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Allusions in Children's Books

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Date: Fri, 9 Feb 1996
From: Kathleen Jo Powell Hannah

Hello, Everyone!

I've been reading through the books from Megan Isaac's compiled list of children's books with Shakespearean references, and I'd like to propose a topic of discussion related to them. (I hope everyone's not sick of my constantly bringing up the bard, but this thread can branch out, I think.)

In Cormier's _After the FIrst Death_, part 1, are these lines: "I have deduced, reflecting on the Bus, that this would be the best way to shuffle off this mortal coil. Poetic justice, you see ..." (p. 5 in the hardback version). Now this, I thought, was delightful. A plain old allusion to Shakespeare, one that's designed to show the reader how smart he or she is for recognizing it.

In Zibby Oneal's _In Summer Light_ are these lines: "Scooping and painting, she made her way around the rock to the rougher side, carried by the momentum of the curving shapes she was painting. The bulging outcroppings of the rock began to dictate shapes to her, and like a cave painter, she began to use these as part of her design. ... She left her own handprints on the rock, as the ancient painters at Lascaux had done." (p. 90). This, I thought, was designed to make me realize that I ought to know who the ancient painters at Lascaux are, and I ought to know the characteristics of cave painters.

What I'm getting at here is that a great many YA books seem to be designed at least in part to get the reader interested in some related but canonical or cultural phenomenon. Cormier's allusion struck me as just that--literary allusion, nothing more. But Oneal's (in the example above and throughout the rest of the novel, which brimmed with references to expressionism, impressionism, Shakespeare's _The Tempest_, etc.) seemed forced. That is, some allusions seem designed to make you proud of how smart you are, and some seem designed to make you ashamed of how little you know.

Now this may have more to do with literary skill than anything, but I think it brings up an interesting point. Do authors of books for adolescents feel more compelled to insert references to such things than do authors for adults? A sort of "Let's get them hooked on this story and then make them want to go read Shakespeare, go look at Pollack." And, *should* they? And which kind should they go for--the kind that say, "Look how smart you are" or the kind that say "All I know is that I know nothing"?

Naturally, a story should unfold on its own and not be forced. But do YA authors need to consider putting in references that will provide links to other parts of our literary, art, scientific worlds? Why or why not?

I know this list has members who are both authors and critics, and I'd like to see what all of us have to say about the subject.

Any takers?


From: Waller Hastings
Katie Hannah writes:
"some allusions seem designed to make you proud of how smart you are, and some seem designed to make you ashamed of how little you know...(quoted text snipped by f-r-)"

This is just off the top of my head, and should be taken as such - also, from my perspective as a teacher rather than as a writer or literary critic:
When I am teaching, I frequently want to allude to another piece of literature or other piece of cultural knowledge that comes fairly automatically to me. I know, however, that most of my students have never been exposed to this. Sometimes this is because of my own odd history, sometimes it is because they come from schools that never required that they learn the source of the allusion, sometimes they have read it and forgotten it. (For instance, at my institution, almost all students read *Candide* during the general-ed history course, and almost none of them can tell you anything about the book one year later.)

I don't think I'm showing off when I make the allusion - it just strikes me as terribly appropriate at the time to help me make the point I want to make. But if I can't assume that the students will know the allusion, then the point will be missed. I could choose not to make the allusion - but often it's out before I realize it. Now, if I am to be understood as I wish to be understood, I must in some way make my students aware of what the allusion is, and this may lead into an extensive digression into various contexts.

I always suspect that writers, who after all we presume to be trying to communicate, are doing something of the same thing. That is, to convey the sense that they wish to, they allude to something else. If they perceive that the audience will not recognize the allusion, but the allusion is important, they will have in some way to call attention to it. I don't think this is necessarily being "superior" - just practical, recognizing the communication needs of this particular context. Why does it have to appear as some kind of nefarious plot to eddicate 'em agin their will?


Chris Saad
Date: Fri, 9 Feb 1996

(quoted text snipped by f-r-)

When the entire extended family was together this year for Christmas, my brother and I were feeling very silly and went around telling each family member that old joke about Lady Macbeth. ("Did you know Lady Macbeth had a dog? She kept saying, 'Out, damn Spot!'") Before telling each person the joke, we would lay out the odds that that person would "get" it. ("20 to 1 she won't get it.")

Nobody got the joke.

