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Once upon a time, in a faraway place…

June 6, 2013

‘Once upon a time, in a faraway place…’

Such familiar words. A cunning device, that sets the scene for the story about to unfold. With a simple phrase our expectations are excited and we are ready to embrace the unknown where the old rules don’t apply and anything could happen.

I’ve always been drawn to the faraway, to stories that require an extension of belief beyond the boundaries of reality. Here are some of my favourites:

Disney films: There has always been a soft spot in my heart for romantic Disney fairy tales like Cinderella (1950), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Tangled (2010). They often begin with a narrated prologue and whisk the viewer to enchanted lands full of castles, royalty, treachery, romance, and adorable sidekicks. They are definitely more optimistic than the original fairy tales (e.g. The Grimm’s Brothers) but enjoyable nonetheless.

‘Wisha-wisha-wisha-wisha-wisha’ whisper the trees in the Enchanted Wood as they share their secrets with each other. I, like many children before and since, was enthralled by the world of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series. While Blyton’s writing has been criticised for being ‘unliterary’ and there are definitely questionable moral issues present in her work, I can’t say I ever really minded the limited vocabulary and repetitive storylines. I loved delving into the worlds above the clouds at the top of the tree and often wished I could have tea and pop biscuits with Moon-Face and Silky.

The Labyrinth (1986) was my go-to movie as a child and I still absolutely adore it. A fantastic collaboration between Jim Henson, George Lucas and Brian Froud, tells the story of Sarah who must solve the Labyrinth in 13 hours or her baby brother, who has been kidnapped by the Goblin King (David Bowie in tights – Oh my!), will be permanently transformed into a goblin. The film alludes to a number of other faraway texts including Grimm’s fairy tales, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) by Lewis Carroll. Most notably is its connection to the work of Maurice Sendak and his picture book Outside Over There (1981) which tells the story of Ida, a selfish and jealous young girl, who embarks on a quest to find her baby sister who has been stolen away by goblins. It takes a faraway journey for these girls to realise their own power.

The Neverending Story (1979) by Michael Ende never fails to transport me faraway. The dual narrative of the happenings in Fantasica/Fantasia and the inner journey of Bastian Balthazar Bux are particularly compelling. Bastian, the shy reader of the book, invests himself in the experiences of Atreyu, Artax and Falkor the luckdragon, he despairs in the swamp with the tortoise-like Morla the Aged One, and is fearful of The Nothing. But to his surprise he becomes a critical participant in the story and the savior of the crumbling world. This made me contemplate the role of the reader in faraway stories, or at least the role of myself as a reader when engaging with these fantasies. There is a symbiotic relationship at work: as readers we breathe life into the characters but at the same time these characters breathe life into us. What often begins as a form of escapism ends with recognising the subtleties of one’s own inner strength. We, the reader become the hero.

One of my favourite Australian picture books is Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree (2001). A young redheaded girl wakes up in the morning feeling as though ‘sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to/ and things go from bad to worse’. The story progresses and the girl remains silent throughout her very surreal journey. The central theme is depression, which is unusual for a children’s book, but as Tan explains is ‘inspired by the impulse of children and adults alike to describe feelings using metaphor – monsters, storms, sunshine, rainbows and so on’. Eventually she returns to her bedroom to find a small red tree filling her room with a warm light and there is hope once more.

The Red Tree contains some very strong echoes of Maurice Sendak’s work, particularly Where The Wild Things Are (1963) (but also see In the Night Kitchen (1970)). Max, a mischievous child is sent to his room without supper. While there, a forest begins to grow and Max sails away on a boat to where the wild things are. Max is embraced as their king, and they embark upon a wild rumpus. Max becomes lonely and gives up being king to return to his bedroom where he finds his supper waiting for him (still hot). Both stories begin and end in the domestic space of a child’s bedroom, and each protagonist undertakes an imaginative, but psychologically real, journey in a liminal space, betwixt and between reality and fantasy.

Reflecting upon my choices, and their central themes, I do note that while I enjoy the idyllic rosiness of popular adventure stories, the ones that have really resonated with me have been a touch darker. I have always been drawn to stories that explore strong emotions (fear, anxiety, despair) where protagonists have to make difficult decisions. For me they are stories of triumph and hope as the characters reach deep within themselves to find a strength they never knew they had, they return home to reality with a sense of hope and the chance of a new day. The faraway I seek is dark and difficult, it is truthful and poetic, it is bittersweet, it is hopeful and it is beautiful.

What kind of faraway do you search for? Which picture books take you on a journey to a faraway land?

Chloe Killen is a Melbourne-based PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle investigating creativity in the production of Australian children’s picture books. She is the convenor of #pblitchat, a Twitter-based chat about picture books held every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month.


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