A couple of thoughts on Mockingjay Part One and the nature of heroism

I’m conscious that this is a children’s literature blog and I don’t want to start segueing off into telling you about what I had for dinner or things like that, but I do want to tell you a little bit about Mockingjay Part One.

The film is an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel Mockingjay (part of it – it’s been split into two films) and it is rather blindingly awfully brilliant. I saw it last night and can’t quite shake that dark pained truth that it has; that way that it situates stillness against rage and pain against love. Love, as President Snow knows, is destructive. Deathly.”it’s the things we love most that destroy us.”

Jennifer Lawrence is the raging anti-centre of these films. She is the Mockingjay; this figure isolated, this totemic individual that says a thousand things with just the look of her eyes and the shift of her body. Her stillness is immense.

Is Katniss likable? To me, yes. Immensely so.  She is a hero. She is heroic. She fights for what she believes in, even though she may not know what she’s fighting for. Freedom? Love? Hope? She is the after-effect of a former world, she is the impact of the Hunger Games, she is not the same person she once was. She is a teenage girl but she’s more than that and less than that, all at the same time.

She is a hero. A complex messed up individual who stands for something deep and strong and hopeful and shameful all at the same time. A dilemma of sorts encapsulated in a stubborn, bruised shell of a person.

Heroism. Dark blues, greys and blacks; a colour spectrum of heroism encapsulated in the muddy tones of a film bedding in to say big things and horrible things and necessary things and awful, timely, relevant things.

I think of heroism a lot with young adult literature. I think that that framing of a person in the centre of a dialogue, of a narrative, is in a way creating heroes. A centre of story, a breaker against the tide.

And I think that reading that narrative is heroic, I think that every time you pick up a book you’re creating a little intervention in the narrative of the everyday. You are sticking your hand up, marking your flag in the sand, stopping in your way down the road of your life to say – this matters. This moment matters, right here, this story I am engaging with, this moment of text and I.

And that story, right there, that involves a thousand moments of heroism. A redefinition of heroism, no – perhaps a wider interpretation of heroism is required. The heroic nature of the young adult protagonist; the mark of placing themselves against the world and fighting to hold onto it.

I love Katniss. I love what she is. I love that she is. Complex, brave, shattered women exist.

Heroes exist.

We should not ignore that.


Ruth Hollis

I have a lot of love for KM Peyton. And I’ve spoken before about how she just gets love. She gets it, warts and all.

But I’ve never specifically focused on Ruth before which is a disservice to a shaded, finely drawn character that does something very unusual in a series. She grows. I’m reminded of some of the other series I love when I think of Ruth and I’m forced to concede that nowhere else does a character grow up, and become an adult with such finesse as her.

Ruth debuts in the book Fly-By-Night. Fly-By-Night is overtly a fairly simple horse tale. Girl gets horse, gets good, and Achieves Stuff. Or well, it would be so, if it weren’t for the skill of KM Peyton. She draws Ruth so finely that it’s impossible not to root for this stubborn, brilliant, puking when things get tense, individual. Fidra Books have a sample of the first chapter of Fly-by-night available here and it’s worth reading if not just to marvel at the subtle shading and weight of Peyton’s prose.

Ruth then appears in the  sequel to Fly-By-Night called The Team. It’s easy to view this again as a standard equestrienne novel but I’d argue it’s more of a bildungsroman. This, as awful and painful as it is to read, is the end of the beginning. It is a novel full of maturity, of letting things go, of saying goodbye, and of falling in love. It’s nominally about horses but, at heart, it’s about life.

I read these two books and I devoured them. And then, for a long time, I didn’t know how Ruth’s story ended. This all changed once I came across the Pennington trilogy. The Pennington books are a trilogy which focus on the tempestuous Patrick Pennington, gifted with preternatural musical ability.

And Ruth falls in love with him. Not any of the other boys she’s seemingly destined to be with, she falls in love with this anti-establishment near Byronic hero. Whilst Ruth is certainly taken with his (and I’m sorry but I can’t think of any other way to phrase this) “bad boy attitude”, I think their relationship thrives on a curious mixture of naivety and adulthood. Pennington completes Ruth. He manifests a part of her nature – the nature which went out and did the exact opposite of what everyone told her to do – and their relationship is a fragile, awkward and yet intensely passionate affair. And it’s real. It’s bitterly, bluntly, beautifully real.

Ruth roots Pennington. She defines him and he, her. They become almost symbiotic in nature, the two of them against the world. Ruth understands Pennington and she does it so very beautifully.

“Ruth … thought of the long afternoon in Kensington on the velvet sofa, listening to Pat playing the piano. The contrast    was so sharp it was hard to believe. Pentonville [the prison] to the sea-wall, the Professor’s town house to this. No wonder Pat was mixed-up. It was all a part of him, what had made him.” Pennington’s Heir (1973:19)

I had a lot of difficulty, at first, accepting this grown up, perceptive, Ruth as opposed to the horse mad creation I initially met. I wept for the girl I had lost, and I felt sad for the ponies. But then, I spent a lot of time with the Pennington books for my research and I realised something.

Ruth is perhaps one of the ‘realest’ female character I’ve ever come across. She could define literary verisimilitude. She’s stubborn, she’s flawed, and she makes mistakes. She was horse obsessed – but she grew, and she changed. It never defined who she was and I find it genuinely masterful of Peyton to allow Ruth to map her own way through life rather than force her down a more stereotypically Pullein-Thompson future. Ruth grows. She grows, and she changes, and she lives her life how she wants to live it.

Ruth Hollis is amazing.

More information on the work of KM Peyton is available on her official website.

“Daddy, my daddy!”

Image credit: DigitalParadox

One of my favourite characters in children’s literature is Roberta (Bobby) from The Railway Children. The Railway Children, originally serialised in 1905 and published in book form in 1906, is a fascinating novel. And God, but Bobby is just a perfect perfect creation.

She’s introduced as Roberta which is then swiftly changed into the derivative form of Bobby. In my edition of 267 pages, she is known as Roberta for 29 pages and then referred to as Bobbie for the rest save for a brief interlude of three pages upon her birthday where both names are used interchangeably.

I find Bobby so massively appealing because of how the character is represented. She is growing up and she is unsure as to who / what she is meant to be. One way this is expressed in the novel, is through Bobbie’s wish to be a boy. A notable moment for this is the moment where she’s stuck in the tunnel with Jim, the injured ‘hound’.  Bobbie, left in the darkness, addresses herself thusly: “‘Silly little girl!’ said Roberta to Bobbie and felt better (218). It’s fascinating the way she splits herself into two personas, the more feminine Roberta and the masculine Bobbie. Note here how the ‘feminine’ side of her addresses the ‘masculine’ side of  her with a deliberately scornful comment.

There is another key moment for me with Bobbie and it is when she sees the Russian cry. Bobbie acts firstly in a in a masculine manner by offering him her handkerchief – a direct parallel to Peter’s actions to Phyllis earlier in the text. The man gives the woman their handkerchief. However this gesture is also reminiscent of a mother giving her child her handkerchief. Therefore she acts in both a masculine manner and also a feminine manner – at the same time. Bobbie is a striking mixture of gendered characteristics and also old/young characteristics. She does not comment on the man crying nor bring this to public attention (showing a particularly adult form of social awareness and empathy). Instead she blocks him from public view and allows him time to recover. However when she is explaining the situation to the Doctor who smiles, she says, “’please don’t. You wouldn’t if you’d seen him. I never saw a man cry before. You don’t know what it’s like.’” (95)  It’s an incredibly poignant episode and one where Bobbie shifts from adult to child, from girl to boy, from mother to daughter, all at once.

And I think that’s what I love about Bobbie. She’s such a complicated character and one of the few representations of girls growing up that struck me as incredibly astute.

The Railway Children is deceptively deep. I read it first when I was very young and when I reread it recently I was struck at how stunningly sharp it is. It is perceptive and it is anarchic in a very subtle way. It is, to be frank, brilliant and has an ending that leaves me weeping each and every time.

The Railway Children is available for free on Project Gutenberg.

Runaways (a love letter)

Dear Runaways,
May I tell you a secret?

I still love you.

Gert. Nico. Karolina. Molly. Mighty Molly Hayes with your hat of awesome. I still love you. All of you. My beautiful, brilliant, bad-as-hell Runaways.

When I saw that the second round of the Women Write About Comics blog carnival was Favourite Stories Starring Women, I knew it had to be about you. In a way, my comics love begins and ends with you. There’s a dalliance with Ms Marvel, a lovely dalliance that primarily began and ended with (ohgodshehassuchlovelylovelyhair) but it comes back to you. My Runaways. Always.