Before you decide that I'm related to a bunch of cultural illiterates, however, let me point out that my brother and I were the only adults present born and raised in the United States. Everyone else grew up in the Middle East and could name many literary references endemic to Lebanese culture that would mean as little to me as Lady Macbeth meant to them.

I'm telling this story because it seems to me that it is important to recognize that that there is more to recognizing allusions that being "smart."


Date: Fri, 09 Feb 1996
From: Michele Missner

Could someone repost Megan Isaac's list of children's books with Shakespearian allusions? Thank, Michele


Date: Fri, 9 Feb 1996
From: fairrosa

I KNOW I'm a bit off the topic now.. but, *ahem*, do we also include things like -- mentioning a character's favorite book, or what he/she is reading in the story, in books for younger children? (It's really not "allusion", is it? But, "baits" and "spurs" nonetheless.)

I, as a child reader, always sought out the titles mentioned in stories so I could feel more sophisticated! :)


Date: Fri, 9 Feb 1996
From: linnea m hendrickson

This is another fascinating subject, and I know there have been articles written on such topics as children as readers in books, where many of these allusions occur. (If I can clear the cobwebs out of my brain, I might be able to track some of these down, or perhaps someone else out there has some references -- talk about allusions!)

However, in contrast to what you seem to be implying and to what Wally has written, I would see these allusions as not so much a way to hook readers into more reading or to show off, but as a way of adding richness to literature -- think of the allusions in T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," for example. Of course, most of us need the footnotes to help us comprehend!

As a child I always loved books in which people read other books and quoted from books, and often I did look for those books. However, no matter how much the "Little Women" loved "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Pickwick Papers," I never could work up a whole lot of enthusiasm for either of those books.

In Ruth Sawyer's Roller Skates the characters read Shakespeare, and go to plays, and I believe Lucinda puts on a puppet theatre performance of "The Tempest."

There is a problem, though, with inclusion and exclusion as Chris Saad points out. BTW, I love the Lady MacBeth joke! I was hoping to get my guests to play charades New Year's Eve, and thought I'd elevate it a bit by choosing quotes from Shakespeare for everyone to act out. I went through my Bartlett's, picking out well-known quotes that I thought had possibilities for dramatization, then went to my kids, trying to get them to guess, "Why should a horse a dog, a rat a flea, etc. have life, and thee have none..." Well, they'd never heard of this or any of the other quotes I then tried out on them. So, I gave up.

There is the whole issue of what, if anything, is our shared culture. When I watched the fireworks and light shows at Disneyland, I realized that this was our shared culture. Everyone recognized all the Disney characters. Alas, poor Yorick. You've been replaced by Mickey Mouse.

I grew up in a world where it seemed that even people without a lot of education had in common a whole world of references to literature -- I don't know how he knew so much, but my father, a first generation American with an 8th grade education, was always correcting my grammar and spelling, and could explain to me allusions to Greek myths, the Bible, and fairy tales. (And in his eighties beat everyone he played with -- including college professors -- at Trivial Pursuit.)

I suspect that television and Disney now provide the stories that unify our culture, and I'm not sure that there is any going back, or that we even want to go back to the old "cultural literacy," although I feel a great sense of loss, even grief, as I write this. I guess this brings us back to the question of what to teach -- old classics, new classics, popular culture, multiple cultures -- actually, I think we need all of it. No literature exists in isolation. It is all related to what has come before, and all stories ultimately lead back to what may only be a handful of myths, from all cultures, and perhaps it is hopeful that we can be led back to the archetypes through a story written last year as well as from written 100 or 200 or more years ago.


From Barb Wilkison
Date: Sat, 10 Feb 1996

Sorry I can't find the original posting asking for references to readers within a book. I just read _Travel Far, Pay No Fare_ by Anne Lindberg. It's a delightful story about a girl who uses a magic bookmark to travel into her favorite stories. The other main character is her cousin who is an admitted "television addict" and the only version he knows of the stories are from tv or movies! I'm reading for a class I'm taking to teach reading through literature, and I'm having a wonderful time discovering these books. It's a shame our students probably don't appreciate them as much as we do!


Date: Sat, 10 Feb 1996
From: Michelle H. Martin

Speaking of allusions, does anyone know what intertext Natalie Babbitt is using when Winnie in _Tuck Everlasting_ says "Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage"? Thanks.


Sat, 10 Feb 1996
From: Pat Hanby

Yes it's a poem called "To Althea, from prison" by Richard Lovelace, a 17th century English poet. It turns up in anthologies a lot - I'm fairly sure it is in The Oxford Book of English verse and The Golden Treasury, probably plenty of others too.


Date: Sat, 10 Feb 1996
From: Karla Walters

Assumptions about the literacy level of the reading audience lie behind most literary allusions, but not all of them. I think, for example, not only of Little Women, which as Linne observed, is replete with allusions to Pilgrim's Progess and Pickwick Papers, but also of Anne of Green Gables, with its allusions to Tennyson (especially "The lady of Shallot") and to "The Highwayman." Both of these works feature heroines who aspire to careers in writing, who see literature as their route to becoming adults. The literary allusions are vital to the theme of these novels.

Zibby O'Neal makes a similar use of allusion to art and playwrights and, in the cast of her allusions to The Tempest, to magician/makers/ writers--all creative enterprises together inspire the heroine. A young reader does not need to know the original literary work or painting in order to grasp the theme of self-discovery and achievement through claiming a personal, redemptive and creative outlet for expression.

Like Russ Hunt, I have serious doubts that many young readers today do grasp the literary allusions, just as many pre-schoolers do not pick up on the inside allusive 'jokes' that adults see when they watch Sesame Street. Recently one of my high school seniors watched Mel Gibson's Hamlet--the first time the student had ever encountered this play--and reported with surprise that he didn't realize that is where 'to be or not to be' came from.

I also think we need to accept the possibility that sometimes authors who use allusion are sincerely and possibly unconsciously alluding to texts they value personally. I think the biblical allusions in Katharine Paterson, Madeline L'Engle, and C.S. Lewis fall into this category.

However, I also agree with Chris Saad's observation that allusions constitute a kind of cultural litmus test to detect who's "in" and who is "out of it." A humorous example occurred just yesterday: my husband was in the grocery check out line, buying several cans of garbano beans. The man next to him asked him "What do you use those for, anyway," and my husband told him that we make casseroles, use them in salads, and, incidentally, we use them to make an interesting middle-eastern dip called hummus. The man laughed and confessed that he was Lebanese and knew all about hummus, and that he was just curious to see if that's what we would be using them for.


Date: Sun, 11 Feb 1996
Walter the Giant Storyteller

In a message dated 96-02-09, Linnea Hendrickson writes:
"I suspect that television and Disney now provide the stories that unify our culture, and I'm not sure that there is any going back, or that we even want to go back to the old "cultural literacy," although I feel a great sense of loss, even grief, as I write this."

You are right to say that there is no going back, and it is fitting to mourn the loss. Culture, like language, is a living breathing thing. It is influenced daily in thousands of ways by the people who participate in it. We cannot stem the tide of its change and can only influence it as much as we have access to the power structure and the media. I believe that those of us who are involved in the propogation of the cult of literature have to take our victories in the culture wars one at a time. I prefer to concentrate on the happiness I see when I help a child become turned on to reading, and use that to ward off the despair I feel as I hear of another library closing or another book I love going out of print. Yes, I could stand in the midst of our declining culture and bemoan its loss, but, other than to give me a means of dealing with the reality of the situation, it serves no true purpose. The first step is acceptance. Now what are we going to do about it?


Date: Sat, 10 Feb 1996
From: Gale Eaton

Would an allusion designed to show you how smart you are just pass unnoticed if you didn't recognize it, or would it make you ashamed of your lack of knowledge, or would it make you curious? As a child I used to track down allusions. I read Pilgrim's Progress because Meg and Jo and Beth and Amy liked it so much (I disliked it heartily, and could only conclude that the March sisters had little to choose from). I read E. Nesbit because the children in Eager's books did (good idea). And I read John Donne because an older, more sophisticated character in one of Mary Stolz's books warned a teenage girl that she wasn't old enough to understand him yet (neither was I, but the music was irresistible).

One thing these allusions may do is strengthen the reader's sense of how literature -- and everything else in the world -- is connected -- meshed, webbed, tangled? There is something remarkably pleasurable about connection. I love your thread.


Date: Thu, 22 Feb 1996
From: Patrick Gillespie

"Would an allusion designed to show you how smart you are just pass unnoticed if you didn't recognize it, or would it make you ashamed of your lack of knowledge, or would it make you curious?"

Just to wrestle solely with this question... if the allusion is not recognized then it follows (doesn't it?) that one will not recognize there is an allusion being made. If one does not recognize a thing, then how can one be ashamed of a thing one is unaware of?* Therefore, ignorance is truly bliss.

*See Conundrum.


Last Updated: May 20, 1997

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