What to do about the Big Bad Wolf: Narrative Choices and the Moral of a Story

Burton Weltman

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs.  The pigs, having apparently reached adolescence, were forced by their mother to leave home and make their own way in the world.  So, each of them went off by himself to build a house.  Two of the pigs were foolish and lazy, and they built houses of straw and sticks respectively.  The third pig was wise and hardworking so he built a house of bricks.  A big, bad wolf came along and easily destroyed the houses of the two foolish pigs.  They barely escaped with their lives before he could eat them.  The wolf could not destroy the brick house, however, so he tried to trick the third pig into coming outside.  But the wise pig was not fooled.  Instead, he tricked the wolf into coming down the chimney of the house, at which point the wolf fell into a pot of boiling water and ran away with a scorched rear end.

This is the gist of Walt Disney’s version of the story of The Three Little Pigs, a traditional European folktale that Disney adapted and made popular in America during the 1930’s.  Appearing originally as a cartoon movie, the Disney story has since been continuously in publication as a very popular illustrated children’s book (Disney 1933; Disney 2001, 69-84).  Later variations of the story, such as those by Paul Galdone and Gavin Bishop, follow the gist of the Disney version but have the wolf eat the first two pigs and have the third pig then eat the wolf at the end (Galdone 1970; Bishop 1989).

Like all Disney stories, The Three Little Pigs is full of lessons.  The first lesson is that in this world it’s every pig for himself.  Significantly, the pig brothers did not work together to build a house but went off individually.  It is an eat-or-be-eaten world, according to Walt Disney, and you’ve got to take care of yourself first and foremost.  This lesson is even clearer in Galdone’s and Bishop’s versions.  A second lesson of the story is that difference is dangerous.  The sympathetic characters are all pinkish pigs.  The evil character is a black wolf.  In the context of the story, the pigs are right to be afraid of an animal that is not like them.  The racial implications of the Disney story, which are followed by Galdone and Bishop, are seemingly no accident, especially when you consider that most adolescent pigs are not pinkish and most wolves are not black.  The implicit racism reflects, among other things, the dramatic imagery of America in the 1930’s.  During the 1930’s, if you wanted to make something scary for mainstream, pinkish American audiences, you made it big and black.  The overall moral of Disney’s story is that we live in a world in which good is continually being confronted by evil, and the good characters must fight to the death against the bad ones.  These are significant lessons for children to learn from a story.

  1. Coming to Terms with “The Three Little Pigs”: What to do about the Big Bad Wolf?

At the end of Into the Woods, a wonderful musical about children’s stories by Steven Sondheim and James Lapine, the witch intones one of the play’s main themes: “Careful the things you say, children will listen…Careful the spell you cast…Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see…Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell.  Children will listen.”   Storytellers have long known of the influence their tales can have on children and many, like Disney, have deliberately tried to use this power for purposes of moral, social and political education.  “Writing for children is usually purposeful,” James Stephens has noted, “its intention to foster in the child reader a positive apperception of some socio-cultural values.”  In turn, Stephens says, “Every book has an implicit ideology” (Stephens 1992, 3, 9).  Children’s stories are, thus, a contested terrain over which storytellers of different political persuasions have fought for many years.

Disney’s version of The Three Little Pigs conveys a view of the world that most politically progressive people would not accept.  The selfish individualism, the genetic determinism, the tinge of racism, the Social Darwinism, and the inevitable violence in the story are contrary to views that most progressives would like to impart to children.  So, some have recently tried re-writing the popular story to better fit with their progressive ideals.  As one alternative to the Disney story, Jon Scieska, a well-known author of children’s books, has written The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (Scieska 1989) in which the wolf tells his side of the story.  Scieska picks up on the underlying racism of the Disney version and tries to counter it.  In Scieska’s book, the wolf is portrayed as a member of a persecuted minority in a predominantly pig society, paralleling the racial story of blacks in predominantly white American society.  The wolf has been jailed for the murder of the first two little pigs and, in his defense, claims the two pigs died by accident and that he then ate them only because he did not want to let good meat go to waste.  Scieska seems to hope we will come to sympathize with the good-natured, humorous wolf, and we do.  But there is an underlying moral to the story that Scieska seems to have missed.  Even if you believe the wolf’s story, you still have to come to the conclusion that pigs and wolves cannot live together in the same society because wolves eat pigs, as the wolf admittedly did.  The only solution to the problem posed in this story is to segregate the wolves from the pigs.  Despite his liberal intentions, Scieska has unwittingly written a story that seems to justify racial segregation.

Another alternative to Disney’s story is The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig (Trivias 1993) by Eugene Trivias, another highly regarded author of children’s books.  Trivias seemingly tries to deal with the problem that Scieska ran into by making the wolves weak and vulnerable and making the pig big and scary.  Trivias has three little wolves – one black, one white and one grey – being chased by a big pink pig.  The pig claims to want to be friends with the wolves but they are afraid of him and they work together to try to protect themselves from the pig.  The wolves build increasingly stronger houses that are successively knocked down by the pig.  In the end, the wolves decide to try being friendly to the pig and it works.  The wolves and the pig have a party and, according to Trivias, “they all lived happily together ever after.”  But that is not plausible.  They cannot have “lived happily together ever after” because eventually the wolves will grow up and wolves eat pigs.  So when the three little wolves become three big wolves, the pig is likely to become lunch.  Again, despite the author’s multi-racial, multi-cultural, all-inclusive intentions, the story implicitly leads the reader to the conclusion that some sort of racial or species segregation is necessary.

The moral of the story of these three versions of “The Three Little Pigs” is that if you want to write a story about the virtues of diversity and the peaceful reconciliation of differences, you should not choose wolves and pigs as your main characters.  The biological imperatives of pigs and wolves will defeat your intentions.  The underlying lesson is that the narrative choices an author makes in setting up a story can predetermine the moral outcome, regardless of the author’s overt intentions.  Walt Disney seemingly had a message he was trying to convey with his story and he made narrative choices on that basis. If you follow his narrative choices, as Scieska and Trivias did in accepting Disney’s cast of characters, you are likely to end up supporting his conclusions.

By contrast, in Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Cronin 2000), Doreen Cronin tells a story of farm animals – mainly dairy cows and egg-producing chickens – who successfully organize a strike against the farmer who owns them.  This is a story about strength through cooperation and diversity, as each type of animal is able to contribute to the group effort based on its particular characteristics.  It is also a story about the advantages of a peaceful resolution of differences, both among the animals and between the animals and the farmer.  A key to the success of this story is that none of the animals is a predator, and none of the animals is being used by the farmer for meat, so there are no biologically determined irreconcilable differences among them.  Cronin starts with different narrative choices than Disney and, as a result, is able to convey different moral conclusions.

