The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 1 (2003)

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The
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Caroline Jones, editor


The City as a Liminal Site in Children's Literature: Enchanted Realism with an Urban Twist

Naomi Hamer


Naomi Hamer is a candidate for the Master of Arts in Children's Literature degree, School of Library, Archival & Information Studies, The University of British Columbia.


I live in New York City. That crazy quivering wondering wild city. A city like an enormous orchestra. A bebop city. Everyone playing music that screeeeches and slides into my ears. Everyone singing a different song. Everyone running a different way. All day. All night.

-- from Max Makes A Million by Maira Kalman

 

New York City. Los Angeles. London. Paris. Toronto. Distinct experiences of urban life in major European and North American cities have inspired countless works of literature, film, and art, as well as, musical compositions and television programs for both children and adults. Diverse images of "the city" in art and literature offer a range of literal and metaphoric implications: the city as metaphor for modernization; the Old World European city as romantic or nostalgic setting; the futuristic city as cautionary comment on technology; the city as centre of consumer and corporate culture; the city as a symbol of anonymous and empty (post)modern life; the city as emblem of the disrupted relationship between humans and nature; the city as a site for criminalization, drug use, prostitution, gang violence and poverty. In the context of this artistic and literary commentary over the last century, the image of the city has also become an integral and dynamic element in children's literature.

Many historical and contemporary classics of children's literature rely on an escape from the city in order for protagonists to experience an alternate fantasy or natural world; however, increasingly in modern children's novels and picture books, the city itself has innately magical and fantastical qualities or becomes the site for a (quasi)-fantastical realm. Mary Beaty remarks in her reflection on the child protagonists of Manhattan: "urban children somehow form private lives in the midst of the moil of policemen, tradesmen, traffic and trams" (Beaty 1). Rather than running away to a natural realm, child protagonists in these texts exist within their own imaginative spheres in the core of the city where they live and play. In their depiction of these imaginative spheres, many of these novels and picture books exemplify an enchanted or magic realism in their child's-eye-view perspectives of the city. Magic realism, a literary genre strongly associated with contemporary Latin American writers, "interweaves, in an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements" (Abrams 135). Magical realist texts, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970), weave fantastical or magical qualities into the everyday realm of realistic events, characters and places in the city.

Sheila Egoff defines "enchanted realism" as a genre of children's literature that "gradually penetrates the imagination blending fantasy and reality through a distortion of time and space"(Egoff 99). She cites Lucy Boston's The Children of the Green Knowe (1954), Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden (1958) and Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting (1975) as examples of the subtle fantasy of enchanted realism. Unlike purely fantastical texts where entirely distinct worlds are entered such as Narnia (Lewis), Wonderland (Carroll) or Never Never Land (Barrie), the real human world becomes "enchanted" within a confined place or space such as an ancient house, a small village or a garden. These "enchanted" places in children's literature may be defined as liminal spaces of exploration or transformation where within these spheres the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred. Anthropologist Victor Turner defines "liminality" as "betwixt or between...in a period of transition between states" (Turner 234). Moreover, the liminal state may be seen as the period of ambiguity where individuals "are neither one thing nor another; or may be both; or neither here nor there; or may even be nowhere" (Turner 236).

Theorist James Clifford discusses the liminal qualities of places "of transit, not of residence" such as the "hotel, a station, airport terminal, hospital and so on: somewhere you pass through, where the encounters are fleeting, arbitrary" (Clifford 96). In many children's texts that are set in the city, the central focus or setting of the story is often such a transitional site, a "place of transit, not of residence". Examples of these places in children's literature are numerous: Felice Holman's Slake's Limbo uses both the New York subway and the Commodore Hotel as central images; in Kay Thompson's Eloise, the Plaza Hotel becomes its own imaginative sphere for its young protagonist; in E.L. Konigsberg's The Mixed-Up-Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, the Metropolitan Museum in New York becomes the site for exploration. Cities themselves in the modern, literary imagination are places defined by transit, ambiguity, and arbitrary interactions between random individuals. Often, liminal urban places may be perceived as symbolic microcosms of the cities where they are located.

