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Picturebook Study: When we were alone in the world

When we were alone in the world

Written by author Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by Eva Eriksson, this is a 2009 Swedish collaboration produced by two longtime experts in their field.


Written in first person point of view, a young narrator (probably a grown up by this stage) recalls the day he learnt to tell the time at school. He was five years old. The first time I read this I missed the importance of the very first paragraph:

One day at school I learned to tell the time. Nine o’clock, ten o’clock, one o’clock, two o’clock.

Thinking it is three o’clock, the young narrator leaves school two hours early, wondering why his father isn’t there to pick him up. He quickly jumps to the conclusion that his parents must have been killed by a truck, and launches into parental mode, collecting his little brother from playschool, promising that everything will go on as usual despite the obvious tragedy. They walk home and build a makeshift house. Their sad, imaginative game continues until the parents turn up, having been contacted by the playschool.



Translated beautifully in 2009 by Julia Marshall, something of the ‘foreignness’ has been retained in the English, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly. The European-ness is apparent on the cover, of course, as only the first letter of the title is capitalised. Some of the intratext has been translated, while in other cases the Swedish has been left in the illustration. This adds to the European feel of the story. For example, in one illustration, a recipe taped to the fridge has been translated into English but the packets of ingredients in the kitchen retain their Swedish names.

when we were all alone in the world illustration kitchen

When we were all alone in the world – Kitchen Scene


From Nilsson’s profile page at Bonnier Rights:

[Ulf Nilsson’s] books are filled with humour, warmth and imagination, often with a touch of irony (directed against himself). A theme always present is the victory of Good over Bad, and he always speaks in favour of children. Another theme is about acknowledgement and being seen, how to control your own fears by protecting someone smaller than yourself.

The illustrations consistently expand upon the words, creating dramatic irony for the reader. On the very first page we see the protagonist leaving school at ‘three o’clock’, but the illustrations show the other children still inside the classroom, pressed against the window. The close reader should be asking: Why aren’t all the other children outside, too? A very close reader will notice that he is carrying a paper clock but has left off the eleven and twelve. (The ten is even hidden by his hand.) The same paper clock is seen again on the second page, this time giving the reader a clearer view. In this way, small details are drip fed and slowly revealed over the course of the illustrations.

The imagination of the little boy will be familiar to all readers, the way the mind can jump to the worst possible conclusions when someone doesn’t turn up at the expected time. Unlike adults, who are able to employ reason, this story beautifully portrays the tendency for young children to both jump to the worst conclusion but at the same time turn their imagination over to a maudlin sort of game, funny and tragic in turn.

This funny/tragic juxtaposition is reproduced in the illustrations. While the words say that Mum and Dad got run over by a truck, the picture shows toddlers playing — some have spades in their mouths; the little brother is tipping sand over another child’s head. The maudlin humour is portrayed with phrases such as ‘We poor children’, and ‘It made me sad to think about them. My eyes filled with tears,’ and ‘The wind blew through the gaps in the rickety walls. It was such a shame about us.’ These are the words of a narrator who is self-aware of the humorous memory, without being heavy-handed about it. Young readers will definitely feel sad while empathising with the children. Adult readers will understand the humour from the start. This is how this masterful story achieves a dual audience. I really enjoy it as much as my six-year-old does.

Though trying his hardest to be a responsible grown-up, our five-year-old protagonist behaves as we might expect: The first thing he builds after returning home to an empty house is a ‘flagpole’. He finds a long stick and attaches a hanky. (Notice that there was a little red flag on top of the fort at playschool — surely this is where he got the idea — another hint at his naivety.) The whole house-building episode, in which the young narrator finds wooden fence posts and constructs a rickety shelter is surely a common form of play worldwide — playing house.