The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the narrative choices that storytellers make and the effect that these choices can have on the moral of their stories and the messages their audiences are likely to get.  Most scholarly analyses of the meaning and messages in children’s literature focus on the subject matter of the books and the political orientations of the authors (Bacon 1988; Clark 2003; Ellis 1968; Gillespie 1970; Hines 2004; Lehr 2001; Lucas 2003; Lurie 1990; MacLeod 1994; Moynihan 1988; Taxel 1988; Thaler 2003).  But, as Peter Hunt has noted, “What may be more important than what the story is about is the way in which it is shaped” and the way in which stories are shaped has been “the most important and neglected of literary features” (Hunt 1991, 73, 119).

The main thesis of this article is that the narrative structure of a story can determine the moral of the story, irrespective of its subject matter and its author’s intentions, and that teachers must be particularly attuned to this fact in choosing both what things they have their students read and how they discuss things with their students.  The moral of a story is often determined by its structural medium and cannot be characterized solely through its subject matter and its author’s political orientation (Witherell et al 1995, 40; also Egan 1988; Egan 1992).  Whether an author or teacher is telling factual or fictional stories, discussing the news or fairytales, relating anecdotes of daily life or theories of society, writing history books or novels, teaching social studies or literature – that is, dealing with anything that has explicitly or implicitly a narrative form – the narrative structure can determine the meaning and effect of the story irrespective of the storyteller’s intent or the subject matter of his/her narrative.  Depending on their narrative structures, stories with essentially the same subject matter and political intentions can have very different moral, cultural, social and political messages (Stephens 1999, 74, 78).

The primary conclusion of the article is that when teachers choose things for their students to read or to discuss, it is important for them to know what messages are being conveyed through the narrative structure of the reading and/or discussion.  What a teacher thinks is being conveyed through the content of a book or a discussion may be contradicted by the underlying structural message of the book or discussion (Sarland 1999, 37, 39).  As such, in analyzing a book, it is important to focus on the relationship between the book’s content and structure so as to explore fully the meaning of the book and its impact on its readers.  Likewise, in preparing a class discussion, it is important for a teacher to match his/her subject matter content with his/her narrative structure so as to convey a consistent and coherent message.  There is a message in the medium of our expression that we and our students need to understand.

  1. Defining Narrative Terms: The Message in the Medium

This article focuses on four aspects of narrative structure that have significant impact on the moral of a story: (1) the characterizations in the story and, in particular, where the story stands in the debate between “nature versus nurture” and whether or not the main characters in the story are able to learn and change; (2) the dramatic form of the story and, in particular, whether it can be characterized as primarily a melodrama, comedy or tragedy; (3) the agency of the story and whether the story moves primarily as a result of chance, causation or choice; and, (4) the perspective of the story and whether the perspective is primarily top-down or bottom-up.  Although most stories incorporate a mixture of different factors, almost all are structured primarily around a particular type of characterization, form, agency and perspective.  In turn, although these four elements interrelate, so that storytellers’ choices with respect to one will likely influence their choices as to the others, storytellers are not always consistent in their narrative choices, which can lead them unwittingly to send mixed moral messages.  In sum, an author’s or teacher’s narrative choices with respect to these factors will have a significant impact on the moral of the story being told.

(1) Nature/Nurture.  The moral of a story will depend in large part on the characterizations of the people in the story and whether people are seen as able or unable to change.  This has been the gist of the argument over whether nature or nurture, genetics or environment, inherited social class and culture or acquired social skills and character, are most important in the development of individuals and society.  It has also been a crucial element in the political debate between traditionalists and progressives.

Traditionalists have generally taken the “nature over nurture” side of this debate.  One of the elements of conservative social theory from ancient times to the present has been the idea that a person is born with a certain essence which forms his/her nature and that a person cannot significantly change his/her character.  This is essentially a classist or hierarchal theory of society that justifies the rule of the well-born few – well-born in character and culture as well as wealth and power – over the disadvantaged many, and the passing of wealth and power, and poverty and powerlessness, from parents to children.  In this theory, nature controls character and justice requires that “we must leave each class to have the share of happiness which their nature gives to each” (Plato 1956, 219; Banfield 1990).  The moral imperative for people is to discover their true natures and follow the predetermined course of their lives.  For most people, this will mean staying in the social class in which they were born and doing the things that their parents did, which is consistent with the goal of most traditionalists of a society in which children can and will grow up to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

This view of character and society tends to promote individual self-discovery and self-development and to discourage social activism and social change.  In this model, problems most arise when characters attempt to step outside their predestined social roles or are unfairly evicted from their proper social roles, or when people stupidly misconceive the nature and character of themselves or others.  Some people are naturally good, smart and otherwise qualified to occupy positions in the upper level of the social hierarchy and others are naturally bad or stupid and need to be controlled by their betters.  Social reform in this model consists of the good/smart people defeating the bad/stupid people and either eliminating or subjugating them, as is the case in Disney’s The Three Little Pigs. Many traditional children’s fairy tales – especially those told by the Grimm brothers – take this “nature over nurture” side of the argument.  The dire consequences of denying biological imperatives and/or defying inherited social roles – for example, children disobeying their parents (Rapunzel), commoners pretending to powers they don’t naturally have (Rumpelstiltskin); workers trying assume the roles of their bosses (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), people welcoming monsters in disguise (Little Red Riding Hood) – are emphasized.

In contrast, progressives have generally taken the “nurture over nature” side of the argument.  One of the elements of progressive social theory has been the idea that a person will develop and change depending on his/her environment – on the nurturing and education that he/she receives – and that a person can, in turn, help change the world around him/her (Barber 1998).  In this model, the moral imperative is to figure out how best to develop oneself and help develop others so that the development of each person will encourage the development of all.  In many cases, this will mean leaving the place and the social class in which a person was born and doing different things than his/her parents.  This model tends to promote self-development through cooperative social activism with education as a primary means of self and social change.  In this model, problems arise when people are blocked from individual and social growth and when society is prevented from changing with changing circumstances.  The genre of bildungsroman in which, typically, an adolescent learns and grows and then changes himself and his social surroundings exemplifies the “nurture over nature” side of the argument.  The Harry Potter series is an example of this genre.

The “Three Little Pigs” stories of Disney, Scieska and Trivias demonstrate the effect that choices about characterization can have on the message conveyed by a story.  Disney’s The Three Little Pigs is an example of a “nature over nurture” characterization.  The main characters are biologically determined.  Wolves are by nature predators.  They inevitably attack pigs.  There is nothing anyone can do to change that and any pig who underestimates the biological imperative of wolves is likely to be eaten.  In turn, there is nothing anyone can do to change the brutally competitive, zero-sum society made up of wolves and pigs.  Scieska in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs tries to humanize the wolf by telling us the wolf’s side of the story, and it works to some extent.  The wolf seems to be an amiable character.  But the wolf is still a meat eater and his genetic characteristics override his pleasant personality.  Similarly, Trivias tries to resolve the conflict in The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by reversing the roles of pig and wolf and by having the wolves learn that if they “make love, not war,” they can be friends and not enemies with the pig.  But this can only be a temporary peace because of the zoological imperative that wolves eat pigs.  Both Scieska and Trivias get caught in the “nature over nurture” side of the debate implied in Disney’s choice of wolves and pigs as the story’s main characters.