Trains and the subway system are often central city images with multiple meanings in children's literature. In Holman's Slake's Limbo, the New York subway becomes a metaphor for escape and freedom. We are told early in the novel "Aremis Slake had often escaped into the subway when things got rough above ground. He kept a subway token in his pocket for just that emergency" (1). Moreover, the subway takes on a greater magical force or power related to Slake's personal choices and destiny, rather than merely a means of transit: "Slake with the instinct of other migratory creatures flew from the train at Seventy-Seventh Street and Lexington Avenue. This was an unusual move in itself; Slake usually exited only at transfer points"(15). Comparatively, in Robert Munsch's picture book Jonathan Cleaned Up-Then He Heard a Sound, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, the mysteries of the city's subway are perceived in a fantastical and absurd manner when young Jonathan's living room becomes a subway station. It is an ordinary day at home when suddenly the living room wall opens up, a subway train pulls up and "all kinds of people came out of Jonathan's wall, ran around his apartment and out the front door." A mission down to City Hall leads Jonathan to find (in a moment reminiscent of Dorothy finding the "great and powerful Oz" behind the curtain) a little old man, who craves blackberry jam, behind a huge machine that apparently runs the city. He tells Jonathan that because the computer is broken, he does "everything for the whole city". The story hilariously concludes with an illustration depicting the subway rerouted to stop at the Mayor's office instead. Through Jonathan's imaginative perspective, the behind-the-scenes controls of the city are in a realm as mysterious, fantastical or absurd as a mad tea party in Wonderland.

In Maira Kalman's Next Stop Grand Central, New York City consists of a series of strange, chaotic, quirky and random characters perpetually in a state of bustle. With its post-modern commentary, chaotic illustrations and sarcastic tone, Kalman's picture book may appeal equally (if not more) to adult readers than to a younger audience. Her illustrations include a random assortment of unrelated people and places that imply distinct perspectives on the same page. She utilizes text that is often part of the illustrations themselves (with distinct typefaces) and incorporates several dialogues that occur simultaneously. In this picture book, Grand Central Station becomes an emblem for the city as a whole. Next Stop explains, "while you are sitting there, there is a place in New York City that is the busiest, fastest, biggest place there is" where "every day 500,000 people walk, run, dash, rush-criss-crossing on and off trains. It is such a madhouse, people say IT'S LIKE GRAND CENTRAL IN HERE!" Kalman takes the insanity of Grand Central one step further with the inclusion of several surreal, implausible events mixed in with the mundane rush. One example of this surrealism is a side-note about how "a giant chicken is on the track blocking the train", as if this event was as likely as a jammed door or other mundane cause for a delay. In Kalman's New York City fantasy and reality exist on a continuum.

The characters in Grand Central are unique caricatures whose identities are revealed through a few random details, traits we also see in Kay Thompson's Eloise. Character introductions in Kalman's picture book include: "The woman with the blue pancake hat is going to Chinatown to buy Poo Nik Tea"; "The Oblensky twins are going to their tap dancing class in Carnegie Hall". Similarly in Thompson's text, we are often only told an assortment of details about passing characters. For example, Eloise describes her friend Bill as "a busboy in the night and goes to school in the day and his eyes water". In Kalman's text, the characters' descriptions often include some reference to a New York landmark and represent the range of multicultural and unique people that live in the city. Rather than an emphasis on the identity-less anonymity that is associated with a large city, these characters illustrate the individuality and diversity that exists amidst the rush hour crowd. However, at the same time, despite the unique qualities allotted to these characters, the urban individuals in Kalman's text remain transitory and do not evolve beyond two-dimensional figures.

In the enormity of the city, the child protagonists often find themselves in a playground full of caricature-like characters that are often adults. In early works of enchanted realism, "childhood is seen as a state separate from adulthood and the adventures the children encounter are a product of their own devising, their own serious play and imaginings" (Egoff 100). While the adventures of city children continue to be a product of their own imaginative play and schemes, the modern urban child protagonists seem far more connected with the adult world than their predecessors. Mary Beaty remarks, "Metropolitan kids float above the Night Kitchen [referencing Sendak], deprived of milk cows and turtles and tree houses and fishing holes. They swim in an ocean of adults, sometimes remarkably alone" (Beaty 1). Parental figures seem to be absent or to have minimal in their involvement with the child protagonists in many of these texts. Both Harriet and Eloise have nannies that are more central than their parents, Aremis Slake has run away from home, and Jonathan (in Munsch's picture book) ventures downtown, presumably alone, to discover the secrets of the subway. Moreover, many of these protagonists illustrate conflicted identities for urban children, whereby they are active participants in the adult world, yet still maintain a child's perspective of the city.

