Monday, 16 December 2013

Names, or no names. . . by Jonathan Allen

The impact of names in children's books is something that I hadn't thought about particularly until I read an article about the stage version of Maurice Sendak's 'Where The Wild Things Are'.
In the article, Sendak talked about how he felt he couldn't stage direct his creatures until they had defined personalities. To this end he felt they needed to have names. Not overtly in the script, but just as a personal device to help their coming alive as animated beings feel more convincing. Hooks to hang their behavioral characteristics on if you like.



It was interesting that there was felt to be no need for this naming in the actual book, ( or come to think of it, in Sendak's head at the time of writing and drawing it ). Maybe because the creatures weren't differentiated in the book, they were the Wild Things, and didn't need the distraction of having different personalities.

Anyway, that is by the by. What was really fascinating to me, and revealing about my own mental blind spots etc, were the names he chose. I may not have the first one exactly right but you will get the idea. He chose the names Aaron, Moysha and Tzippy.

Because of my lack of examination of my own cultural bias, or awareness that I even had much of one, I was surprised. The surprise was only momentary, But my inner self monitoring process clocked it! I gave myself a clip round the ear. Why on earth should it be even remotely surprising that a Jewish author would give his creations Jewish names?

On further consideration, I came to the conclusion that it was the baggage that comes with names that had struck me. Suddenly, Sendak's creatures had ethnicity! They were no longer universal creatures from the imagination in quite the same way.

This made me think up all sorts of names for the creatures and see what difference that made to my view of them. What if they were Alf, Bert and Norman, or Rory, Torquil and Hector? What if they were Gudeep, Arshad and Divinda, or Lloyd, Winston and Curtley? etc etc. Or what, heaven forfend, if they were girls? ;-)
It does seem that a seething morass of entirely subjective cultural bias, class bias, and unsubstantiated preconceptions is invoked every time a name is used! (If you can evoke a morass. . . Look, I like mixed metaphors!)

I have been steering clear of names in my own work for a long time without really examining why. It just felt right. It's nice to know that my unconscious was on the ball. . .
I think it is similar to choosing animals as protagonists in your books, as I tend to do. By using animals, you avoid the class, culture, and gender issues that depicting children can stir up. These issues can distract from the story or the point of a book and threaten to spoil it. I find that by using non-names like Baby Owl and Little Puffin as well, I can neatly sidestep these distractions for a second time.

ps - Not that there is anything wrong with names used in the full awareness of their 'baggage'. 'Peter Rabbit' is set in a particular time and place, as is Shirley Hughes 'Alfie' and many others. And they are great. I just can't imagine 'Denis the Gruffalo' working all that well. . .



15 comments:

  1. A really interesting post, Jonathan. Food for thought. I think that the label 'Wild Things' IS a powerful sort of group name in a way that 'the Monsters' wouldn't be, so I think he did sort-of name them. The Wild Things were based on a set of terrifying aunts, weren't they, so the individual names might be the actual names of his aunts. I wonder. But I think you're spot on with the power of getting away from racist, sexist, whateverist preconceptions that come with known human names. Let's have fun with made-up ones!

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    1. Thanks Pippa, Yes I see what you mean about their collective name. Much better than the generic 'monsters' i agree. i didn't know about the formidable aunts. very Wodehousian ;-)

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  2. Very interesting, Jonathan! A very good example. I guess it is best to use names that are unique, stand on their own and so seem at home in their imaginary world - like 'Pog', for example, or 'Little Rabbit Foo Foo'. An aside - If children are named in stories now they are often given a name that straddles both top 10 names lists in the USA and the UK.

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    1. Yes, I agree, imaginary names are fun, and relatively free from baggage. Now where does 'Little Rabbit Foo Foo' come from? I should know but it's not materialising in my head. i could look it up, but that would be cheating ;-) I get it mixed up with 'Little Dog Toby' in that creepy book about Hobyahs that scared me as a kid. . .

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  3. Oh yes! I think I remember that book! The Hobyahs! The dog! ooooohhhhhhh!
    (Foo foo is Michael Rosen)

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    1. The farmer would dismantle little dog Toby to stop him barking, (wonderful story book logic!) while skip, skip, skip came the Hobyahs. . .

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  4. Fascinating about Sendak, I didn't know any of that. You're right, names come with a lot of baggage. Recently, like you, I've been going for non-names like Little Knight and Little Dragon so the text feels more inclusive.

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    1. it gets tricky if there are several siblings. I go with Small, Tiny, and possibly Weeny. . . Not sure where to go after that. Quantum?

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  5. It's funny how, as you say, an image can pop into your head when you read a name. I tend to write books with humans (or humanoid) characters so I always need to find names and it can take me ages! I browse through the baby names sites and I store up good names for use later. The name of my main character in The Fairytale Hairdresser, Kittie Lacey, came from a ballet teacher I had as a child called 'Candy Lacey-Smith' (which is a fantastic name!!)

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    1. wow, such a great girly sort of name for a ballet teacher! Sometimes place names you see on car journeys can make good names ;-) I forget the best ones but Burton Coggles ( off the A1 ) sounds like a pith helmet wearing fellow from a 19th century adventure for instance.

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  6. Great post, Jonathan. We always says how important it is to get the name right, but your example of the The Wild Things really brings it home. If they needed individual names for the stage play then I think I'd have preferred something like Thingy, Very Wild, Thingthing or Too Wild. Or would that have been too confusing?! Or if they're the personification of aunts, then Aunty Wild and Aunty Thing, etc. (or Uncle or Sir or Mr or Monsieur or Baron Wild...). Real names just don't feel right.
    By the way, I searched for popular husky dog names when searching for names for my polar bears. Whilst I have a rabbit in a story that's named Bouncer (for obvious reasons!).

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  7. Really interesting food for thought. It's tricky, isn't it – we are grown-ups writing for children, yet they often don't have the same associations and 'baggage' linked with certain names that we do . . .

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    1. True. If only children actually bought books or decided what libraries stocked etc etc ;-)

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  8. Yes, like Abie, I've a big long list of names that I'm slowly working my way through. I often add to it after school visits. I find I need to name my characters to make them come alive. But the name often changes. I had one picture book where the lead character was called Oliver, but it turned out the publisher had an Oliver book due out before me. I had enormous trouble renaming him - he just WAS an Oliver, and he wouldn't allow me change it, Eventually the only alternative he would live with was Antonio. Luckily the publisher accepted this.

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    1. Fascinating how you can construct a character so the name is an inseparable part of them. Almost like the name is the central pillar they are constructed round. It must be so hard to have to find a name that replaces that central pillar. It's like when someone you know as 'Dave' is known at home as 'David', it's just not right somehow ;-)

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