Monday, June 10, 2013

Off to Biloxi

I fly off tomorrow for the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association. Children's literature scholars, primarily university professors, will be coming together from all over the world for three intense days of papers. This is the one professional conference where I truly want to hear every single paper. How can I resist sessions like this one: 

D: The Family that Plays Together Stays Together
Mary Jeanette Moran, Illinois State University
“The Penderwicks at Play: Gender, Artistic, and Narrative Frolics in Jeanne Birdsall’s ‘Summer Story’"
June Cummins, San Diego State University
“Leisure, Pleasure, Gender, and Risk in Sydney Taylor’s Life and Children’s Books”
Amy Pattee, Simmons College 
“Playing House: This Disturbing Resemblance of Flowers in the Attic to The Boxcar Children
Or this one:   
7E: The Games We Play
Erin L. Bullok, Texas A&M University-Commerce
“Candy for Controlling and Candy for Consoling: Candyland’s Fairytale Narrative and Social Constructs”
Megan A. Norcia, SUNY Brockport
“Nineteenth-Century Board Games and the Risky Business of Imperial Politics”
Michelle Beissel Heath, University of Nebraska, Kearney
“Dueling with Literary Legacies: The Battle for Cultural Respectability and National Pride in U.S. and British 19th Century Card Games”
I have to resist printing out the entire program for your delectation!  You can find it online at
My own paper is on Pinky Pye and Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. My somewhat haphazard way of proceeding as a scholar is to take some book I loved as a child and try to think of something scholarly to say about it. This year the conference is being held at a casino resort, so the theme, appropriately, is "Risk and Play in Children's Literature." (Not every paper connects with the theme, but note the connections in the papers I referenced above). Here is the abstract of my paper, (which probably tells you more about Pinky Pye and Ginger Pye than most of you want to know!).
The Risky Play of Storytelling in Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes
Eleanor Este’s two books about the Pye family - Ginger Pye (1951) and Pinky Pye (1958) - differ notably from her three earlier books about the Moffats in shifting from the episodic format of the classic family story to a plot structure built around a single, unifying dramatic question involving the solving of a mystery: Who stole the Pyes’ dog Ginger Pye? What happened to the little owl lost at sea that ends up becoming Owlie Pye? In both books, the solution to the mystery is extremely obvious to the child reader, with insistent foreshadowing of the ultimate resolution and blatant telegraphing of every clue. This has been widely regarded by adult critics as unsatisfying. For example, John Rowe Townsend complains of Estes’s “plots of mystery and detection which call for a dramatic build-up, a logical progression toward climax, which the author is infuriatingly unable or unwilling to provide” (80).

I argue that both of the Pye books can be read, not as failed mysteries, but as cautionary tales aimed precisely against suspense-driven storytelling techniques. In Pinky Pye, Papa’s desire to heighten suspense as he tells Mr. Hiram Bish about the discovery of his lost owl delays the conclusion of the story so long that the little owl’s life is threatened once again during the space of the story’s telling. With his flair for the dramatic, Papa is exactly the kind of storyteller that Estes is not. But storytelling, we see, can be a risky activity, a dangerous self-indulgence on the part of a controlling and manipulative storyteller.

Ginger Pye also alerts the reader to the danger of story: the danger of getting the story wrong and believing an erroneous and ultimately harmful narrative. After the dognapping of Ginger Pye, Rachel and Jerry make up their own sensationalized story about the perpetrator of the deed, fixing upon the one clue of his “mustard-colored hat.” They draw a picture of their villain, “Unsavory,” picturing him as an adult who is perhaps the leader of a crime ring of counterfeiters, and present their picture to the local police chief. Everyone then proceeds to miss all the evidence clearly pointing not to an adult criminal but to a boy in Jerry’s class at school. Chief Larrimer later grumbles, “The young-uns threw me off the track with that picture they drewed of the man” (248). Jerry admits: “We threwed ourselves and all of us off the track” (23). The pictures we draw in our heads, and commit to paper, can shape – for the worse - the unfolding of real events. This is especially true, Estes seems to suggest, when the imagined events are exaggeratedly dramatic, offering a distraction that jeopardizes the denouement of the real-life story which they embellish.

In pointing to problematic aspects of suspenseful storytelling, both books thus contain within themselves material for a critique of exactly the kind of fiction Estes is chided for not providing.  

Off to Biloxi I go!

1 comment:

  1. I've only read Estes' The Hundred Dresses; but, after hearing your presentation, Pinky Pye is definitely on my reading list. M.T. Anderson, in his two-book series Octavian Nothing, plays the reader in similar ways although using much different content and to different effect.

    Thank you for including your abstract in this post; I will add it to my notes.