Category: children’s book names
By Chris Raschka
The power we wield when we name a child is terrible. And unavoidable. Oh, the sleepless nights! What will this name confer on our beloved baby? Only good things, we fervently hope. This name is exciting, but is it too exciting? This one is solid, but is it boring? “How about, Joseph?” you say. “No,” says your wife, “I knew a terrible Joseph!”
Happily, I suffered none of this angst when I named the children in the book my friend Vladimir Radunsky and I have put together called Alphabetabum. It was this way. I was in Rome visiting Vladimir there and just about to walk out for a happy afternoon of sight-seeing when Vladimir began to lay out on his work table one marvelous, small, antique photographic child’s portrait after another. He grabbed my arm, and said, “Look at these masterpieces! Every one holds the story of a precious forgotten soul inside of it! We must do something with them.”
They snap, crackle, and pop—which is one reason why alliterative names are so widely used for the characters in children’s stories—from nursery rhymes like ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ to picture books like Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel to Young Adult book characters like Harry Potter‘s Luna Lovegood.
Here, the distinguished name scholars Don and Alleen Nilsen present some of the many examples of alliteration, consonance, rhyming and other wordplay they have found in the names of kid-lit characters.
We were just pondering The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter, Peter Pan by James Barrie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, and Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli and we were wondering how often authors repeat the sounds of their vowels and consonants in their character names.
We soon thought about Lewis Carroll’s Pig and Pepper, his Frog and the Footman, and his Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and this led our thoughts to The White Knight and Humpty Dumpty two more characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Then we thought of a set of characters in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth that includes The Duke of Definition, the Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, and the Count of Connotation.
The protagonist in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi is Piscine Patel. His name is shortened to Pi Patel, and he has to explain to people that pi is 3.14 as he draws a large circle and slices it in two with a diameter to evoke a basic lesson of geometry.
In Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, there is a John-John. In Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower there is a Takao who goes by the nickname of “Tak-Tak.” In Robert Cormier’s After the First Death there is a General named Mark Marchand, and in his The Chocolate War, there is Larry LaSalle who changes his name to “Lieutenant Laurence LaSalle” when he becomes famous. In Polly Horvath’s The Canning Season, there is a character named Aunt Pen Pen, and one named Ratchet Ratchet Clark.
In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the only girl in the Salamander Army is named Petra Arkanian, but she is called Baby Butt and Petra the Poet by her friends and in the Lemony Snicket books, two of the guardians of the Baudelaire children are named Montgomery Montgomery, and Dewey Denouement.
We are honored to have as today’s guest bloggers Don and Alleen Nilsen, recent co-chairmen of the prestigious American Name Society, writing about the clever use of literary allusions in the thirteen Lemony Snicket books.
As long-distance grandparents, we are constantly on the lookout for books that we can enjoy listening to on CDs while we commute to work and can then forward to our children to enjoy with their children while they make their own commutes. Daniel Handler’s thirteen Lemony Snicket books have been the all-time winners in this category, and one of the reasons is Handler’s skill in recycling the names of literary or pop culture figures to make playful allusions.
Humor scholars use the term Wabbit literacy (from “that wascally wabbit” in the Bugs Bunny cartoons) to describe the flip-flop process in which children become acquainted with the names of classical figures through pop culture allusions prior to meeting the same names in “the original.” The Lemony Snicket books are a superb illustration of this process as children meet Dr. Georgina Orwell, an eye doctor who hangs an ever-watchful eye over her door; Uncle Monty, who as a herpetologist cares for a huge python; a villainous couple named Esmé and Jerome Squalor who live at 667 Dark Avenue, c.f. J. D. Salinger‘s short story “To Esmé with Love and Squalor,” and Mr. Poe, who has a son named Edgar and is the appointed guardian of the children’s inheritance which is placed in the Mulctuary Money Management Bank.
Beatrix Potter was an early conservationist, and her stories of Peter Rabbit and friends reflect her great love of the British countryside and nature. Her animal characters (with the exception of the American animals appearing in The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes) were drawn from life, revealing Beatrix Potter‘s eye for realism as well as whimsy.
Apparent in her stories is a Victorian delicacy of understatement and wit in describing unavoidable unpleasantries, such as death: “Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” In addition, the Victorian expectation of children to master vocabulary can be found in Beatrix Potter‘s use of the occasional “soporific” and “improvident” sprinkled among the more childish bobbitties and scrumplies in her books.
While many of Beatrix Potter‘s anthropomorphic characters bear whimsical names, such as the beloved hedgehog laundress known as Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, there nevertheless can also be found a number of baby-worthy names among her characters. These names will mainly appeal to those with classic naming tastes, representing names (and nicknames) that also appealed to the people of the British Isles living in the Victorian and Edwardian eras: