What We Gain: Children’s Literature and the Self

What We Gain.png
Illustration by Victoria Liao

Allan Stratton is a University of Toronto alumnus, playwright, actor, novelist, and a really nice guy. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him twice.

The first time, he was giving a talk at my former high school’s library and a friend I’d been visiting there convinced me to go. He read an excerpt from The Phoenix Lottery (“I wish you were alive and everybody else was dead. I do. I really, really do” reads the teenage diary of Lydia, directed at her cat) and I introduced myself afterwards. We talked about writing, Victoria College, and his characters, and I got a copy of his book which I enjoyed later that summer.

I met him again more recently at Harbourfront Centre. The Forest of Reading, a children’s literary festival where Stratton was nominated for (and won) the Red Maple Award, had taken over for the week, and my job was to ferry authors, excited students, and stressed teachers to the right events. On our way to his Q&A I reintroduced myself and we talked as long as the walk down the hallway would let us.

He was talking about his latest book, The Dogs. It follows a young boy named Cameron and his mother as they run from his abusive father and look for another new start in a small town, where they move into a farmhouse haunted by the ghostly dogs of a previous owner. It was clear that kids loved it, so I read it the next week and enjoyed it as much as an adult reading a book written for twelve year olds can – a decent amount. It was an exciting story and while the supernatural was my favourite part, it contained enough of the real world to be scary on its own.

Good children’s literature offers more to adult readers than just an entertaining story. Thank goodness, for the sake of anyone who has to read to kids regularly. And lots of this literature is also speculative: the most popular YA books out there involve magic and the supernatural, to say nothing of the talking animals and fairy tales that dominate picture books. Lots of classic speculative fiction novels, like Alice in Wonderland or The Chronicles of Narnia, are also definitive works of children’s literature – and they’re praised and enjoyed by all ages.

As we grow up and interact with stories differently, we gain and we lose. We gain the inside jokes and the Easter eggs that are intended to be entertaining only to adults. We gain the grittiness of folk tales and the integral darkness of our culture. At the very least, we gain a better understanding of the plot.

But we lose perspective, and the unique ways children deal with problems. Sometimes an obvious solution, to an adult, requires much more creative problem-solving from a child. I’m sure I can come up with an example of a basic story plot that I didn’t understand as a kid and for which I had to create my own complicated solution.

The kids at Stratton’s Q&A were really interested in the reality of the book – a major theme that leaves a lot up to the reader. Questions about whether the ghost was real or imagined, the truth about a character’s ambiguous death, and even what Cameron looked like, were passionately called out from the audience for most of the session. Even in a speculative world, the search for the concrete lives on.

The Dogs definitely does horror well, and the creepiness is probably why the students who voted for it enjoyed it so much. Cameron thinks he sees faces out of his bedroom window. There are disturbing drawings left behind by a long-dead child, and scratch marks in a dark basement. At one point he fears that the attic of his house has bodies in it.

It’s creepy, but it poses more than enough questions to overcome the fear and read on for the answers, as Cameron himself does in the story. And while he’s busy dodging bullies and spirits, his mom grapples with her own fears of Cameron’s abusive father finding them. She’s more afraid of him than Cameron ever is of the violent dogs and uncovered bones.

Revisiting anything can be emotional, but as kids our identities are complex as they change and take shape. Earlier this year I re-read some of the Narnia books and rediscovered so many things I’d forgotten, and how they shaped me. What still rang true about these books I’d loved so much? I’ve always loved the world-building offered by The Magician’s Nephew. As an adult I was more drawn to the humorous misery of Edmund, but when I was younger, Susan had been my clear favourite.

Ask anyone why stories are important and they’ll tell you it’s because they open us to new perspectives. But children’s literature does this in a unique way by giving us back our old perspectives: it’s the the familiar hidden in the alien. Even if we are not a story’s target audience we can still learn about who we are, and who we were.

-Contributed by Risa Ian De Rege


4 Heroes. 4 Movies. 4 Mistakes. 4 Puns.

Fantastic FOur cover
image source: d.gr-assets.com

There have been four attempts to bring Marvel’s first family to life on the big screen. First in 1994, then 2005, 2007, and most recently in 2015.