Louise Fitzhugh's novel Harriet the Spy exemplifies this dual perspective whereby the young central characters are both heavily involved in, yet outside observers of, the adult world of the city. The novel begins in the courtyard of Harriet's house on East Eighty-seventh street in Manhattan, where the protagonist and her friend Sport are engaged in the conventional childhood game of "Town"; however, we quickly learn that in real life Sport has several adult responsibilities including control over his family's finances due to the incompetence of his "starving writer" father. Moreover, Fitzhugh's narrative tone and Harriet's ongoing commentary are sophisticated in their keen observations of the eccentricities of the adult characters. Harriet's guardian Ole Golly, Egoff observes, is "the parody of an eccentric. She has the fondness for inserting quotations from famous writers into any conversation, no matter how irrelevant the quotation may be" (Egoff 59).

Within the realm of Upper East Side Manhattan, Harriet lives out a quasi-fantasy as a "spy" and takes notes on her friends, classmates as well as several adults. She spies on various adult characters that are constructed as a series of satiric caricatures. For example, Mrs. Agatha Plumber is described as "a very strange, rather theatrical lady who had once married a man of considerable means. She was now divorced, lived alone and apparently talked on the telephone all day" (38). Harriet, carefully positioned on a dumb-waiter, listens in on Mrs. Plumber's conversations and takes notes on their superfluity in her notebooks. Interestingly, Harriet is simultaneously critical of and curious about the adult world. For example, in response to Ole Golly and her to-be husband, Harriet writes in her notebook: "There is more to this thing of love than meets the eye...I think maybe they're all right when they say there are some things I won't know anything about until I'm older" (87). Harriet as observer of the adult world is often profound in her critique; however, she is often, but not always, self-conscious about the limits to her knowledge. Perry Nodelman cites Harriet the Spy as an example of how "some non-fantasies are also about the implications of fantasy" (Nodelman 176). Harriet's spying may be viewed essentially as a make-believe game that becomes too entangled with real life. Ultimately when her journal is discovered, Harriet must reevaluate the limits of her imaginative game of spying. She begins to understand the effects she may have on real people and real lives, including her own.

Both Kay Thompson's Eloise (Billed as "A book for precocious grown ups") and Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy stand as models for the life of the New York Upper East side child living in an adult sphere with minimal parental involvement. Eloise's mother who "is 30 and has a charge account at Bergdorf's" seems to be perpetually absent, although mentioned frequently in terms of whom she "knows". The book begins with this introduction: "I am Eloise/ I am six/ I am a city child/I live at The Plaza". Eloise as the quintessential New York self-defined "city child" protagonist is spunky, talkative, imaginative, precocious, curious, mischievous and vastly self-absorbed. Like Harriet, Eloise is a keen participant in and observer of the adult world in the hotel where she lives. The Plaza becomes its own playful and imaginative world for Eloise where the busboys, musicians, maids and nanny reveal random stories and information about urban life. For example, Nanny "wears tissue paper in her dress and you can hear it. She is English and has 8 hairpins made out of bones." Described as her "mostly companion", Eloise's Nanny and primary guardian is comparable to Harriet's Ole Golly, although the relationship between the two characters is less significant because Eloise is younger. Other figures include: the day maid Johanna who "has earrings with garnets and is going to take her Social Security to Bavaria on her birthday"; and Thomas from the Palm Court "who has a son in the Marines who got married on a shoestring/ [and] has a Corvette". Compared to the adult characters in Harriet, the character descriptions in Eloise seem more playful, even parodic. Comparable to Kalman's characters in Grand Central, Eloise's descriptions seem to capture, without direct critique, the random, eccentric individuals and transitory relationships that exist within the realm of the Plaza.

The Plaza becomes its own enclosed fantasy realm where six-year-old Eloise may play freely in a decadent world primarily inhabited by adults, and yet seem relatively safe from harm. Thompson's literary construction of the Plaza is carefully removed from the realities of potential danger and dangerous adults in a real-life hotel in New York City. Eloise' time is spent "all over the hotel/ Half the time I am lost/ But mostly I am on the first floor because that's where catering is". She goes on adventures in the elevator or the boiler room and spends most of the day roaming the halls of the Plaza. She confides to her readers: "if there is an open door I have to walk in and pretend I am an orphan...and look sort of sad in between the arms and they give me a piece of melon or something." Eloise's imaginary adventures such as those with her dolls (depicted in the illustrations as red/pink line sketches to dramatize their imaginary status) are described in the same tone as her real-life adventures in the hotel. This flow of narrative effectively recreates the worldview of a 6 year old, where there are often fluid lines between reality and make-believe. Hilary Knight's illustrations in Eloise are unusual as they allude to the discrepancy between the fantasy world of the child protagonist and reality of her play in the hotel. Like Eloise, most of these urban-based texts, such as Kalman's Next Stop Grand Central depict flexible and fluid boundaries between fantasy and reality, inviting the reader to enter a more fantastical realm of the city.