By contrast, in Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, Cronin is able to tell a story of characters who plausibly achieve a cooperative and peaceable solution because she has chosen characters whose biological imperatives do not get in the way of that solution.  In her story, the animals and the farmer change themselves through education and cooperation and, in turn, change their society for the better.  As an educator who believes in the power of education as a means of self and social development and who tries to convince students to engage in self and social development, I prefer the “nurture over nature” side of this argument and try wherever possible to convey that message in the stories I tell and the discussions I lead.

(2) Melodrama/Comedy/Tragedy.  The dramatic form in which we couch a story and/or an explanation will also have a major effect on how we react to a given situation.  For purposes of this article, I have roughly categorized stories as melodramas, comedies or tragedies, or some combination of the three, because each of these dramatic forms conveys a different social message.  In defining melodrama, comedy and tragedy, I have relied on literary definitions of these terms that are largely derived from Aristotle.  Following the lead of Paul Goodman, I have, however, extended the terms to focus on the moral implications of narrative forms and their effect on the moral of a story (Goodman 1954).  Goodman was a poet, playwright and novelist as well as a social and educational reformer and he often framed his social and educational analyses within the narrative categories of melodrama, comedy and tragedy.

I define melodrama as a story of Good versus Evil, Good Guys versus Bad Guys.  It is a narrative form that like the traditional epic deals in extremes of emotion and action, and is based on an absolutist view of morality (Goodman 1954, 127-149).  Soap operas and crime shows are classic examples of melodrama.  In a melodrama, the problem in the story is created by the evil actions of evil people.  These are people who cannot be trusted and have to be eliminated.  Since there can be no compromise with Evil or evil people, melodrama portrays a world in which problems almost always must be settled by war or conflict of some sort (Burke 1961, 34).  A melodrama may have a happy or unhappy ending depending on whether the good or the evil prevails.  In a typical episode of the melodramatic television show “Law and Order,” for example, the murderer is usually convicted but sometimes goes free.

Melodrama is the predominant story form in our society and the form in which most people seem instinctively to react to adversity.  “Who is doing this to me and how can I defeat them” is the first reaction of most people to a problem.  Arguably, this melodramatic reaction has been programmed into us by evolutionary processes, “an aggression drive inherited [by man] from his anthropoid ancestors” (Lorenz 1966, 49), leaving us “hardwired to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to behave inhumanely toward ‘them’ at the slightest provocation” (Wilson 2007, 285).  It is essentially the story form of the “fright, then fight or flight” reaction of our piglet-like precursors who had to make their way in a world of giant carnivores.  The melodramatic reaction also seems to be a function of the brain stem, the earliest and least sophisticated portion of the human brain, which we inherited from those puny ancestors.  Comedy and tragedy are more complex reactions that apparently derive from the more developed areas of the cerebral cortex which evolved later in humanoids.  Melodrama was seemingly a successful survival strategy for helpless mini-mammals, but it may not be as useful, and may often be counterproductive, in the world of modern humans in which shooting first and asking questions later can lead to unnecessary wars and suffering (Diamond 1993, 220-221, 276-310; also Wilson 2007, 51-57).

I define comedy as a story of wisdom versus folly, wise people versus foolish people (Aristotle 1961, 59).  In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools” (Burke 1961, 41).  It is a narrative form that promotes education and experimentation as the solution to problems, as the wise try to teach the fools or at least restrain them from further foolishness (Goodman 1954, 82-100).  When we think someone is acting foolishly, our reactions typically are either to correct the person, compete with the person to see who is correct, constrain and control the person so that he/she can do no further harm, or some combination of these three.

Comedy usually promotes a hierarchical world in which the knowledgeable people are empowered to control the stupid and ignorant people, educating them in proper behavior and belief when that is possible, and tricking, controlling or excluding them when that is not.  Comedy involves conflicts and struggles but the action generally stays peaceful or, at least, not fatal.  If, however, a fool refuses instruction, disdains competition, and rejects containment, comedy can descend into violent struggle and metamorphose into melodrama.  A comedy may have a happy or unhappy ending depending on whether the fools learn their lesson.  In a typical episode of the comedic television show “Seinfeld,” for example, the main characters are usually still enmeshed at the end of show in some mess of their own foolish making.

I define tragedy as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy in this definition describes a character that pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a potential disaster.  The character’s “tragic flaw” is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, the world may contain competing goods, and an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all (Goodman 1954, 35, 172).  Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his/her “personal limits” and reconcile contradictions within him/herself, within his/her society and/or between him/herself and society (Burke 1961, 37).  While the tragic character’s actions demonstrate his/her “moral purpose,” they also demonstrate “the necessary or probable outcome of his character,” which is a downfall as a result of his/her pride (Aristotle 1961, 81-83).  Tragedy “deals sympathetically with crime,” with the good intentions that can pave the way to hell (Burke, 1961, p.39), and, thereby, arouses pity and fear in the audience (Aristotle 1961, 61) – pity that a good person has tried to do a good deed and gone wrong, fear that but the grace of the gods this could be any of us.

Although there is more to a great tragedy than a simple story-line, in the medieval society portrayed in Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, for example, ambition is considered a good thing but Macbeth takes it too far and this excess of ambition brings his downfall (Van Doren 2005, 216).  Macbeth, a would-be self-made man living in a highly structured, hierarchical society, is fatally caught in “a struggle between [his] desire to make his own destiny … and the rule-bound order in which he lives,” and tries to bully his way through these contradictions (O’Toole 2002, 138).  In the Renaissance society of Hamlet, deliberation is a good thing but excessive deliberation produces a paralysis of the will and Hamlet’s downfall (Van Doren 2005, 161).  Hamlet is a “humanist” intellectual caught between medieval Gothic and modern rational social mores and modes of thought, and he fatally vacillates between the one and the other (O’Toole 2002, 46, 48).  Neither character is able to transcend his narrow focus and reconcile his contradictions until it is too late.

Tragedy, as I am using the term, is based on a relativistic view of morality and promotes negotiation and inclusion as the way to avoid the conflict and calamity that befall tragic figures such as Macbeth and Hamlet.  The goal of tragedy is for the tragic hero and the audience to recognize the narrowness of the hero’s perspective – “recognition” of the character’s flaw at the end of the story by the character and the audience is a key to this narrative form (Aristotle 1961, 84-86) – and reconcile his/her views with the views of others, thereby promoting compromise so that all can cooperate or, at least, peacefully co-exist.  The moral of a tragedy is to avoid the narrow-mindedness of the fallen characters and thereby avoid their fates.  When, however, people fail to recognize the tragic nature of a situation, they may act as though it is melodrama, pursue their own narrow ends to the bitter end, and fight, flee or fall to a fatal conclusion.  Although fictional tragedies, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, generally have unhappy endings, a tragedy, as I define the term, may have either a happy or unhappy ending depending on whether the main characters have recognized and then successfully reformed their narrow and short-sighted views of things.  While in the original version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example, Lear and his daughter Cordelia die at the end, in some later productions of the play, they live happily thereafter (Harbage 1970, 17).

