I’m here today to restore the good name of aunties!
Why do I feel the need to do this? Ah… you may well ask.
Well, something in children’s literature struck me lately. Struck me like a ten tonne truck. And that something is that aunties get rather a bad name in children’s literature. At least they do in the children’s literature I’ve been reading to my nephew over the past six months.
To put this in to context for those of you who don’t know, I am long-term foster carer for my seven year old nephew. He came to live with me four years ago. Previously to this my sister (his other aunt) took him in on a short term fostering basis until the paperwork for me had gone through for permanency. The whys and wherefores of these circumstances are not relevant to this post, but let’s just say, mental illness is a bugger and can have far reaching consequences most of us never really think about.
Anyway, back to the point of this blog post.
I am an aunt who loves my nephew more than anything, and it is a privilege to be able to watch him grow and learn and to be able to bring him up whilst he still maintains a good relationship with at least one of his parents. So yes, I’m a good aunt. Well at least I hope so!
However, recently we’ve read quite a few children’s books together where aunts are cast as the bad guys. The really bad guys.
It started with reading Matilda by Roald Dahl back in the summer.
I remember my nephew wasn’t especially comfortable when, as we read, it turned out that the horrendous headteacher, Miss Trunchbull, was the lovely Miss Honey’s guardian. Miss Honey, it transpires as the book progresses, was bought up by her aunt who was nothing but hostile towards her and even when she is an adult is manipulating and emotionally abusing her niece. In fact my nephew was horrified. “It’s good you’re not a nasty aunt like Miss Trunchbull,” he said. Always nice to be made a comparison with evil characters! But it seemed to play on his mind. I thought nothing much of it and assured him that Miss Trunchbull was just a character made up from imagination, just as the characters he makes up are.
A few months later we were reading James and the Giant Peach. And who does James have to go and live with when he is orphaned? Yes, his two atrocious aunts: Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. Well there my nephew made an immediate connection about there being more nasty aunts in a Dahl novel. We began to wonder if Roald Dahl himself had vicious cruel aunts, and I had to assure my nephew that no, not all aunts are mean. “No, because you’re not,” he said thoughtfully. “You’re nice and kind and loving.” (Yes, he can be that cheesy! 🙂 ) Phew. Not scarred yet then?!
Of course, I thought not much of all this until more recently when we acquired all of David Walliams’ children’s books. We started with Mr Stink and Billionaire Boy, before moving onto Awful Auntie.
Well, we do not need to delve too deeply past the title to know that yet again we were to encounter an aunt so truly terrible, she makes the previous three literary aunts, all rolled into one, seem like Miss Honey. The title character, Aunt Alberta, is responsible for the custody of her niece, Stella, when she is orphaned. Now, okay, it’s probably natural that the horrible aunt character would be used, as I would imagine Dahl’s books are so ingrained in British psyche – characters such as Miss Trunchbull and the aunts in James and the Giant Peach – that it may be a natural route for an author to take.
But then the other night I started reading A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig.
Now everyone who follows me on Twitter will know I love (with a capital L) Matt Haig’s writing. I think he writes with great insight into the human mind and can make just one line within a story tell a whole human truth. So to be clear this post is not an author bashing of Haig, Walliams or Dahl because to me they all write wonderful stories and are all geniuses in their field. I aspire to write as well as they, though I’m a long way off that yet!
Gushing ramble aside, I felt my heart sink and a loud sigh did emit from my lungs at around Chapter 3, when it is announced Nikolas’ aunt will be coming to ‘look after him’ whilst his father is away for three months. And of course Aunt Carlota turns out to be a Grade A bitch of an aunt who the young Niklolas is subsequently mistreated by. I know as a writer why this is the case. Why she is so wicked and cruel; there has to be an inciting incident for what’s to come next for our hero, and his aunt being the equivalent to the wicked witch of the west is just that. My sigh wasn’t for that, no. I understood this perfectly. My sigh was more for the fact of thinking – “oh no, not ANOTHER cruel, malicious, abusive aunt in a story that I want to read to my little boy! This is doing the aunt stereotype no favours at all!” I mean when he gets to his teenage years I’ll be labelled mean, cruel and told I’m hated as it is. That’s natural. All parents are. But when you have the added thing that you’re not actually their parent and then all aunties he reads about in books are cowbags, well I can see me being in for a tough time come six years time or so!
Reading this latest bad aunty character got me wondering about why Aunt Carlota/Miss Trunchbull/Aunt’s Sponge and Spiker couldn’t have been uncles, or cousins or well…just anyone rather than another aunt. I’m not being sensitive as an aunt, it’s just an observation which has made me curious as to why aunts get such a bad press. And I can’t help but think the wicked stepmother trope of traditional tales seems to have given way to the wicked aunt trope. I mean not that I know exactly how many awful literary aunts there are out there. I’m possibly not as widely read as I should be. Maybe there are just as many unscrupulous uncles adorning our children’s bookshelves as there are aunts. It’s only I personally haven’t come across any. To add to these though, I got to thinking of other children’s books I’ve read. For example I read recently a book by a new author, Susan McNally. In her “Morrow Secrets” trilogy it is Great Aunt Agatha, a tyrannical matriarch, who holds power over, not only her great niece, but all the other women in the family too. Then, even in the mighty Harry Potter stories, it is Harry’s maternal aunt, Petunia, who he has to go and live with and is mistreated by (albeit it equally with Uncle Vernon and dastardly Dudley) throughout his childhood. (The uncle and cousin are incidental though I feel really, as it is the blood relative, the aunt, who is the reason he is in that family in the first place.)
So now I’ve been trying to scour the recesses of my childhood book memories (and the internet) to find a balance. To find equally evil uncles and examples of awesome aunts who look after children once their parents have left the scene for whatever reason. So far I’ve come up with Lemony Snickett Series of Unfortunate Events books. I’ve not read them, but Wikipedia leads me to believe the orphaned children are sent to live with a dreadful distant male relative who then tries to steal their fortune. Amongst other despicable deeds. Oh and of course there’s the wicked ‘uncle’ in Aladdin.
But that’s all I’ve come up with. Grandparents (with the exception of the Grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine) always seem to come off well. Kindly, caring, wise, gentle. But aunts? Hmmmm. I’ve yet to come across a nice kindly one in literature yet. At least in the children’s literature I’m reading to my 7 year old nephew.
So I haven’t read A Boy Called Christmas to him yet. In a way I am glad I started it without him. I think he may well begin to wonder about me! He might start to think I’m going to steal from him, or lock him cellars or make him sleep outside!
No, not really! I’m not really concerned that my nephew may get a complex about how abominable aunts are. Simply because I am an amazing aunt, (‘amazing’ used for alliterative purposes not because I’m a big-headed arse!) who looks after him well and loves him unconditionally! As is my sister an awesome aunt to him too. Also I know so many other wonderful aunts who all go out of their way for their nieces and nephews all the time in fantastic ways. Yes, kids I’m here to tell you not all aunties are bloopers! Some of us are good people who don’t feed children rotten turnips or bandage them up and lock them in rooms!
I’m just curious as to why the awful aunty character seems to pop up quite a lot…And this is where you come in, my lovely readers.
Is there a slightly cultural bias thing going on? I mean uncles are generally seen as cool and fun. (or at least portrayed that way?) Aunts possibly more serious and ‘old’. (That might just be me though as all my brothers are younger and so as uncles to nephews always going to be cooler than older aunts – maybe!) But I also can’t help but think there’s that element of being a bachelor is seen as positive thing whilst being a spinster is seen as negative tied in somehow with this too. Maybe its the fact aunts are so great in reality that writers can play around with them and make them atrocious!
Cultural stereotypes are always very interesting, but this is one I hadn’t even considered this one before this year.
Of course, as always, this is a bit of me rambling and throwing down my initial brain gunk out into the ether, but I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.
Can you think of any examples in kid’s literature (especially the middle grade sort of age range), whereby aunts are portrayed in a more positive light. Or perhaps where uncles are not? (I’ve just brought to mind Uncle Andrew in CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. He wasn’t that great I vaguely seem to recall.)
Anyway, over to you folks. Let me know your thoughts. 🙂