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The Evolution of Middle-Grade Fantasy and Television


NOTE: I drafted this on my computer while I had power at a local café, but I’m posting it from home on my cell phone. As a result, some of my formatting may have gotten messed up. If so, I apologize: I’ll fix it as soon as I have power and Internet at home.

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of cartoons. Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Inspector Gadget…the list goes on. Thanks to Netflix, I’ve started re-watching many of these shows, but I find that it is hard to re-capture my childhood appreciation. Most did not age well (or maybe I haven’t), but it is somewhat saddening to see stories I loved as a kid come off as puerile now. Interestingly, the books I read as a child do not suffer from the same problem. Why are the shows I watched at eight or nine unwatchable now, but the books I read at the same age still enjoyable? Have I just become some sort of egg-headed curmudgeon (obviously I have, but is that the cause?), or is there something different about these stories that affects their longevity?

Since Hurricane Irene knocked out our power for the last couple of days, I’ve had nothing to do but think about this while twiddling my thumbs by candlelight. And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: what sets timeless middle-grade fiction apart from the cartoons from the ’80s and early ’90s is the evolution of character and moral ambiguity.

The Quest Structure and Character Evolution in Middle Grade Fiction

Much of the middle-grade fantasy I read as a child (Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time Quintet, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising) relied on the standard portal/quest structure. The youthful hero/ine has to leave home, find something, and return.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender showing Zuko.

Prince Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender, via Wikipedia

Their physical quest mirrors an evolution of their characters. As they progress through the various stages of their adventure, the characters are naturally changed by their experiences. Edmund Pevensie, in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, starts as a resentful, selfish child. His exposure to the White Witch’s evil changes him, as do his attempts to earn his siblings’ (and Aslan’s) forgiveness. At the end of the book, bratty little Edmund Pevensie ultimately becomes “Edmund the Just.”

In Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, Taran learns that adventure is not the rollicking good time he supposes, and that heroes must make difficult choices.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg develops self-confidence and self-value through realizing that although she lacks her siblings’ more obvious gifts, her capacity for love ensures a central place within her family.

While adult readers might deride the portal/quest fantasy structure as trite, its ability to harmonize the characters’ emotional journey with their physical adventure continues to make it resonate. The key to that resonance, particularly for young readers, is how compelling the characters are. If the characters are uninteresting, no kid will ever enjoy the book. If those characters do not change, then young readers will rapidly outgrow the story (if they ever get into it at all).

Character Evolution in Cartoons

This kind of character evolution is distinctly absent from cartoons of the ’80s. At the time, cartoons were often made to sell toys, and by their very nature were more open-ended: the writers had to keep the story going until the show got cancelled. This presents its own storytelling challenges, and as a consequence, each episode tended to be a self-contained story arc, while the series as a whole had only the loosest overall structure. Typically a shows’ latter seasons – when the creators saw their series nearing the end of its viability – would often feature multi-episode or season-spanning plots which the creators hoped would finish a story. Yet despite this “innovation” in storytelling, each episode still needed to be self-contained, and characters never evolved greatly from one episode to the next. The Donatello we meet in the first episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the same Donatello ten seasons later: his experiences over the ten years of show continuity have not introduced any changes into the character’s personality or values.

When we look at more modern cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender, we see an entirely different structure at work. First and foremost, the story is no longer open-ended. The show’s creators set out to tell a story in three parts. There was never an intention to keep the show going through ten years of storytelling. Avatar The Last Airbender is similar to much middle-grade fiction in that it retains a quest structure at its macro-level and focuses on an over-arching conflict between our heroes and a “Dark Lord” villain. However, as in all cartoons, each episode remains a self-contained adventure within the confines of the broader story.

I believe that this innovation is enormously significant in terms of televised animated storytelling. Thanks to its structure, Avatar The Last Airbender is able to introduce character arcs that parallel the story’s plot arc. Over the story’s three seasons, we can watch Aang mature and take on his responsibilities as the Avatar, Sokka grow into the capable warrior he dreams of being, and Katara master water-bending and come to terms with her feelings for Aang. Each of the principal characters gradually grows and changes over the course of the show’s three seasons, which ultimately makes the series’ conclusion all the more satisfying.

Villainy in Middle-Grade Fiction and Cartoons

Another key difference lies in how “classic” cartoons portray their villains. The portal/quest fantasy has often been mocked for its stereotypically irredeemable “Dark Lord” (for a hilarious send-up, I strongly recommend Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel). And both middle-grade novels and cartoons feature this trope.

The Dark Lord’s goals tend to be suitably grandiose: take over the world/universe/whatever. But while the Dark Lord is portrayed as irredeemable and morally abhorrent, our heroes rarely face him until the final battle. Instead, their direct opposition usually comes from the Dark Lord’s lackeys, who are more complex characters serving the Dark Lord for their own (less inscrutable) reasons. Their goals are more localized: gain temporal power, get the respect they think they deserve, etc.

Whether it is Alexander’s Queen Archen, Cooper’s Walker, or Lewis’ Edmund Pevensie, the Dark Lord’s helpers are shown to actively make choices that align themselves with evil. Unlike the Dark Lord, their evil is never a given: they choose it for themselves. But in “classic” cartoons, the Dark Lords’ lackeys are just as irredeemably evil as their master. Whether we are talking about the Thundercats’ Slythe, the Decepticon Starscream, or Cobra’s The Baroness, the front-line villains have no depth; their motivations are rarely explored.

Moral Ambiguity in Today’s Cartoons

Fast forward twenty years, and you find an entirely new generation of cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender and the Cartoon Network’s reboot of Thundercats. Today, the irredeemable evil of the villain and the unquenchable goodness of the “good guys” is far more flexible.

Consider the rebooted Thundercats: in the first episode, we learn that the Thundercats have been repressing the dogs and lizardmen for generations. While our hero, Lion-O might oppose this level of repression, “the good guys” are generally depicted as racists. Or consider Avatar The Last Airbender. In the first episode, we learn that the Fire Nation has waged a century-long war of subjugation against the other nations, slaughtering an entire race (the Airbenders) in an unprecedented genocide. Within the first season, though, we learn that both this genocide and the war-torn century are a result of the Avatar (theoretically our hero) running from his responsibilities.

None of the “classic” cartoons from the ’80s would ever have explored a theme as morally ambiguous as Aang’s rejection of responsibility. Instead, each of these shows had to end with a moralistic “lesson” portrayed through the dénoument: remember those “knowing is half the battle” sequences at the end of GI Joe episodes? Such an externally-imposed mandate makes morally ambiguous storytelling difficult, if not impossible.

But middle-grade fiction has always had this type of moral ambiguity. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie betrays his siblings to the White Witch in exchange for promises of power and Turkish Delight. More recently, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is a thief and kidnapper who performs morally abhorrent acts with (it turns out) noble intentions. Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm wrestle with the right-and-wrong of trapping all magical Everafters in a small rural town, and their friend is the Big Bad Wolf – a villain struggling with his past crimes. Susan Cooper’s Walker shows us that the “good guys” might not always do good, and that they too can betray – or seemingly betray – their friends. None of this even touches upon Rowling’s Harry Potter books, with the moral ambiguity of Snape, Dumbledore, and Tom Riddle.

Avatar The Last Airbender probably offers us the most powerful example of how contemporary cartoons can treat villainy: when the series opens, Prince Zuko is the heroes’ primary opposition, and we watch him hunt the Avatar with intense zeal. However, by the end of the first season we understand that Zuko struggles through his relationship with his father (Fire Lord Ozai, the “Dark Lord” of the series) and with his own moral compass, personified by his Uncle Iroh. While Zuko represents the primary threat against the heroes, he is forced him into chasing the Avatar, and though we may not agree with his motives we at least understand them. His portrayal as an almost-sympathetic character makes his evolution that much more satisfying, as over the course of the three seasons we watch him gradually change from being the Dark Lord’s lackey to being one of the story’s principal heroes.

What are the Implications for Children’s Storytelling?

I think Avatar The Last Airbender, with its moral ambiguity and even-handed character arcs makes for innovative children’s storytelling, irrespective of medium. Avatar The Last Airbender’s treatment of Prince Zuko would be the equivalent of Queen Archen or the Horned King switching sides, and I have not seen much middle-grade fantasy take moral ambiguity to such lengths (though Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy – which may or may not be considered middle-grade – comes very close, and Joseph Delaney tries for it in The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch). The creators of the Thundercats reboot openly discuss wanting to make a darker, more cinematic story than the original cartoon (although Cartoon Network’s Friday at 8:30pm timeslot for the show might suggest they are aiming for an older audience). Personally, I think all of this represents an opportunity for writers of middle-grade and cartoons.

The success of Avatar The Last Airbender proves that the middle-grade audience enjoys complex storytelling, with extended character arcs and moral ambiguity. While some might say that shows like that are “too much for kids,” I could not disagree more: by blending childish adventure with more serious storytelling, they are doing what children’s literature has always done: helping kids develop a vocabulary with which to internalize and articulate a morally complex world.

In a real sense, I think this represents the gradual accrual of wisdom. If – thanks to more morally ambiguous middle-grade fiction or morally-challenging cartoons – kids are able to recognize, understand, and internalize a more complex world, then I think this can only be good. Doesn’t it suggest that kids are growing wiser sooner? And from a more crassly commercial standpoint, it also opens up “children’s” stories for an audience entirely outside of its intended demographic.

Who says grown-ups can’t enjoy good kids’ stories, anyway?

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Oblique Wisdom: The Secret of Evergreen Middle-Grade?


Probably right around the age of nine, I discovered Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. These books opened up a world of adventure, mystery, and wisdom for me – and are probably the reason why I love fantasy so much. Fast forward twenty years, and this past weekend I cracked open The Book of Three, the first book in the series. Reading it over the course of an afternoon (it’s a much faster read today than I remember it being), I think I stumbled on an aspect of middle-grade fiction that I think might be universal in evergreen titles (the classics that never go out of print, never stop being popular): oblique wisdom transparent for the reader but opaque for the hero.

Some Thoughts on the Heart of Middle-Grade Fiction

There is a world of difference between middle-grade (MG) and even young adult (YA) fiction. While both are lumped together as “children’s fiction,” everyone knows that an eight year old looks at the world very differently from a sixteen year old. Differences in awareness, concerns, and our ability to articulate our thoughts and emotions drive many of the fundamental differences between MG and YA books. An eight year old can love Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, but the themes and concerns of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games would likely go over that same child’s head.

Classic MG titles like The Phantom Tollbooth and Dealing with Dragons show us fundamental truths about the world. Most of these truths are foundational, and so basic that MG readers will already understand them before they ever pick up a book. Research has shown that by the age of five, kids understand and apply complex rules of “fairness” in their behavior. They might not be able to articulate those rules, or explain why something is right or wrong, but they have already formed a sense of it.

The best YA fiction helps us to negotiate the muddier waters of an adult reality. Books like Collins’ The Hunger Games, or Pullman’s The Golden Compass transition a child’s black-and-white value system to the shades of grey that (unfortuntely) operate in the adult world. But middle-grade, at its heart, is there to provide the initial vocabulary. It teaches us how to articulate values every child knows, but might not be able to otherwise express.

Fairy Tales, Learning Better, and the Role of the Teacher

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of popular children’s literature. In particular, Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Alexander Afanasyev, Hans Christen Andersen, and Gregory MacDonald all contributed to popularizing stories with magical characters that grew to be beloved by children in their respective countries. These early fairy tales were often based on oral storytelling traditions, and employed a remarkably consistent morphology (I recommend Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale and Luthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature for a detailed discussion).

In the 20th century, Robert A. Heinlein argued that all stories (irrespective of audience) could be reduced to three categories: Boy Meets Girl, the Brave Little Tailor, or the Person Who Learns Better. The vast majority of early fairy tales – and the majority of middle-grade fiction – fall into either the Brave Little Tailor or Learns Better structures. Within the confines of these archetypes, the mentor (or dispatcher, in Propp’s terminology) is a standard element. Consider Merlyn in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Dallben (and Coll, and Gwydion) in The Book of Three, Morwen and Kazul in Dealing with Dragons, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. What in A Wrinkle in Time, or Mrs. Frankweiler in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:

Each of these mentors is an adult, placed by the story’s plot in a parental/guardian position relative to the story’s hero. That the hero may be a hidden monarch or a prophesied savior is immaterial for the mentor’s role. From a plotting standpoint, the mentor is there to initiate and end the adventure.

Pushing the Hero Towards Adventure

Parents typically protect the hero. They want to keep the hero guarded against all of the vicissitudes of the outside world. The mentor, however, does not. The mentor recognizes – in their infinite wisdom – that the hero needs to face danger to grow. Merlyn puts Wart in potentially life-threatening situations because he hopes the lessons will make Wart a better king. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which fetch Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin and put them directly in harm’s way. Kazul and Morwen – ostensibly – have few qualms about placing Cimorene in what the novel’s society considers danger. In this sense, the mentor often adopts the role of dispatcher in Propp’s morphology. In some cases, as in Morwen and Kazul, the mentor can play the role of helper just as easily.

Starting Points: Explaining the Lesson at the Start of the Book

Mentors are by definition wise. And invariably they share that wisdom with the middle-grade hero before the adventure starts. Consider Dallben’s exchange with Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper:

“Tut,” said Dallben, “there are worse things. Do you set yourself to be a glorious hero? Do you believe it is all flashing swords and galloping about on horses? As for being glorious…”

“What of Prince Gwydion?” cried Taran. “Yes! I wish I might be like him!”

“I fear,” Dallben said, “that is entirely out of the question.”

“Buy why?” Taran sprang to his feet. “I know if I had the chance…”

“Why?” Dallben interrupted. “In some cases,” he said, “we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

This exchange – which we find in chapter one – outlines the arc at the heart of The Book of Three. Taran obviously fails to grasp the wisdom of Dallben’s warnings – otherwise, he would never run off after Hen Wen and begin his exciting adventures. But reading this exchange, an adult reader instantly sees the timeless wisdom of Dallben’s teaching. And I would argue that a nine year old reader gets it just as well.

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The reason for that is because of Dallben’s obvious wisdom. A nine year old might not be able to articulate this wisdom, to communicate it anew, yet nonetheless it strikes a chord. We know Dallben’s interdiction will be broken, that Taran will go out on an adventure. And we know that the adventure will change him, make him recognize at least a part of Dallben’s teachings. The same model can be found in Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne-Jones, L. Frank Baum: all of the classic middle-grade fantasists understood the power of foreshadowing the lesson at the start of their books.

Contrary to what many grown-ups believe, children well understand the difference between reality and fiction. They know that Taran’s adventures are dangerous. If they did not grasp the inherent wisdom of Dallben’s warnings, why would they be scared or excited when Taran faces Achren or the Horned King? While Dallben’s warnings might go right over Taran’s head, even a young reader will still understand and recognize their wisdom. They may not be able to explain what they have understood, but that does not mean they have failed to grasp its underlying significance. The reader knows what lesson is coming before they’re even finished with chapter one: which is why the book’s conclusion – when Taran has had his adventures, and has learned at least a little more wisdom – is so satisfying.

The Obliquity of Wisdom: Mediating the Mentor and the Hero

This structure is satisfying because the reader not only understands the mentor’s wisdom, but the hero’s desires. What nine year old doesn’t want an exciting adventure slaying monsters? We want Taran to have his adventure, we want him to face down monsters and evil, and to come out stronger, smarter, and happier at the end. We know that Taran will get into trouble by breaking Dallben’s interdiction, but there remains that niggling little voice inside that says adventure is worth it.

The relationship brings to a mind the best line of the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, where Isabelle warns Hugo that they can get into trouble and Hugo responds “That’s how you know it’s an adventure.” That exchange encapsulates the reader’s mediation between grasping the hero’s immature desires, and internalizing the mentor’s wisdom. If the hero were not in danger, if the hero did not break the mentor’s rules, then there would be no adventure.

Developing One’s Own Vocabulary: The Learning Hero in Middle Grade

As MG novels progress, the hero has to gradually develop their own vocabulary for the mentor’s teachings. The hero cannot just parrot the mentor’s lessons: that would not show any development on the part of the character, and would thus be fundamentally unsatisfying. Instead, the hero rationalizes an initial rejection of the mentor’s lesson and then builds an acceptance of the lesson by getting (proverbially – or literally) kicked in the teeth by life.

Note that there are examples where authors have tried to deviate from this pattern. Joseph Delaney – in his 2004 novel The Last Apprentice – tries to invert the classic structure. Delaney’s hero understands the wisdom of the Spook’s interdictions. However, he finds that certain rules are overly stringent. He does not break them due to a failure of understanding: instead, he breaks them because he actively disagrees with their universality. These books are a little too recent to be deemed evergreen, but I am curious as to how they will age over time. They have not resonated with me the way the more classic structure has, but that may have more to do with my own tastes (my fiancée accuses me of being an old-fashioned curmudgeon) than with any actual weakness in an inverted structure. Eventually, time will tell whether the mirror image of the classic structure can function as well as the original.

Regardless of whether the author plays it straight or flips the structure, at the end of the story the hero has learned a lesson and articulates it in words different from those of the mentor. What matters is that the lesson cannot be presented didactically: kids can smell that kind of condescension a mile away, and overt morals ruin good stories. Nobody likes to be patronized, least of all a nine year old. If the action and emotion of a story cannot imply a lesson through subtext, then it is a weak lesson that simply won’t resonate.

By finding a different subtext-driven way of articulating (or potentially refuting) the mentor’s earlier wisdom, a classic MG novel can show the reader how that wisdom can be applied in a fictional context. Just as the hero’s understanding of reality is broadened, so too is the reader’s conceptual vocabulary. Like Dallben says:

“…If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

And that, ultimately is what childhood and fiction are both about.

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