The humour of this scene reaches a new level when the young narrator goes next door to ask his neighbour for some eggs. He wants to make biscuits for the little brother, who normally eats a biscuit after playschool. The author introduces this scene with: ‘Then I remembered we could borrow things from our neighbour. Sometimes when you run out of something in the kitchen, you go over to a neighbour’s house and you borrow it.’ This is an important segue, because it tells the young reader that this is something that people do, but it also tells the adult reader that the young narrator has seen it done. Otherwise we might be wondering what provoked it. This sort of narration is worth a mention, I think, because it’s one of those techniques which is overlooked by the casual read — it is designed thus.

The list of requests for ingredients grows longer and longer, until the baffled neighbour has filled a bowl with every ingredient needed to make biscuits. The adult reader will identify with this neighbour, who is no doubt starting to wonder if the boys have been sent to him by the mother, as he may well have assumed! But he has been drawn so far into the boys’ game that he probably doesn’t know exactly how to stop. Haven’t we all had the experience of interacting with a young child, wondering how much to believe, thinking there is probably some ‘truth’ to a story but not knowing exactly what? I like the choice of neighbour — an older man in a vest, who may or may not have much experience with very young children. (Matronly types may read the situation better!) We are not given any dialogue from the man — for all we know he questioned the boys, but the important thing is that he obliged. The boys mix everything together ‘using the antenna’. The choice to use ‘antenna’ instead of ‘stick’ is masterful — the children are now fully immersed in their own imaginative world. The stick is not a stick to them.

One thing I always love about young characters in picturebooks is when young characters draw on partially-understood adult experiences to recreate in their own imaginative play. ‘I didn’t know if we would be able to live in it when we grew up,’ the young narrator says, gazing upon the rickety, make-shift hut, ‘But we could build on eventually.’ I get the strong sense he has overheard adults talking about ‘building on’. This is particularly funny because the hut is so unstable, in which case the hut itself should be fixed, let alone ‘building on’. (The structure eventually falls over, at the very end, and we see a black bird sitting on top of it — a humorous symbol of death.) It is when the boys are in their parents’ arms that the hut falls over. Of course, it’s not just the hut which has fallen over; the entire imaginative role-playing game has collapsed. It’s time to return to the safety of reality.

end illustration

End Illustration – note the white space = ‘aloneness’

The young narrator’s partial understanding of the world is echoed again when he makes a TV out of a carton found on the rubbish heap (‘It is quite hard to make a TV.’) and ‘a remote control from a smaller box’. When the TV won’t turn on he concludes it’s because the remote is out of batteries. Yet he knows he needs an antenna, and makes one out of a stick. Again we have a juxtaposition between the five-year-old boy knowing all sorts of things about the world, but with knowledge that stops short of actually making sense of it. ‘Anyway there’s nothing good on TV these days,’ he says, looking at the screen. ‘I sounded just like Dad and I rubbed my chin just like he did.’ The masterful phrase here is ‘these days’. A five-year-old can’t possibly have enough experience of the world past and present to use a phrase like ‘these days’, which is why it’s so funny, and reminds me of my six-year-old who reprimanded me for washing her stuffed toy, since she had been cuddling it a lot and working on its smell ‘for ten years’.

When the young narrator pulls carrots out of the ground, noting that his little brother ‘didn’t think much of them’, the reader sees from the picture that the carrots themselves are tiny, with lots of shoots growing off them — inedible, in other words. Again, this is letting the illustrator shoulder some of the work.

How to make sure the reader understands the story? The reader must understand by the story’s end that the reason the young narrator went home early is because he failed to tell the time correctly. The opportunity for this explanation is taken when the parents piece together what has happened, with the mother showing the boy that there are twelve numbers on her watch, not ten. There’s something about this story which makes me think it may be based on a true event. True or not, it definitely achieves that feel.

The final sentence of the story is ‘My little brother burped.’ With a description of a mildly funny physiological event, the reader is reminded that we are firmly in reality now, that nothing is all that important: This afternoon was just a ‘burp/bump/blip’ in the larger tapestry of life.



The faces on the characters are simple, with dots for eyes and single strokes for mouths. This allows any young (white) reader to imagine that this highly stylised face might just as easily belong to him.