The differences in the moral messages conveyed by melodrama, comedy and tragedy are significant.  If a person sees the world primarily in melodramatic terms, he/she will tend to see social problems as the result of the evil actions of evil people, to see enemies all around, and to see war or coercion of some sort as the solution to most social problems.  If a person sees the world in comic terms, he/she will tend to see social problems as the result of foolish people and to see education and/or containment as the solution to social problems.  If a person sees the world in tragic terms, he/she will tend to see social problems as the result of competing goods and competing good intentions, and to see negotiation as the solution.  In sum, the dramatic form in which a person tells the story of any particular social problem will largely determine his/her moral reaction and the nature of his/her ethical engagement.

In deciding which dramatic form to use for telling a story, my preference is to choose the tragic form whenever and to the greatest extent possible because it is the most peaceful approach to solving social problems and the one in which ordinary people can most actively engage.  The tragic mode asks you to put yourself in the shoes of the other person, broaden your perspective to include his/hers, and negotiate a compromise solution to your differences.  The tragic mode also encourages ordinary people such as our students to engage in the discussion and solution of social problems.

To the extent the facts of my story do not fit into the tragic mold, my preference is to choose the comic form as a potentially peaceful way of resolving a problem.  In comedy, you see your side as wise and the other as foolish, and you set your side up to help instruct or contain the fools.  This tactic has the potential for generating antagonism if the other side does not see itself as foolish, and resents and resists your efforts.  But it is the educational mode and it encourages students to think critically about social problems and try to develop rational solutions to them.  Properly done, the comic mode has the potential for a peaceful and mutually satisfactory resolution of differences.

Finally, to the extent the facts do not fit into either the tragic or comic modes, I describe the situation in melodramatic terms.  Melodrama is for me the form of last resort because it portrays a world in which differences can be settled only by fighting and or war.  The more you use the melodramatic mode, the more you are telling your students that conflicts must be resolved through fighting and war.  The more you use the tragic and comic modes, the more likely your students may come to see the world in terms of peaceful resolutions and to act on that basis.

Disney’s Three Little Pigs is a melodrama, with the good pigs pitted against the evil wolf in a life-and-death struggle, and this is the moral world his story conveys to children.  In The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, Scieska tries to turn the story of the pigs and the wolf into a comedy.  The story is comic, not only because it is funny, but also because Scieska is trying to wise the readers up to the possibility that things may not be as they seem at first glance and that the wolf is not really a villain.  But his efforts are ultimately not successful because in accepting Disney’s choice of animals as characters, Scieska is trapped into the logical consequences of that choice: wolves kill pigs and, therefore, his story has an underlying melodramatic message of Social Darwinian struggle.  In The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, Trivias tries to turn the story into a tragedy.  In his story, the wolves are merely trying to protect themselves from a perceived danger and the pig is merely trying to be treated with respect.  Their mutual pig-headedness leads them all to misunderstand each other, which, in turn, leads to conflict.  Eventually they broaden their perspectives to include each other and the tragic consequences are abated, at least for the short run.  Because a fatal conflict between the wolves and the pigs is inherent and inevitable in the choice of wolves and pigs as main characters in the story, and Trivias cannot keep these are melodramatic consequences out of the moral of his story.  By contrast in Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, Cronin is successfully able to combine tragedy and comedy, and avoid the underlying conflicts that fatally undermine the stories by Scieska and Trivias.  In her story, the animals initially misunderstand each other and the farmer initially misunderstands the animals, each promoting his/her perspective as the only one, which leads to conflict among the animals and a strike by the animals against the farmer.  But all parties have some right on their side and eventually they are able to negotiate their differences and resolve the problem in a plausible way.

(3) Chance/Causation/Choice. The agency of a story, and whether events happen primarily as a result of chance, causation or choice, also has a major effect on the story’s moral message.  Chance is pure luck, unpredictable and uncontrollable.  Causation is a chain of causes and effects or a series of forces that are inevitable and unavoidable.  Choice is people operating within a set of circumstances, evaluating the range of options permitted by the circumstances, and then making decisions and acting on those decisions, with consequences that become the circumstances within which they must make their next decision.  The explanation of events – chance, causation or choice – that a storyteller uses will largely determine the moral of his/her story.

If a story moves primarily either by chance or by causation, then the moral of the story is that the world is beyond our influence and we might as well sit back and do nothing.  If the story moves as a result of the characters’ choices, then the moral is that we can affect the world through our thoughts and actions.  The moral of portraying events as the result of chance and/or causation is that trying to change things and make the world better is useless because what will be, will be, regardless of our actions.  And the curricular message of portraying the world as chance and/or causation is that education is useless because what will be, will be, regardless of whether or not we know about it (Berlin 1954, 3, 20-21, 68).

If, instead, a story is told as a complex of circumstances, choices and consequences, students are empowered and education becomes worthwhile.  Education, thereby, becomes largely a process of putting oneself into the shoes of other people, understanding the problems that they faced and the circumstances that circumscribed their actions, evaluating the options they had, the choices they made and the consequences of their decisions, and relating them to our choices here and now.  In this way, things can be discussed in a way that helps students learn to use a story’s lessons to make their own decisions and encourage their social engagement.  Although most stories necessarily include elements of chance and causation, to the extent that a story allows a choice of explanations – the factual situation will determine “how wide the realm of possibility and alternatives freely choosable (sic)” is available to the characters (Berlin 1954, 29) – my preference is to focus on choice rather than chance or causation because it is the narrative form that best empowers people and encourages students to think in terms of social engagement.  By rephrasing and reframing what is often portrayed as causation (Carr 1967, 113-115) into the language of circumstances, choices and consequences, we can retain the explanatory power of our story while adding a clearer moral dimension.  Both storyteller and audience are thereby rewarded with “a broader awareness of the alternatives open to us and armed with a sharper perceptiveness with which to make our choices” in the world in which we live (Williams 1974, 8, 10).

In Disney’s The Three Little Pigs, causation in the form of biological determinism is the primary agency of the story.  Wolves are predators.  They eat pigs and there is nothing we can do to change that.  Scieska in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs tries to absolve the wolf of the deaths of the pig brothers by introducing an element of chance into the story, with the wolf’s claim that the pigs were killed by accident.  But his attempt does not work because we really don’t believe the wolf’s story – the succession of coincidences he relates is very funny but not plausible – and because the biological determinism that underlies the relationship of wolves and pigs overrides any explanation that the wolf could give.  Trivias tries to make choice the primary agency of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by having the wolves and the pig choose to be friends in the end.  But this ultimately does not work because of the zoological imperative that wolves eat pigs.  Both Scieska and Trivias get caught in the chain of causation wrought by Disney’s choice of wolves and pigs as the story’s main characters.  By contrast, in Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, Cronin is able to tell a plausible story of characters making choices because she has not chosen characters whose biological imperatives get in the way of the choices she wants them to make.