Whatever grand cosmic meaning might be found in four failed Fantastic 4 movies escapes me, but all of them have sucked.

I’ve heard people say maybe the Fantastic 4 just suck as a concept, or maybe they can’t be translated well into live action, or maybe they’re just too far out to get right. But… no. I’m here today to tell you that isn’t true at all.

The reason that we’ve never seen a good Fantastic 4 movie is because, well, nobody has ever made a real Fantastic 4 movie. Almost none of what made the comics so incredible for so many decades has ever been realized on screen.

Let me elaborate in the form of four major points, because that structure both allows me to argue what I want and also kind of make this whole thing a Fantastic 4 pun, which means this is the best day of my life.

1: We have never actually seen the real Doctor Doom.

In the comics, Victor Von Doom is the iron-fisted dictator of a sovereign island nation called Latveria, and grew up as an orphan living with a band of gypsies. The group he was in stayed on the move to avoid the wrath of the oppressive regime, until, through a combination of inventions and black magic, Victor lead an uprising and seized control.

Because yes, Doctor Doom can do magic.

A once-handsome man, Victor Von Doom’s downfall started when he summoned a portal to hell in order to bring his mother back to life; however, true to comic form, the portal exploded in his face instead, forcing him to seal himself inside a suit of magical armour.

Also in the comics, Victor is a master of science and technology, rivalled only by the mind of his college roommate, Reed Richards. Both studied science that I assume Stan Lee made up on the fly. This all happened in his early twenties, until, after getting his doctorate, Victor was kicked out for unethical practice and sent back to Latveria (where he lead the aforementioned uprising shortly after.)

See? Doctor Doom isn’t even a supervillain name, you guys. Victor has a doctorate. His actual name is just Doctor Doom.

Doctor Doom
image source:vignette2.wikia.net/marveldatabase/images

Word play jokes aside, Doctor Doom is arguably one of the greatest supervillains ever put to page. He once took on the Celestials (otherworldly beings of infinite power) and forced Galactus to kneel before him, and became essentially God as the most powerful being in the entire Marvel Universe (twice). He can occasionally do good as well, proving that he actually cares about the people of Latveria, and in one instance he even protects Franklin and Valeria Richards (the children of his worst enemy) from harm.

In fact, Doom has actually saved the world several times, because when all the heroes are sitting around contemplating what to do, Doom just busts open the door with a cry of “DOOM CARES NOT” and that’s that.

None of the details of this incredible character have ever appeared in a movie. In the 2005 movie, Doctor Doom was a seedy business man who gains the power to shoot lightning, and in 2015 he was a… programmer? I guess? Why is Fox so afraid to make Doom the magical science tyrant he truly is? They even have a problem with his name. In each live screen version, they tried to change his name (“Victor Von Damn”, and “Victor Domeshev “, respectively), and then changed it back at the last second.

The ongoing dynamic between Doctor Doom and Mr. Fantastic is probably one of the most interesting relationship in comics, save for that of Professor X and Magneto from the X-Men. Their rivalry and hatred of one another is strangely contrasted by the respect and kinship they try so hard to hide. Despite being morally polar opposites, deep down both Reed and Victor know that the only true equal either one has on the entire planet, maybe the entire universe, is each other. They are the two smartest men in the universe, both of them convinced that they have the right way and authority to save the world. But while Reed gets to be the hero, Doom is the villain.

In the movies we’ve never gotten past “Victor is jealous because Reed is smarter and can make out with Sue”.

If you need more convincing of how great of a character Doctor Doom is, go read the entirety of Jonathon Hickman’s Fantastic 4 run, half his Avengers comics, and his colossal finale Secret War. I promise, it will convince you. Doctor Doom is the number one Marvel supervillain according to Newsarama, and the third greatest comic book villain of all time according to IGN. So why are the studios so afraid to give us the Doom we deserve?

2: Where is Galactus, the devourer of worlds! 

image source: cdn1.sciencefiction.com

Does anybody actually remember Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer? 