You’re currently lost in limbo, abandoned somewhere between guest appearances and the dark corners of Hiatus-Land. But you were good, once. You were so damn good.

Karolina Dean

When the quirky girl discovered she could fly, when the youngest kid found out she was a super-strong mutant , the witch got her powers when she got cut (or had her period) and when the fat chick got her dinosaur, I knew I had my series. Simple as.

You never forget your first love.

This is what made comics brilliant to me. Your story, such a simple one, such an elegant hook of ‘parents truly are evil’, had me. (“They f*ck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean it but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you” – Larkin).

Runaways had me at Pet Dinosaur. Runaways had me at “Try Not To Die”. Runaways had me, to be somewhat cliched, at hello.

The representation of the female characters in Runaways blew me away. Still does.  I’m sorry, but I’ll be ignoring the covers and the subtle, and the none too subtle, moments of Gert-slimming, as these are just extraneous paratexts in my eyes. They’re not my story. Not today. Today is about you.

Forget vampires, forget time-travelling bad guys, forget duplicitous boy-crushes; these women were ultimately defined by each other. They weren’t defined by some big bad of the week or even by their clothing (there’s no typical superhero garb to be had here). They wore hippie-chic, casual-urban, or hipster-goth twists on street clothes. Practical yes, but still resolutely sharp, sexy and so viscerally teen (and oh! Molly’s hat!), Spandex and overtly superhero outfits were adult. They were symbols of the establishment that the Runaways had stepped away from. Superhero names were adopted, yes, but ultimately discarded or used in with wry humour at their arch metatextual nature.

This team did things their own way.

Cover to Runaways vol. 1 #15 Art by Jo Chen.

And then … somehow … it all got a little lost.

The mad, glorious heights that the Runaways had scaled suddenly stopped. I love Whedon and I will do so forever but his issues of Runaways were stuttering. Short, sharp stutters in a series that had been previously so full of brilliance that they had made me gibber at Brian K Vaughan when I met him at a convention. I had meant to ask him to sign my issues in a nicely coherent manner, but instead I just went “BBeudhcCouldYouSignThesePleaseThankyouMurbeleBleh”

What went wrong, I think, lay in the shift of focus. It continued after the Whedon issues. It continued and became so awfully pronounced.  The Runaways (and I’m suddenly deeply aware of the irony here) began to fit in. These women became less. Just … less. Their differences, their strengths, their Gert – it was all gone.  It was diluted as the game-changing original issues were stretched far beyond the limits of credulity and believability. These teens needed to be lonely, brilliant, moody wanderers. These women didn’t fit in. The world of rules, of adulthood and responsibility, wasn’t theirs. They were teenagers; mad, confused, emotional teenagers living a sort of Kerouacian dream that I could never have dreamt of experiencing (but God, I wanted to read it so bad).

My Runaways never came back.

I stuck with the series through to the Immonen issues and to the eventual hiatus(ness…ness?) but it all fell flat. Flat and a little pat. This wasn’t the team I loved anymore. Though I adore Xavin, and Chase, and Victor, and Klara, (and in a different way, the machiavellian Alex)  none of them ever got to me as much as the original Nico-Karolina-Gert-Molly quartet.

These women were different. They had periods (periods! the realisation women had periods! I still can’t get over how revolutionary this was!). They worried about love. They had good days and bad days. They fought. They laughed. They lived. They remain one of the most inspirational groups of fictional women I’ve ever met. Shit happens. Shit of the shittiest kind happens, but you deal. You deal with it and you come through it and you come through it strong if you just have faith in who and what you are. You may be a screw-up, an abandoned kid, a runaway, but your power comes when you admit it. And the more … ‘corporate’ … the Runaways became, the more I lost the original heart of this team that had captured me whole.

So thank you, thank you Brian K Vaughan for creating a team full of brilliant, wondrous women. I’ll remember the good times.  I’ll remember the moments when they were survivors. I’ll remember the moments when you realise that with characters who are this brave and bold and strong, you can change the world.

And, as for the bad times, I’ll paraphrase a certain Joss Whedon.  The biggest threat to the Runaways was the world – both inside the narrative and outside of it. The hardest thing that the Runways ever had to do was to live in it.

Recommended issues: Runaways #1-#24, Brian K Vaughan

all images are copyright: marvel comics