Literary recreations of major cities may also reflect and play with collective associations related to the distinct identity of a city. While Maira Kalman's post-modern chaotic style artistically captures the essence of New York City in her picture books, the Impressionistic, watercolor illustrations in Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline (1939) reflect an idealized, romantic and nostalgic image of Paris that is heavily infused with collective fantasies and associations. Francesca Lia Block in her unique novel Weetzie Bat (and its sequels) creates a psychedelic, fantastical vision of Los Angeles in her "Shangri-L.A". Her literary depiction of LA.follows a group of eccentric characters that speak in a strange, funky, mixed up slang. The adolescent protagonist, Weetzie and her friends also dress in hyperbolic outfits that include "Levi's with white-suede fringe sewn down the legs and a feathered Indian headdress, sometimes old fifties' taffeta dresses covered with poetry written in glitter" (2). All of the elements of this world: places, people, outfits, houses and language seem excessively flamboyant and not quite real. Block's L.A. gives the characteristically excessive and flamboyant qualities of real-life Los Angeles new exaggerated proportions. Interestingly, in her novels, Block also has created a distinct image of New York City, a darker, east coast cousin to counter her fluorescent Los Angeles: "where the subways made her nerves feel like a charm bracelet of plastic skeletons jangling on a chain" (23). Conversely, New York-based Charlie (Weetzie's father) describes L.A. as a place where "everything is an illusion... palaces and skies, blondes and stars. It makes me too sad. It's like having a good dream. You know you are going to wake up" (92). These descriptions reflect and respond to popular mythologies about the two cities, the dark, underground, jangly and neurotic elements associated with New York City function as a counterpoint to the illusionary flamboyance and excessive superfluity of Los Angeles.

In distinct manners, many contemporary picture books and children's novels create fantastical realms that seem to evolve from the randomness, chaos, and excess of urban life. Urban spaces allow for the fantasy play of urban child protagonists and also become sites infused with fantastical elements. Kalman creates a chaotic myth of Grand Central Station in New York City; Munsch constructs a fantastical tale of the behind-the-scenes secrets of a city subway; Block depicts an excessively neon alternative Los Angeles; Fitzhugh and Thompson create spaces of child-like fantasy play in the adult world of Upper East Side Manhattan. Comparable to the enchanted antique country houses or vast secret gardens of an older children's literature tradition, hotels, train stations, museums and apartment buildings have become liminal sites for exploration and transformative experiences. However, unlike the distinct fantasy worlds of Narnia and Wonderland or the enchanted places of older classics such as Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, urban childhood is not constructed as a sphere separate from the adult world. Rather, as exemplified by Harriet spying from a dumb waiter or Eloise observing the crowd at the Plaza, liminal urban sites allow child protagonists to observe, explore, engage and comment on the adult world of the city while still maintaining some of the playful aspects of the fantasy worlds of childhood. The urban landscape of these texts seems to simultaneously provide inspiration for the fantastical adventures of children, while allowing for critique and commentary about the adult urban world.

 

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edn. New York: Harcourt, 1993.

Beaty, Mary. "Lullaby of Broadway", The Looking Glass-The Monitor, Vol. 2, No.1, August 1997.

Bemelmans, Ludwig. Madeline. New York: Viking Press, 1939.

Block, Francesca Lia. Weetzie Bat. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

Clifford, James. "Traveling Cultures". Cultural Studies. eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. pp. 96-116.

Egoff, Sheila. Thursday's Child: trends and patterns in contemporary children's literature. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1981.

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet The Spy. New York: Harper &Row, 1964.

Holman, Felice. Slake's Limbo. New York: Dell Publishing, 1974.

Kalman, Maira. Max Makes A Million. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

Kalman, Maira. Next Stop Grand Central. New York: Puffin Books, 1999.

Konigsburg, E.L. The Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler. New York: Dell Publishing, 1967.

Munsch, Robert N. Illustrator: Michael Martchenko. Jonathan Cleaned Up-Then He Heard A Sound. Toronto: Annick Press, 1981.

Nodelman, Perry. "Some Presumptuous Generalizations About Fantasy". Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature. Third Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996. 175-178.

Thompson, Kay. Illustrator: Hilary Knight. Eloise. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.

Turner, Victor W. "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage" . The Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society (1964), Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, pp. 4-20, reprinted in McGill University course pack for Anthropology 251, by permission of the author and University of Washington Press (1997).

 

Naomi Hamer


Volume 7, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, January, 2003

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The City as a Liminal Site in Children's Literature: Enchanted Realism with an Urban Twist" © Naomi Hamer 2003
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680