The drawings look to be rendered in coloured pencil, which usually lends a naive touch to picture books, since this is a medium commonly utilised by young readers themselves. The foreground shapes look to be outlined in ink (or strong, sharp pencil perhaps) which adds definition. Sometimes, pencil drawings can have a dream-like quality.

Adding to the naive quality, perspective is ever so slightly ‘off’ in some drawings — this gives a hand-drawn look in an era in which photorealism can be achieved reasonably easily using digital software.

The colour palette is warm — reds and browns dominate each page, and there is no obvious change of palette for the ‘scary’ pages or anything like that. The season looks to be autumn — the sky looks a little thunderous; the little boys wear winter hats. This is an autumn palette.

The end papers are a wallpaper of clocks, each showing a different time. “What?” my six-year-old said, when I asked her to read one of the clocks. “This isn’t a book on how to tell the time!” But here’s the thing: It can be a book about telling the time. The adult reader can point out that there are twelve hours in a day, not ten, for instance.



This is a squarish book in shape. Approximately half of the pages contain white space with the text as a separate asset; the other half are full page illustrations with any text overlaid. The text is a simple Times New Roman sort of font with a large ‘O’ to kick off the story.

Ulf Nilsson is a well-known Swedish children’s book author with over 100 publications under his belt.

Eva Eriksson has illustrated for a number of well-known Swedish series such as The Eddie Series (Eddieserien) written by Viveca Lärn about a boy in early elementary school age in Sweden. She also illustrated the Max Series by Barbro Lindgren, the Mimmi series and a series about a wild baby.



By the very same creators, All the dear little animals is another book about death and loss incorporated into childhood play. This one is just as good as When we were alone in the world. This book is published both by Gecko Press (New Zealand) and Hawthorne Press (UK). There is a strong Christian undertone to this story. Apparently Ulf Nilsson takes a strong interest in Christianity and is makes a study of it without being Christian himself, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Gecko Press specialises in translating foreign picturebooks into English.

All the dear little animals


For a more on these two picturebooks, see a post at Playing By The Book.

There is something endearing about stories in which siblings do something really nice for each other. In When we were all alone in the world, the older brother vows to look after his younger brother. The Charlie and Lola series is good on the sibling-harmony front, as well as the classic Dogger written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes, in which a big sister does something really kind for her little brother after he loses his pet dog.



This Actually Happened

A 10-year-old girl has allegedly stolen a diamond ornament worth several hundred thousand dollars from a high-profile resort in Singapore on Christmas night last year, media reported today.

The theft took place at an upmarket outlet in Marina Bay Sands resort, the world’s second most expensive building at USD 5.5 billion. Police are investigating the case, The Straits Times said.

Business Standard

Now that’s chutzpah. And when Hilda Bewildered comes out you’ll see why it caught my eye!


In Which Jerry Griswold Makes Some Great Points

Speaking of The War Between Print And Digital, which you’ll definitely have noticed if you’re in book app world, Griswold points out that the competition between the two types of media is a false dichotomy.

The book, too, is a handheld story gadget. It’s not a choice between but of.

Children’s Books In The Era Of The iPad


And he is right. There are many instances of ‘interactive print books’. Please, do read the entire article, if only to learn the very useful concept of ‘hypnagogic objects’.


The Swimmer by John Cheever

Read it here: The Swimmer PDF

Listen to it here: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, read by Anne Enright. (The second part of Enright’s commentary starts at -9:30.)

Read Michael Chabon’s description of reading The Swimmer for the first time.

Spark Notes



There’s a very simple arc to this story:


The story begins with Neddy Merrill lounging at a friend’s pool on a mid-summer’s day. On a whim, Neddy decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in the county, which he names “The Lucinda River” in honor of his wife, and starts off enthusiastically and full of youthful energy. In the early stops on his journey, he is enthusiastically greeted by friends, who welcome him with drinks. It is readily apparent that he is well-regarded and from an upper-class or upper-middle-class social standing.