(4) Top-Down/Bottom-Up.  Finally, it makes a big moral difference whether stories portray the world as being controlled by the few at the top or the many at the bottom.  The top-down perspective focuses on great people, extraordinary individuals, heroes and charismatic leaders.  Events are explained primarily in terms of the actions of these few top people.  The top-down perspective portrays social progress as the result of great leaders reaching down and pulling the masses of people up to a higher level.  Since most students do not see themselves as great or heroic or charismatic, top-down stories tend to demean and demoralize the majority of students and convey a message that they need do nothing but wait for their leaders to act.  The top-down approach tends to portray leaders as miraculous saviors who appear by chance and/or as heroic individualists whose choices are portrayed out of the context of the circumstances that made them possible (Lemish 1969, 5-6).

The bottom-up approach portrays events as the result of actions and movements of ordinary people (Levine et al 1989, XI; Freeman et al 1992, .X).  Bottom-up stories explain leadership as a consequence of the masses of people pushing representative leaders to the fore, great individuals standing on the shoulders of their predecessors and colleagues.  The moral of a bottom-up story is for ordinary people to join together to effectuate necessary social changes so that “The people, then, can make their own history” (Lemish 1967, 5).  Top-down stories can demoralize children who do not see themselves as great or may inspire students toward self-centered social climbing toward personal greatness.  Bottom-up stories can help empower children from ordinary backgrounds and inspire them to work with their peers rather than away from them.  Although some stories may require some top-down orientation (Lemish 1967, 4), my preference is to emphasize a bottom-up approach whenever possible.

Disney’s The Three Little Pigs is a top-down story in which the superior pig gets the better of both his brothers and the wolf.  While it adjures children to be smart like the wise pig, it also tells them not to get bogged down in acting as their inferior brothers’ keeper or trying to deal peacefully with those who threaten them.  Scieska tries to reverse the moral direction of the story by having it told from the wolf’s point of view, the bottom-up view of a disadvantaged member of a minority group.  But we don’t believe the wolf, which only makes the situation worse because now we have additional reasons to distrust wolves and the minority groups he represents in the story.  In his story, Trivias tries to reverse the natural hierarchy by making the wolves little and the pig big – putting the wolves at the bottom and the pig at the top of the hierarchy – but this ultimately does not work because we know that the wolves will soon grow up to be predators of pigs.  Again, having accepted Disney’s main structural choices in setting up the story, Scieska and Trivias are condemned to Disney’s main conclusions.  By contrast, Cronin is able to tell a genuinely bottom-up story of ordinary characters rising together to great deeds because she has wisely chosen animals that are on essentially the same rank of the food chain hierarchy and are at least theoretically compatible with each other.

  1. Diversity as Dangerous, Dispensable or Desirable: Out of the Fire and into the Pot

One of the main themes running through the various versions of “The Three Little Pigs,” and through children’s literature as a whole, is the question of how to think about and deal with diversity.  Do, for example, differences make a difference?  If so, is it for better or worse?  The narrative choices a storyteller makes – how he/she deals with characterization, dramatic form, agency, and perspective – can largely determine the message his/her story conveys about diversity.

The United States has from its inception been primarily a nation of immigrants, and what to do about diversity in our population has been an ongoing theme in American history.  One of the main concerns has been how to avoid the racial and ethnic conflicts and conflagrations that have periodically erupted.  Ever since Hector St. John de Crevecoeur referred to America as a “melting pot” in 1782, Americans have tended to frame the issue of diversity in terms of chemistry, as though cultural differences are chemical additives that people compound onto their otherwise common human nature.  Americans have, in turn, tended to respond to cultural differences in three main ways, portraying America as either what could be called a “smelting pot,” a “melting pot,” or a “stew pot,” depending on whether they see cultural diversity as dangerous, dispensable or desirable.

For most of the period from the founding of the first European colonies in the 1600’s until the early 1900’s, the predominant approach to cultural diversity in this country was the “smelting pot” view.  In this view, differences make a difference and they are deleterious.  Harkening back to the English origins of the colonies, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, are generally seen in this view as the ideal Americans, and those who are different are seen to need to have those differences smelted away so that they can become like WASPs.  This view is still widely held by people who consider themselves politically and socially conservative.  The smelting pot view is based on a melodramatic and top-down history of America in which the ethnically and ethically pure are pitted against the degraded and degenerate who would pull America down if they weren’t defeated.

The “melting pot” view of America was popularized during the 1910’s in a play of that name by Israel Zangweel, a Russian Jewish immigrant.  In this view, differences don’t make a real difference and they should be either ignored in favor of our commonality or blended into the existing common mix to make a slightly new and better commonality.  This view is based on a comic narrative of the world in which people need to be taught either to ignore or relinquish unimportant differences.  The melting pot gradually became the predominant view of self-styled liberals during the course of the twentieth century.

What could be called the “stew pot” view was promoted in the early twentieth century by Horace Kallen, another Russian Jewish immigrant, and Randolph Bourne.  In this view, differences make a difference and they are generally desirable.  Cultural diversity provides a plethora of resources and perspectives with which to help solve the social problems we face.  In this view, diversity among people should be preserved even as they interact in a common democratic broth in which they solve common problems.  This view derives from a tragic and bottom-up perspective on the world in which people are able to recognize and negotiate their differences.  This has become the view of the multicultural movement among liberals in recent decades.

Depending on how a story deals with differences, the moral can be that differences are dangerous, dispensable or desirable, a lesson that can make a big difference in the way children approach the world.  These responses are illustrated in the three versions of “The Three Little Pigs” discussed herein.  Disney’s The Three Little Pigs portrays a world in which difference is dangerous.  His is a smelting pot view.  Scieska tries to counter that view by portraying the wolf as good-natured and as essentially a pig in wolf’s clothing – a melting pot view that differences don’t make a difference – but it does not work.  The zoological differences between wolves and pigs make a big difference and it is potentially a fatal one for the pigs.  Trivias tries to portray the differences between wolves and pigs as desirable, so long as they are able to recognize and negotiate their differences – a stew pot view – because then they are able to use their differences to have more fun together.  But, again, in the long run this view cannot hold given the biological imperatives that control wolves and pigs.  In choosing to promote and popularize a story about pigs and wolves, Disney has effectively controlled the message about diversity in the subsequent versions of “The Three Little Pigs” despite the liberal and multicultural intentions of Scieska and Trivias.  By contrast, Cronin is able to tell a story that demonstrates the stew pot view of diversity because she has chosen characters who are compatible and who make valuable contributions to the whole based on their differences.

 

  1. Narrative Choices in Early Childhood Storytelling: Walt Disney versus Dr. Seuss.

Probably the two most popular and influential storytellers of the last half of the twentieth century were Walt Disney and Theodor Geisel, alias Dr. Seuss.  Both used their stories to educate children in the morals and manners they believed in.  Disney was politically and culturally conservative, and his stories are filled with conservative lessons that he hoped would influence children for the rest of their lives.  Dr. Seuss, was politically and culturally liberal, and his stories are filled with liberal lessons that he hoped children would absorb.  Both authors conveyed their views through their subject matter and their narrative structures.  The coalescence of subject matter and narrative structure is one of the things that made their books so powerful, with their messages reflecting the narrative choices they made and, in turn, their narrative choices reflecting their political and cultural inclinations.  Disney’s stories were mostly melodramas with top-down perspectives, genetically generated characters, and crucial events occurring primarily through chance or causation.  Most of his most famous stories were adaptations of traditional folktales, including several from the Grimm brothers (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty).  Dr. Seuss’ stories were of his own invention, and were mainly comedies and tragedies with bottom-up perspectives, characters that learn and change themselves and their societies, and events that result from characters’ choices.  Comparing some of their stories can help illustrate my thesis.

Disney portrays life as primarily a competition among individuals and a melodramatic battle of good individuals against the evil.  Disney, in turn, portrays cultural, economic, social and biological differences among characters as crucial causes of the characters’ good and evil behavior.  Such differences, and especially genetic differences, almost invariably determine the outcome of the story.  The wolf in The Three Little Pigs, for example, is by nature – by genetics – a big, bad, black character.  By contrast, Mickey Mouse, the star of many Disney cartoons, is by nature a happy-go-lucky, harmless, little black character.  In his original guise during the late 1920’s, Mickey looks and acts much like one of the minstrel performers – blackened-faced white men who mocked and caricatured black men – that were very popular at the time.  Both the wolf and Mickey reflect and perpetuate the racist stereotypes of black men as either ghouls or fools that were widespread in the period in which Disney was working.

Disney stories are almost always top-down in their perspective and generally with a genetic twist.  In Disney, class difference is generally biological difference and biology will triumph irrespective of the environment.  Born a princess, end up with a prince.  Born a worker, end up a worker.  A typical Disney story is about a princess or prince who yearns for recognition as what she/he really is by birth and for her/his rightful place in the world.  In Cinderella (1999), for example, the heroine’s noble birth is evidenced by her petite feet, and her natural superiority is duly recognized in the end.  In Bambi (1942), a prince finds his rightful place.  Disney stories tend to disparage ordinary people as mere facilitators for the nobility.  In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1999), Princess Snow White comes upon a bunch of diminutive miners who, despite producing prodigious quantities of precious jewels in their work, live poorly and like pigs.  She promptly cleans them up and civilizes them.  Then, although the dwarves generously take her in and protect her, she leaves them in the end in their hovel to continue slaving in the mines while she goes off to live with a prince in a castle.  The dwarves seemingly get what they deserve as mere workers and Snow White gets what she deserves as a princess.  Disney’s is essentially a “creationist’s” universe – as you were created so should you live.

The plot-lines of Disney stories typically move as a result of chance or causation.  Disney’s heroines, such as Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, are passive, waiting for a prince to discover them by chance or circumstance.  Independent and intelligent women in Disney’s stories are almost invariably evil witches and/or evil stepmothers.  In the face of twentieth-century feminism, Disney seems to be trying to put the genie back in the bottle.  His treatment of Cinderella exemplifies this.  There have been scores of Cinderella-type stories throughout history in cultures all over the world.  While these stories are inherently sexist and classist – a poor young woman seeking to marry a wealthy man – the Disney version is distinguished by the helplessness and passivity of his heroine.  In stories from other times and places, the heroine is active and intelligent in making her way in the world (Climo, 1989; Louie, 1982; Huck, 1989).  Not so in the Disney version.

Even the wise pig in The Three Little Pigs does nothing pro-active about the evils of the world but merely waits for the wolf to come to him, at which point he reacts.  In Disney stories, ordinary people are expected to do what they are told by their superiors, or else.  In Pinocchio (1948), the would-be boy is given a cricket to act as his conscience.  The cricket regularly counsels Pinocchio to follow the conventional straight and narrow path, from which Pinocchio deviates to his detriment in search of illicit fun.  The overall moral of Disney stories for children is to defer uncritically to established authority and accept uncritically the social status quo.

Dr. Seuss is the anti-Disney, and his liberalism is reflected in the narrative choices he makes.  In The Cat in the Hat (1957), for example, the children have a fish who, like the cricket in Pinocchio, acts as their conscience and counsels them to follow the conventional path.  But, unlike Pinocchio, when they deviate from that path to have illicit fun, they suffer no consequences.  And at the end of the story, when the issue is raised as to whether the kids should tell their mother about what they have done, the book merely closes with a question to the reader: “Well…What would you do if your mother asked you?”  This is a patently subversive question that raises the possibility of children rejecting parental authority.  In raising open-ended questions about right and wrong, and trying to portray things from a child’s point of view, Dr. Seuss has rejected the moralistic, melodramatic mode of Disney and adopted a comic-tragic narrative mode.

Dr. Seuss’s stories are invariably bottom-up in their perspective, emphasizing the ability of ordinary folks, the little people – children included – to change the world and make it a better place.  In Dr. Seuss’s world, class difference is usually environment difference and if the environment changes, people change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse depending on whether the new environment calls forth people’s better or worse selves.  Dr. Seuss is essentially an evolutionist.  In The Lorax (1971), a child is given the last Truffula seed and the job of saving the environment.  In Yertle the Turtle (1950), a “plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,” and who finds himself at the bottom of the social pile, is able to bring down the king and help establish freedom and democracy in his society.  In Green Eggs and Ham (1960), the childlike Sam-I-Am turns the tables on the adult character and harasses him into trying something that he does not want to try, a reversal of traditional roles in which adults try to teach children new things and force children to do things they do not want to do.

In Horton Hears a Who (1954), the main character is an elephant who, with his giant-sized ears, can hear the pleas for help of tiny people that live on a speck of dust.  Horton tries to help them save their tiny world from destruction but is mocked by other creatures in the forest that have smaller ears and cannot hear the “Who’s.”  Although Horton is by far the largest creature in the forest, he is eventually overpowered by his neighbors who think he is deranged and who want to get rid of the speck of dust.  Horton pleads with the “Who’s” to make enough noise so that the other animals will be able to hear them and, in the end, it is the added voice of the smallest “Who” child that makes the difference so that Horton is vindicated and the “Who’s” world is saved.  The lessons of the story include: that those like Horton with special strengths and abilities must help those without; that not even the mightiest individual, such as Horton, can prevail against the collective efforts of ordinary people; that only through the collective efforts of ordinary people, such as the “Who’s,” can good things get done; and, that even the smallest person, such as that last Who child, can make the difference.  These are empowering lessons for children that follow from Dr. Seuss’ decision to tell his story as a comedy-tragedy, from the bottom-up and as a function of characters’ choices.

Dr. Seuss insists in his stories that ordinary people can change the world for the better and that a changed world can make people happier.  Toward this end, he emphasizes the importance of nurture over nature and man-made environment over biology, to the point of sometimes even denying the scientific facts of genetics.  In Horton Hatches an Egg (1940), a lazy bird tricks the elephant Horton into sitting on her egg while she goes partying.  When, after many trials and tribulations which test Horton’s devotion to his task, the egg is finally hatched, the new born creature is half bird and half elephant.  In Dr. Seuss’s moral world, Horton deserves some tangible credit for parenting the egg even though he is not a biological parent, and the new born creature deserves some of Horton’s benevolent, beneficent characteristics rather than merely those of his/her absent father and selfish mother.  This is a very different moral universe than Disney’s genetically determined world.

Dr. Seuss generally focuses in his stories on differences among people that don’t make a difference and takes a “melting pot” view of cultural differences.  In The Sneetches (1961) and in The Butter Battle Book (1984), he comically satirizes the foolishness and potentially deadly consequences of fighting over superficial differences, such as having stars on your belly and buttering your bread on the upside or downside.  This assimilationist approach to cultural differences was characteristic of liberals in the period of the 1950’s to 1970’s in which Dr. Seuss did most of his work, a time when liberals were promoting integration through the civil rights movement.

While Disney’s “smelting pot” and Dr. Seuss’ “melting pot” views of diversity largely dominated the discussion of diversity during most of the twentieth century, some authors of children’s literature have presented a “stew pot” view.  The Araboolies of Liberty Street (1989), by Sam Swope, is an attempt to portray differences in a multicultural “stew pot” way.  In this story, a large extended family of colorful but quirky and noisy people move onto a bourgeois, suburban street, much to the glee of the children and the consternation of an uptight couple who are the conservative culture-cops of the neighborhood.  The story is sympathetic to the gentle and kind countercultural Araboolies and hostile to the nasty culture-cops, but it also raises the question of whether the reader would like to live on the same block with people as noisy, sloppy and erratic as the Araboolies.  In adopting what could be considered a tragic or relativistic view of cultural differences, the book forces the reader to consider which differences among people actually make a difference and how one can deal amicably with those differences.  In this regard, Swope’s view is essentially an extension of Dr. Seuss’ and a rejection of Disney’s.

In sum, Disney typically made narrative choices in favor of melodramatic form, top-down perspective, genetic determinism, and plot-lines based on chance and causation.  Because of these narrative choices, his stories are generally disabling and disempowering to children.  Dr. Seuss made narrative choices in favor of comedy or tragedy, a bottom-up perspective, nurture over nature, and plot-lines based on choice.  Because of these narrative choices, his stories are generally enabling and empowering for children.

The nature and effect of an author’s narrative choices is easy to see in early childhood stories such as those by Disney and Dr. Seuss but they are no less evident and important in literature for adolescents and adults.  Compare, for example, Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962) with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), both stories about magic and magical children  The conservative tone and lessons of L’Engel’s book are based on the melodramatic, top-down, genetic determinism of her narrative.  Rowling’s more liberal tone and lessons reflect the comedic mixture of top-down-bottom-up perspectives and nature-nurture influences in her narrative.  The lessons with which readers of any form of literature are left depend in large part on the narrative choices I have described.  In deciding which stories to use and how to use them, educators routinely look at the messages that the stories convey.  In looking for the message of a story, teachers should look at the narrative medium of the story and the narrative choices the author has made in setting up the story.  The message is often in the medium.

  1. Making Narrative Choices in Historical Fiction: What to do about Hitler?

The same principles of storytelling that apply to fiction also apply to real world stories about history, current events and personal experiences – the way an author or a teacher tells the story will largely determine the message he/she conveys.  Real world stories, including historical fiction, must of course be firmly based on the best available evidence and conform to all the available facts.  While the author of a historical fiction may invent characters and events that are characteristic of the times, he/she cannot change the known facts of the times.  Unlike the author of a purely fictional story, the author of a historical fiction may not choose to talk about cows when the facts point to wolves.  Nonetheless, an author of historical fiction or historical non-fiction and any other factual story for that matter, and a teacher when discussing a historical or any other factual situation, has considerable leeway in presenting the facts, and the meaning and effect of those facts can vary considerably depending on the narrative choices he/she makes.

While some factual stories fit naturally into one narrative form or another, other stories can be told as melodramas, comedies or tragedies, and you have your choice of story forms.  The history of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, for example, naturally fits into melodrama.  Hitler was an evil man and the Holocaust was an evil event.  The history of the American Revolution, on the other hand, can legitimately be told in various forms.  It can be told as a melodrama in which the Good revolutionaries fought against the Bad British or, from the British point of view, the Good British against the Bad Americans.  It can also be told as a comedy in which the British foolishly thought they could keep the American colonies forever as dependencies, or as a comedy in which the Americans foolishly rebelled because they mistakenly thought the King intended to repress the colonies.  And it can be told as a tragedy in which the British government and the American revolutionaries each sought narrow goals that were good in and of themselves, and that could have and should have been peacefully reconciled, but were not to the detriment of both sides.

The history of the American Revolution can, in turn, be told from a top-down perspective as the result of actions by an elite group of American revolutionaries and/or British officials, or as a bottom-up movement of ordinary people, or some combination of the two.  It can be told as the chance result of a series of fortunate or unfortunate accidents, the inevitable result of a chain of causation, or the result of a series of choices that could have been otherwise.  The best available evidence on the American Revolution will support any of these versions, and the best historians differ in their approaches, so teachers are left with important choices as to the narrative forms for this story and, in turn, as to the moral of the story.

Choosing the narrative approach appropriate to a real world issue is sometimes simple and other times quite complex.  When the facts clearly dictate a particular narrative approach that approach is the one you simply must take.  When the facts leave you with a choice, I think the choice should, and almost invariably will, be based on your educational goals.  Most authors of books for young people and most teachers primarily rely on melodrama and top-down perspectives.  This seems in part because they think that presenting battles between good and evil, and focusing on larger-than-life heroes and villains, are the liveliest and most interesting ways to tell a story.  This is, I think, a mistake in at least two respects.

Authors and teachers who rely on top-down melodrama underestimate their audience, their materials, their message and themselves.  Their books and lessons are composed as though young people cannot understand and accept that heroes can have flaws and villains can have virtues.  As a result, the books and lessons are demoralizing to students because if heroes are perfectly good and villains are purely evil, then there is no useful explanation of why the good often fail and the bad often succeed.  How can students understand the rise of Hitler, for example, without reference to qualities that were appealing to ordinary people?  How can students understand the greatness of Lincoln without reference to his struggles with his own racism?  These books and lessons are also debilitating because if students do not understand that the good may not be perfectly good and the bad may not be entirely bad, they are not equipped to recognize good and bad people or good and bad ideas.  Without such understanding, how can they learn to recognize and respect the most important qualities in a person or idea, and avoid being unduly swayed by superficial flaws and superficial appeals?  And, perhaps most important, how can they learn to deal with their own internal contradictions and struggles between their better selves and worse selves?  Rather than portraying heroes in purely melodramatic terms, it would be better to present them in more comic and tragic terms.   Heroes could be seen as worth admiring for the ideals they represent and tried to fulfill, and worth studying for the ways they did not measure up to those ideals and, thereby, started a job that we should try to finish.