I mean, no, not really. Because that movie was terrible. But it is pretty easy to name both the best and worst thing that movie managed to do. The best? I’ll admit, the Silver Surfer looked damn cool.

This is a character that Jack Kirby created supposedly because he was tired of drawing spaceships. It is the shiny, nearly featureless outline of a man who flies on a surfboard. It’s not such a hard thing to get right and they did. So what was the worst thing?

Probably the evil space cloud. That was not Galactus. Like Doctor Doom, Galactus is a genuinely fascinating and complex character.

The gargantuan planet eater Galactus is the only survivor of the universe that existed before our own. In fact, Galactus essentially is the universe of before, bonded to the last mortal of its existence, and was reborn into the giant purple-hatted being that constantly clashes with the Fantastic 4. But the fascinating thing is that the character of Galactus himself is not actually evil. He is a thinking being that can be reasoned and debated with, as well as a force of nature. Galactus destroys what he feels he must for his own survival, and for what he believes is best for the universe as a whole. He even created the Silver Surfer in order to seek out uninhabited planets that Galactus could eat without committing genocide.

And sure, Galactus often goes back on his word in that respect and tries to destroy the earth. But he is also a being that Reed Richards and the Fantastic 4 have spoken to, and have come to an uneasy alliance with.

So, as opposed to a boring space cloud, imagine superheroes fighting a planet sized alien being with a purple helmet who has existed since before the dawn of time itself.

I mean, maybe it’s just me. But a movie dealing with that character sounds genuinely interesting.

3: Science Fiction Extraordinaire

Silver Surfer
image source: s-media-cache-ako.pinimg.com

Right off the bat, lets skip the origin story.

Over half of the Fantastic 4 movies that have been made have been about the Fantastic 4 getting their powers, and then spending the whole movie trying to get rid of their powers.

That is genuinely the least interesting premise for a Fantastic 4 movie I can possibly conceive of, unless someone were to film Ben Grimm sitting on the toilet for two hours reading a newspaper. Seriously. Most superheroes don’t actually require that much context. That’s why so often the second movie for a superhero character is the better movie (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: United all come to mind).

So why not skip ahead to when the Fantastic 4 are genuinely an interesting family of pure insanity? So many of the classic FF tales are huge science fiction adventures into the depths of the earth, or the depths of space, or occasionally into another dimension entirely!

The early days of the Fantastic 4 were illustrated by Jack “The King” Kirby, who is basically the godfather of comic book art. Kirby’s FF days were punctuated by massive otherworldly images, shapeshifting aliens, mind-bending space battles, and galactic invasions of Earth.

In one comic, Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) was once inducted into an inter-dimensional organization called the “Council of Reeds”, which was entirely populated with alternate reality versions of him trying to save the multiverse. Best part? The story culminated with Doom defeating a race of Gods and the Human Torch locking himself in another dimension to fight an endless army of insect monsters. I mean that is… that would make the most wacked-out movie ever, right? And there’s the fun of the Watcher, an alien who lives on the moon and can see everything and has a giant head.

So far, we have seen none of that in the attempts at bringing them to screen, because the studios seem weirdly embarrassed of the more science fiction elements of the Fantastic 4 universe. Really, if you want these characters to work, abandon self-consciousness at the door. Give us the insanity and true scope of science fiction possible with these characters.

We were all happy to watch a talking raccoon with a space gun mourn the death of his talking tree friend.

We can handle it.

4: Family                                                                     

Above all else, the Fantastic 4 are a fundamentally different group dynamic than any other super team in comics. They aren’t the collection of mighty heroes like The Avengers, or the collection of outcasts like X-Men.

The Fantastic 4 are fundamentally a family. So you want to make them stand out from the rest? Make them an actual family. Instead of the painfully awkward romance between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman (who where near strangers), Give us the actual married Reed Richards and Susan Storm. But more than that. Give us their children, the occasionally cosmically-powered Franklin Richards and the super-genius Valeria Richards. Give us The Thing and the Human Torch being referred to as “Uncle Ben” and “Uncle Johnny”. Give us that super uncomfortable kinship between Valeria Richards and Doctor Doom, who see eye to eye on slightly more than her parents might wish.

