that vast swathes of his work - or at least the background to it - were borrowed from that literature.

  4. William Mayne did it too in a strange time-slip story.