Real world stories, including historical fiction, can be successfully written in comic and tragic terms, from the bottom-up as well as the top-down, and with an emphasis on choice rather than chance or causation.  This is demonstrated by the popularity of historical fiction for young people by such award-winning authors as Kathryn Lasky (True North, 1996; A Journey to the New World, 1996; Dreams of a Golden Country, 1998), Katherine Paterson (Lyddie, 1991; Bread and Roses, Too, 2006), James and Christopher Collier (My Brother Sam is Dead, 1974), and Gary Paulsen (NightJohn, 1993; The Rifle, 1995), whose books are written for the most part in what I have defined as the tragic mode, with a bottom-up perspective and an emphasis on characters’ choices as the moving agency of their stories.  Teachers can do likewise in their lessons.

Authors and teachers who depend on melodrama, top-down narratives and causal explanations also frequently undercut their own intended message.  This point is exemplified in the similarities and differences between two historical novels about adolescent girls working in the Lowell textile mills during the 1840’s, So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl (1997) by Barry Denenberg and Lyddie (1991) by Katherine Paterson.  Both stories are written from a liberal political and social perspective.  Both are harshly critical of child labor and working conditions in the factories and express sympathy for immigrants and for the labor movement.  Both stories follow essentially the same factual pattern, as follows:

Family breakdown forces a young girl to leave home (Ireland for Mary; western Massachusetts for Lyddie) to seek work.  The girl endures a hard passage from home to Lowell but makes friends along the way.  The girl is at first excited about factory work, enjoying the independence and money, but the work soon becomes grueling and the life tedious.  The girl makes friends with some co-workers and struggles with others.  One friend is a union leader who involves the girl with a nascent union.  The girl’s original goal is to make enough money to reunite her family but this goal is foiled by deaths and dispersion of the family, which leaves the girl with new choices to make at the end.

Despite similarities in the stories’ subject matter and their authors’ political orientation, the stories leave very different impressions on the reader.  So Far From Home is a melodrama of good against evil.  The bad guys are the English landowners in Ireland, the English sailors on the boat Mary takes to America, and the mill owners and supervisors in Lowell.  These people are prejudiced against the Irish and have no qualms about exploiting poor people.  The good guys are Mary, her friends and several good-hearted adults.  The book is full of sensational events – heroic rescues and heartbreaking deaths – representing them as normal everyday life, similar to a soap opera.  The book is also highly sentimental, starting with an idealized version of rural family life in the good old days, and contrasting industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century with a romanticized past.  Mary has almost no choices to make in the book, and she and the story are driven by economic and social forces over which neither she nor the other characters have any control.  The story ends with no hope of collective social action against the bad guys, and the moral of the story is that a combination of self-help, mutual aid and family solidarity is the only way for an individual to survive.  This is a moral very similar to Disney’s in his Three Little Pigs.

Lyddie is a tragedy with characters straining against their personal limitations and situations that are full of internal contradictions.  Lyddie and other characters repeatedly act with narrow-minded good intentions that lead to bad ends, followed by negotiations among the characters that lead to new solutions.  The plot proceeds dialectically as Lyddie tries something, goes too far, then recovers and reconfigures her position to try something else.  The book highlights the importance of the choices that Lyddie and her colleagues make, for their own lives and for society.  The book projects a stoic view of life – hope for the best while expecting the worst – but also offers its characters and readers a utopian ideal of a cooperative society.

Lyddie has three main historical themes, each of which is connected to a social issue of today.  The first theme is family and the book essentially asks “What is a family?”  Lyddie begins with the goal of sustaining her biological nuclear family, a laudable goal.  But, unlike Mary’s family in So Far From Home, Lyddie’s biological family is almost totally dysfunctional – her father abandons the family, her mother becomes psychotic, her other relatives are uncaring, and her siblings scatter to foster homes.  Lyddie’s parents are wrong about almost everything.  Lyddie’s initial focus on reuniting her nuclear family leads her to frustration and isolation.  So, Lyddie has to create alternative families out of co-workers and friends, as do most of the main characters in the book.  Ultimately, the book’s answer to this question seems to be that any group of people that works together and supports its members is a family – a definition of family that eschews any sentimentalism about the supposedly ideal biologically-based nuclear family of olden days and is very relevant to current discussions about marriage and family life.

The book’s second theme is work and the purpose of work.  Lyddie initially wants to make money to help her nuclear family, a laudable goal, but then falls for the myth of the self-made person and the lure of money.  She becomes greedy and selfish, and harsh toward Irish immigrants similar to Mary in So Far From Home who threaten the jobs and wage-levels of native workers.  But, in the end, Lyddie learns that work should be a satisfactory way of life, not merely a means to make money for oneself, and that cooperation is the key to this.

The book’s third theme is the role of women in society.  Lyddie begins with traditional aspirations of getting married and becoming a housewife.  But her observation and experience leads her to abandon this notion.  The traditional role of the dependent wife is portrayed negatively – Lyddie’s dad leaves his then helpless wife, Lyddie’s best friend in the mills is impregnated by a married man who abandons her, and Lyddie eventually decides not get married until she can support herself intellectually as well as economically.  In the end, Lyddie goes off to Oberlin College to learn how to make a better contribution to society.

Although the Lowell labor union in Lyddie fails to achieve its goals, the message of the book is that collective social action is the best way to make your way in the world.  This is a moral very similar to Cronin’s in Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type.  Paterson’s recent book Bread and Roses, Too (2006) deals with the same themes as Lyddie in the context of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, a situation in which Eastern European immigrants threatened the wage levels and jobs of the now-established Irish workers and bosses.  In this book, the union wins and the civic messages of feminism and cooperative social action are even clearer.

So Far From Home and Lyddie have the same basic subject matter and their authors have the same basic liberal intentions.  But the moral of their stories is, nonetheless, very different.  So Far From Home conveys a message of individual self-help and civic disengagement.  Lyddie conveys a message of collective action and civic engagement, and of using past decisions to help understand present-day choices.  It is primarily the respective structures of the two books – melodramatic versus tragic and causation versus choice – that makes the difference.

At the end of the musical Into the Woods, the witch warns that “Children may not obey, but children will listen.  Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be,” so be careful of the stories you tell them.  And the chorus responds that “You just can’t act, you have to listen.  You just can’t act, you have to think.”  In choosing books for students to read, in discussing books and events with them, and in preparing lessons, we need to think about the narrative structure of the stories we are presenting to them.  We need to listen carefully to the messages being conveyed by the way we are saying things, and think not only about the substance of what we want to say but also about the form.  The narrative choices we make can determine the moral of our story.

 

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