Because that, more than anything else I’ve mentioned, is what sets the Fantastic 4 apart. This is a story about a real, developed and mature family that behaves as such. Please, someone out there, give us all these things.

Give us the real Galactus and Doctor Doom, and Mole People and shapeshifting aliens, give us the family dynamic and science-fiction insanity that have graced the pages of comic books for over half a century.

Give us the Fantastic 4 movie we deserve!

– Contributed by Ben Ghan

Say that Again? – The Trouble with Translation in the Speculative Genre

Illustration by Katicha Hirigoyen

Tom Marvelo Riddle is a great anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort”.

In English, that is.

I often get surprised looks from people when I tell them that I absolutely cannot watch the Disney animated version of Robin Hood in English. It simply doesn’t feel right to me. Growing up with a particular version, with a specific cast of voice actors, my mind refuses to process anything different.

Even now that I am grown up, the original English versions of movies are still not dominant in my life. For instance, I will happily sing “When Will My Life Begin” from Tangled in Russian, and with the exception of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I haven’t seen any of the Marvel movies in English.

A topic that is particularly valid throughout the realm of speculative work is a question of whether or not translation is even a possibility. And if it is, then how much of the original meaning and “cleverness” value is maintained in the translation? 

For example, many jokes cannot be translated literally language-to-language. Sometimes the wordplay is unique to a text’s mother tongue, other times the difficulty is in a culture gap. I didn’t realize just how interesting the issue was until I tried having a conversation about Harry Potter with some students at a coffee shop, and discovered I was at an impasse.

The world of Harry Potter is known for its use of made up concepts and new terms that rely frequently both on wordplay and a degree of linguistic understanding. In the case of the term “Horcrux”, I spent a long time explaining what I was talking about to people because the term that I was using, “Крестраж” (“Krestraz”), bears no similarity to the original. Here, the translators had to be creative, although another alternative was to simply take the English term and create an Anglicized term that could be written in Cyrillic.

Other translators rely on the denotation of the words themselves to find a more-or-less fitting equivalent. Terms such as “Howler” become “Громовещатель” (“Gromoveschatel”, literally “loud-proclaimer”), and “Sneakoscope” become “Вредноскоп” (“Vrednoskop”, literally Nastyscope).

With other words, creativity and wordplay was necessary. One of my particular favourites is the translation for “O.W.L.S.”, which becomes the Russian word for “owl”, “сова”, or “S.O.V.” in a literal English equivalent. The best part is that it can also be deconstructed as an acronym, translating as the “Standards of Learning Magic” with the Russian acronym.

Another interesting one is the Mirror of Erised. The Russian translation uses the same trick and takes the word for desire “Желание” (“Zhelaniye”) and inverts it to make “Еиналеж”. Other terms, like “Ravenclaw” or “muggle”, resort to a mixture of these strategies.

The Harry Potter example is relatively simple, however, if you look at the much more extreme side of the spectrum. Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem “Jabberwocky” is a common example in linguistic and cultural anthropology courses when discussing the abstractness of English. Since the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” makes little sense in our literal understanding, it’s really a free-for-all in the realm of translations. The question here becomes whether translation is beneficial or detrimental to the speculative genre, and how one should approach it.

Fluency is not an ability that everyone possesses, and there is certainly something special about reading a literary work or watching a movie in its original language. But the fact that a massive studio like Disney has separate divisions in numerous countries should be an indicator of how drastically the area of translation has evolved. They show that a lot of effort is put into preserving some of the initial emotional sense of a term or phrase. Moreover, often there are humorous little rhymes and anecdotes that sound much better in the translated version than they do in the original.

There is no right or wrong in this case, as some of the explanation lies in the nature of languages themselves. One language may have a more diverse range of colour terminology, for instance, while another may have adjectives that are used to convey sounds, textures, and other minute details that another culture may not pay attention to. There is one certainty however: being able to watch or read something in two or more languages certainly makes one more receptive and open-minded to these nuances. It creates the realization that there must be something brilliant and wonderful in the work itself if so many cultures are trying to find ways to say it.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko