Throughout our lives, there will be rites of passage that everyone experiences: our first love, first kiss, friendship, a family; but not all of them are happy. We also experience of abuse, abandonment, death and more. Children are not immune to these universal themes and circumstances, especially facing events such as death, tragedy and grief; they are unaware of how to cope with such situations because their limited experience universal themes in her books is British children’s author, Jaqueline Wilson:
…her books depict real children’s real lives and problems in a way that few others do – and they are loved for it.Mangon, 2015
For decades, there has been a debate on what is suitable for children and what can be harmful. Children stories and books are a relatively new form of literature. Many of but children would have been around to listen to them because they had the same hunger for stories as adults. However, children had no narrative that was particularly aimed at them (Montgomery, 2009). It wasn’t until the 17th century where folklorists such as Charles Perrault and Gabrielle-Susan de Villanueva adapted fairy tales for children with the purpose of teaching them about morals and socially acceptable behaviour.
The History of Fairy Tales and Children’s literature
Fairy tales and children’s literature were written with the purpose of socializing children to meet definite normative expectations at home and in the public sphere (Zipes, 2006, p. 9)
The first British Children’s Books publisher, John Newbery, published books like such as ‘A Little Pretty Pocket Book’ and ‘Little Goody-two Shoes’ (Waldman, 2016), these books also contained the morals and virtue children were expected to abide by, especially girls. The universal themes were not considered or were used to teach children they should behave to avoid tragedy or death.
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge (Coolidge, 1982) is an example of this; Coolidge uses tragedy and death as a device to teach children to behave. Rather than dealing with the grief and tragedy, Katy is told to find God and become patient and mothering to her siblings while looking after the house like the expected housewife at the time.
However, Children’s literature has developed into something much more; it is used as an escapism from the adult world that the children inhabit. This change may have been because of the two world wars, where children faced death and tragedy on a daily basis. Books like Tom’s Midnight Garden (Pearce, 2018) by Phillipa Pearce concepts in the adult world that affect children, such as friendship, love, relationships and abandonment. There is a lack of a moral and virtuous message.
…however, against espousing too uncritically a comfortable and teleological narrative in which children’s literature has got better, less moralistic, and increasingly child-focused.Grenby, 2009
Similarly, other post-war and contemporary books such as: The Lord of the Rings (Tolkein, 2005), Goodnight Mr Tom (Magorian, 2011), Percy Jackson (Riordan, 2006), all deal with universal themes, particularly death, grief and tragedy.
About this case study
This case study will explore three books from contemporary, British author, Jacqueline Wilson and how they deal with the concepts of death, tragedy and grief, particularly in the following books:
- The Cat Mummy (Wilson, 2001),
- Katy (Wilson, 2015),
- and My Sister Jodie (Wilson, 2008).
The Cat Mummy
The Cat Mummy (Wilson, 2001) is written for young children, aged between 5-8, the protagonist tries to cope with grief after the death of her beloved cat, Mabel. Verity, is unable to talk about death because the family is still grieving for Verity’s mother who died when giving birth to the protagonist. As the book is written for young children, it has a simple plot:
Plots are either Simple or Complex, for the actions in real life, of which the plots are an imitation, obviously show a similar distinction.Aristotle, 2016, p. 14
A simple plot is one where the action and ‘change of fortune’ that takes place is not because of reversal of situation or recognition (Aristotle, 2016, pp. 14-15). The story starts with Verity introducing herself and discussing the pets of her classmates as well as her pet cat, Mabel, which resembles a soliloquy; drawing the reader in. It is used as a form of exposition so that the reader is aware of how much Mable means to Verity before the story actually begins:
I sometimes talk about my mum to Mabel, because Mabel doesn’t ever get upset…I talk and talk and talk about mum.Wilson, 2001, p. 13
Children facing adult problems?
Wilson believes that children are engaging with ideas and issues in the adult world that children ‘simply don’t have the maturity to deal with’ and as a result, ‘act like adults’ (Wilson, 2008). Consequently, she believes that, as an author, she has a personal responsibility to help children understand the issues around them by telling stories that they can relate to:
As a writer I like to hold out a metaphorical hand to children and reflect the situations, anxieties and issues they’re facing in an imaginative way.Wilson, 2008
This is depicted in The Cat Mummy. Living with her father and grandparents, Verity feels that she cannot confide in them for comfort when dealing with death and grief.
Verity tries to manage her grief by mummifying her cat, something she learned in school when covering the Ancient Egyptians:
I had to get cracking and turn her into a mummy…I knew the Ancient Egyptians had taken seventy days but I had less than seventy minutes.Wilson, 2001, p. 41
Is Wilson doing the right thing?
Some parents feel that Wilson is making the issue of children growing up too quickly by writing about such stories:
… it opens the door to experiences from which they should be protected for as long as possible – precisely so that childhood innocence can be preserved rather than overshadowed by too much sophisticated knowledge, presented too early…Robinson, 2008
On the other hand, Aristotle depicts that incidences such as death should happen outside the drama, as is the case when Medea slays her own children, but there are incidences where it does fall within the narrative (Aristotle, 2016, p. 18). As the book is aimed at children, particularly young children, it is more important that this is the case.
Mindful of this, Wilson uses little description to describe Mabel’s lifeless body, most of the imagery is of smell. This demonstrates that Wilson believes that she has a personal responsibility to censor children at some level:
Mabel smelt as if she was in dreadful distress and needed cleaning up… I shoved Mabel in her bag to the very back of the wardrobe and closed the door quick.Wilson, 2001, p. 66-67
While the story does not have a reversal in the way that Aristotle meant, it does have a change of fortune simple plots require which benefits both the protagonist and her father. The teacher who taught Verity about mummification believed that the recent death in Verity’s life was her mother and interferes with the family only to find out it was the cat. The family then find the cat in Verity’s room and with the teacher’s help the father realises he needs to be more open and speak to Verity about death:
‘I’m going to try to get away early every day now,’ said Dad. ‘I think we need to spend more time with each other, Verity.’Wilson, 2001, p. 91
Robinson argues that young children do not need to explore the concepts of divorce, grief and redundancy that is found in Wilson’s literature, particularly as Wilson writes stories set in the real world:
The problem with realistic settings is that the horrors, too, are that much more real.Robinson, 2008
The Cat Mummy does not show any horrific scenes, including the death of the cat, the language used is light, though the young character does tell a lie and keep a secret which makes her feel uncomfortable.
By exploring this book, it is not yet clear if Wilson is responsible as a writer, even though it is clear she feels she has some responsibility. However, exploring in Katy (Wilson, 2015) and My Sister Jodie (Wilson, 2001) can give valuable insight as death, grief and tragedy are handled differently in those books.
Jaqueline Wilson’s Katy (Wilson, 2015) is an adaption and rewrite of What Katy Did (Coolidge, 1982) by Susan Coolidge. Both books can be classed as a form of tragedy as the eponymous character in both stories have a life-changing accident:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude.Aristotle, 2016, p. 9
However, both authors approach tragedy in different ways; Coolidge uses the tragedy to create a warning tale for young girls, cautioning the young readers that if they do not obey, believe in God and manage to maintain the house, then there will be consequences:
God is going to let you go to His school … Perhaps He will only keep you for one term… it may be three or four…Coolidge, 1982, p. 119
On the other hand, Wilson wanted to express a different message. Yes, children ought to obey their parents, but they do not need to believe in God or become submissive and obedient wives. To do this, Wilson made the protagonist strong, robust and feisty:
I didn’t want any sudden unlikely miracle cures for my Katy… She wouldn’t need to be saintly – she’d need to be tough if she was going to cope.Wilson, 2015
Nevertheless, it is important to note that these two books are different because they are written in conflicting time periods. What Katy Did was originally published in 1872, while Katy was published in 2015; over a century apart. Thus, Coolidge’s society and what was acceptable is different to the 21st Century attitudes.
Inspiration for the rewrite of Katy
Wilson explains her inspiration for the book in an article for The Guardian . It came during a reread of What Katy Did when she started to question whether children wondered why being good, ‘religion and fresh air’ (Wilson, 2015) was not curing them of their disability like it does in the book. She wanted children to receive a message in her book that was more accurate and understanding of disability. This illustrates Aristotle’s theory that tragedy is an imitation of life, and therefore the outcome must also be an imitation of life:
For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.Aristotle, 2016, p. 10
Wilson achieves her aims by mirroring the first half of What Katy Did (Coolidge, 1982) including her family until the accident, with minor changes that fit in with the modern world. This includes changing the relationships between characters, Helen is a family friend, not a cousin and Izzie is now her stepmother, not her maiden Aunt:
Katy is often in trouble with her stepmother (children are rarely brought up by maiden aunts nowadays)Wilson, 2015
Wilson only develops the characters of Helen, Izzie and Katy from the original story.
Helen is no longer religious, Izzie tries her hardest to bond with Katy as a stepparent, Katy is determined and strong-willed enough to overcome her tragedy. Aristotle’sPoetics states that characterisation is the second most important aspect of the tragedy genre, with plot being the first principle:
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place.Aristotle, 2016, p. 10
Therefore, Katy being the eponymous protagonist, should have a fully-rounded and developed personality. Before her accident, Katy is a tomboy character and not that well-behaved. She climbs trees, doesn’t do her homework and sticks up for herself.
While Katy still has the same traits after the accident, she is now also traumatised, grieving and angry. Wilson illustrates this by displaying Katy’s frustration of limited ability and independence:
‘Oooh, cutting out! And I’m to be trusted with real scissors!… don’t want the little crip girl to cut her fingers off too, do we?’Wilson, 2015, pp. 326-327
Aristotle states that a good tragedy should contain ‘Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering’ (Aristotle, 2016, p. 33) which Wilson successfully provides. Due to her condition, Katy and Izzie are able to bond, whereas previously, Katy feared Izzie was trying to replace her mother. Another reversal is after the accident, Katy believes she is unable to do anything but from watching the DVDHelen gives her, and encouragement from her P.E teacher, Mr Myers, she realises that she can still be herself, having fun, participate in sport:
I’d had no idea that people with all kinds of disabilities could achieve so much…Mr Myers had given me the name and phone number of the guy who ran the basketball club.Wilson, 2015, p. 471
By using a reversal of situation, Wilson lightens the mood, ensuring that the young readers do not pity Katy for being disabled but encourage her through her journey. This technique also helps Wilson tell a story about a disabled child protagonist with as little harm as possible to the disabled community. Disabled readers will feel they have a book they can relate to, and children who are not disabled will try and understand disability more from it.
