Ponds, children’s literature, and Hayao Miyazaki

The stories that we read as children stay with us. Sometimes practically: dishevelled, bruised, cracked-of spine; or sometimes more metaphorically as a memory, or a feeling we can’t describe or even fully realise. This is because literature is a continuum: everything we read talks to everything we’ve ever read before and to everything we’re yet to read.

Connections. Collisions. Creations. Children’s literature reads us and we read it, a moebius strip of reading that never ends and never begins and never pauses. That continuous twist of experience, of finding a story within ourselves and remaking it and telling it anew and retelling it.

A useful way to visualise this is think about dropping a pebble in a pond. The ripples it forms. The way that, even after the ripples stop, the memory of them remains. The way that everything is changed, everything is different – transformed. The stone is where it was not before: it has been transformed by the interaction with you. And you have been transformed by the interaction with it: you’ve felt the weight of it in your hand, and the memory of the movement of dropping it in the water remains.

One of my accidental lockdown projects – a slow catch up on the wonderful films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli – has had me thinking a lot about this sort of thing. Miyazaki has often spoken about his understanding of story and how they work. What’s really interesting to me is that he often speaks not only of story as a thing but also as a thing with a potent, particular charge.

“I do believe in the power of story. I believe that stories have an important role to play in the formation of human beings, that they can stimulate, amaze and inspire their listeners.”

Hayao Miyazaki (source).

The notion of ‘charged’ stories is something that has become increasingly interesting to me. I often think that it’s not necessarily about the story itself but rather the forces held within that space. The act of writing – the material charged act of making words. Collisions. Creations. Connections. Marking. Making. Texts. Textures. Textuality. All similar, interwoven things and all of them possessing force and charge and change.

What does it mean to us as the reader to experience that?

Miyazaki’s also spoken about the influence of children’s literature – of story – on his work, and back in 2010 even went so far as to pick out fifty of his favourite children’s books for an exhibition in Tokyo. It features titles as varied as Flambards by KM Peyton, Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, through to A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.

There’s some common themes here that intrigue me. The sharp, wistful edge of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. The everyday adventure of The Borrowers by Mary Norton and Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. (Mary Norton’s due a bit of a resurgence isn’t she? I do rather love her and pick her out as being influential on How To Be Brave in this list).

(I’ve had this article bookmarked for a while on Japanese children’s literature and just starting to slowly read through. I’m increasingly convinced of the benefits of slow, thick reading and a piece like this really is worth taking the time over).

I’m always delighted to find people working with children’s literature – specifically classics – and not being precious with them. Canonisation can be an arbitrary thing, so often decided by the privileged and their particular, niche concerns. There’s something empowering and rather delightful about getting your hands dirty with something that’s been dubbed a classic and seeing how it works for you and indeed, if it will work for you. Some of them won’t and that’s to be expected. Some of them will, though, and that’s where the fun begins. Transform them. Remix them. Find the new way to tell that story and make it your own. And through that, make it speak once more.

Discovering that Studio Ghibli had adopted When Marnie Was There – based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson – was a pivotal moment for me. It’s a soft, quiet film and one that gets what it is to be a lonely child. Loneliness is hard to capture and it’s easy to deny the importance of it. How does one visually represent such an abstract thing? How does one adapt a story from medium into another and retain the integrity of it? It’s no easy thing to do, and yet this film manages it.

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

I also enjoyed Mary And The Witch’s Flower which was the first film from Studio Ponoc – an animation studio founded by Ghibli alum Yoshiaki Nishimura . It’s adapted from another classic of British children’s literature The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. And in the process of looking it up, I discovered that it was illustrated by Shirley “actual legend” Hughes so isn’t that lovely? Please join me in swooning….

Both The Little Broomstick and When Marnie Was There have a very peculiar strangeness about them (the sort of strangeness, incidentally, that one finds in Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr) and I’d really recommend hunting them out. It’s fascinating to see how they’ve been adapted and worked with – and how respectfully those adaptations have been done. The ripples of impact from that original reading of the book, that first encounter with the text – all of those moments of change and transformation and encounter traced with such care and love and understanding – until a film forms itself, and the story is told once more.

“My process is thinking, thinking and thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know.”

Hayao Miyazaki – (source).

6 thoughts on “Ponds, children’s literature, and Hayao Miyazaki

  1. Lots of links to explore—I’ll get through them all soon but enjoyed the couple I looked at—but principally I just wanted to say this is another inspirational post. And now I want to look at those Miyazaki films I seem to have missed…

  2. I remember seeing When Marnie Was There advertised on the Tube when it first came out and it piqued my interest slightly, but I hadn’t twigged until this morning – despite reading this post a day or two back!! – that Joan G Robinson also wrote the Teddy Robinson books, which I adore. (My husband has recorded himself reading some which I listen to when I wake in the night and struggle to get back to sleep…!). So I’ve finally ordered the book.

      1. They’re aimed at a much younger audience than Marnie but they are very charming… at least I think so! That might be one of those “grew up with them” biases, but my husband didn’t have them as a child and likes them too. They have that world-from-child’s-perspective style. Not huge, world changing stories but things that can be Quite Serious (or Easily Misunderstood) when you’re young… or a teddy bear.

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