Exploring Aristotle’s theory on tragedy, it can be argued that by using reversals of situation, plot andc haracter, Wilson wrote a responsible piece on overcoming a tragic incident in her book Katy. She also uses tragedy in My Sister Jodie (Wilson, 2008).
My Sister Jodie
Just like Katy, My Sister Jodie (Wilson, 2008) is full of reversals of situations (Aristotle, 2016). The story starts with Jodie and Pearl facing the prospect of moving;
Jodie is popular where they live, settled and confident; but Pearl is studious, shy and keeps to herself – Jodie does not want to move, but relents when Pearl expresses her wish for a fresh start:
‘Yes. I’ll hate it. But I’ll come, just for you.’Wilson, 2009, p. 21
Children imitating behaviour.
However, Robinson argues that children imitate the medium they read, being influenced by the story and some of the hurtful language the characters use on adults:
… children have no respect for adult authority, but you need look no further than the heroes and heroines of much of what is offered in children’s books and dramas to understand why.Robinson, 2008
This can be illustrated in My Sister Jodie as Jodie was told by her mum not to have her ears pierced but she did it anyway.
Jodie had been begging Mum to let her have her ears pierced. Mum always said no, so last year Jodie went off and got her ears pierced herself. She kept going back. So there are five extra little rings up one ear.Wilson, 2009, p. 12-13
To empathise on Robinson’s point, Jodie dies her hair purple to fit in at her new school so as not to feel lonely and prevent bullying of her ginger hair. Jodie’s mother, Sharon, disapproves of Jodie’s purple hair, but Jodie dismisses her mother’s concern:
‘Calm down, Mum…’ said Jodie, grinning. Mum slapped her hard across the face…Jodie sauntered off, whistling.Wilson, 2008, p. 313
The physical punishment received from the mother could upset children who are not used to such violent from a parent. But Jodie’s attitude to the punishment may encourage kids to see it as good behaviour.
Pearl, on the other hand, makes some friends in class, enjoys her lessons and joins Harvey at night to watch badgers, building her confidence up:
I was friends with Harry; I was friends with Sheba and Freya and even Clarissa. By the end of lessons I was friends with all the girls in my class.Wilson, 2009, p. 288
Character transitions as reversals
This is the start of one of the reversals, preparing the protagonist for the change and loss that is about to happen due to the death of Jodie. Pearl is going to have to be brave, confident and tough to endure her sister’s death:
Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.Aristotle, 2016, p. 15
Another reversal is when Pearl has baby sister May, she is ready to stand up for her like Jodie did for her before Jodie’s death. Pearl finds a pregnancy test in the bathroom and believes it belongs to Jodie due to her late night outs with Jed but after Jodie’s death, to protect:
If anyone teases you or hurts you or scares you when you go to school, I’ll make mincemeat of them, I promise you…’Wilson, 2008, p. 399
However, while the reversals are good, particularly of character, manner and traits, the management of grief was lacking. Death is a big complex issue and as this book is written for children, it should help them understand the grief and loss that accompanies this:
children’s books may have played their part by offering young minds a window on a world too complex and sophisticated for them to understand.Robinson, 2008
Some children would not have experienced death before reading this book, otherswould have lost a relative to old age, so by choosing to feature death in a children’s story, Wilson ought to take responsibility for the emotions that will rise through the young reader as they try to make sense of what happened. By rushing the grieving process, despite showing it in other books, Wilson risks increasing young readers confusion and fears of death:
As it is, I have found they have warped my child’s emotional equilibrium and his sleep as surely as Tracy Beaker has damaged his manners.Robinson, 2008
Aristotle’s theory is that everything should be balanced, due to the way My Sister Jodie ends, it can be argued that Wilson had not balanced out the events like she had with the characters.
My Sister Jodie seems to be the least responsible of the three explored. It uses the Reversal of Situations well, making it a responsible tragic piece but as a children’s book, it’s lack of exploration into grief can upset and confuse children due to its lack of resolution. This book differs from Wilson’s other books as it does not deal with emotion and concepts in a creative way children can understand.
Case study conclusion
For the most part, Wilson seems to believe that she is responsible for the work she produces to children; censoring events and language for younger readers, creating a realistic portrayal of disabled characters and exploring universal issues that children may face. However, in the case of My Sister Jodie, her responsibility falters.
Like many other authors do, Jacqueline Wilson’s books can enrich and broaden children’s minds, taking them to a different world. Most of her stories are heart-warming, encouraging and informative. However, some of the ways she explores concepts in Children’s literature is not suitable for young children.
~~Written by Lily