Midway through his journey, things gradually take on a darker and ultimately surreal tone. Despite everything taking place during just one afternoon, it becomes unclear how much time has passed. At the beginning of the story; it was clearly mid-summer, but by the end all natural signs point to the season’s being autumn. Different people Neddy encounters mention misfortune and money troubles he doesn’t remember, and he is outright unwelcome at several houses which should have been beneath him. His earlier, youthful energy leaves him, and it becomes increasingly painful and difficult for him to swim on. Finally, he staggers back home, only to find his house decrepit, empty, and abandoned.



Is Neddy dead at the end of this story? That’s one interpretation, but is too literal for Anne Enright. There is a long tradition of stories with stings in the tail. This is another such story. It stings but we don’t know why, exactly. We don’t know how many years have elapsed between the beginning and the end of the story. In the end, the mood is the important thing about this story rather than the plot, which is a wrapper for the mood.




Cheever himself moved from New York to the suburbs of Westchester County, New York to bring up his family. Many of his stories are set in this kind of suburb, and he has been called ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’. (He has also been called Dante of the cocktail hour.) He wrote a series of stories set in the fictional ‘Shady Hill’. This is a rich suburb, where everyone seems to have a pool and house staff. They throw big parties and employ bartenders. No two pools are alike — quite a feat of description.

Westchester County NY



The story is set on ‘one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” This is explained in the very first sentence. We don’t know exactly what year it is set, though the story was written in the 1960s. In fact, the lack of specific time is part of the story itself. By the end, we don’t know how many years have metaphorically passed between Neddy’s first and last swim. But we do know that this is the Cold-War era, when America is expanding.



Neddy has a kid’s name. A grown-man would more often be called ‘Ned’. His quest is childlike in its enthusiasm. He has the narcissism of youth, thinking of himself as a legendary figure, as little boys often imagine they’re superheroes. His ego level depletes as he swims forth.

Cheever’s mastery lies in the handling of Neddy’s gradual, devastating progress from boundless optimism to bottomless despair, from summer to fall, from swimming pool to swimming pool….as we read the story we feel time passing, before our eyes; feel Neddy losing heart, growing weary, getting old.

– Michael Chabon

The story opens with everybody’s hangovers, but Neddy is not complaining about his hangover. Probably because he’s still drunk from the previous night. By the end of the story he may have sobered up, and sees the reality of his life.



Neddy Merrill literally ‘floats’ over the reality of his life, which is that he’s drowning in his suburban life, and in his alcohol problem. Of course, this is the natural reading after knowing about the life of the author, but how would the story be interpreted if we knew nothing of Cheever’s alcoholism? This is a story about the denial of knowledge. Neddy is able to continue while his life crumbles beneath him. Theme: People can remain brittle and tenacious even as things fade and dissolve under them. Yet there’s no morality in Cheever. He doesn’t wag a finger, telling us we must face up to reality.

Cheever himself said this story is about ‘the irreversibility of human conduct’. It’s about grandiosity of any description. You don’t have to be rich with lots of swimming pools in order to understand this story. This story is about drinking, but ‘we’re all drinkers’ (in some fashion or other).

It’s also an allegory for getting older. Everything withers and crumbles in the end. We just keep on trucking. There’s no turning back. The birds he mentions at the highway scene are a type of heron that get netted while trying to swim upstream.

The story has mythic echoes — the passage of a divine swimmer across the calendar toward his doom — and yet is always only the story of one bewildered man, approaching the end of his life, journeying homeward, in a pair of bathing trunks, across the countryside where he lost everything that ever meant something to him.

– Michael Chabon




This story is an example of how well Cheever is able to bring the reader into the story. The first paragraph offers a wonderful description of setting. He makes use of the second person, moving from the universal to the specific social group, ending/beginning with the priest. Drinking too much is juxtaposed with the church. Slate use the word ‘litany’ to describe the feeling evoked by the first paragraph. A litany is a ritual repetition of prayers when applied to the church, but is also used outside church settings to describe something which feels repetitious in a tedious sort of way.

At one point Cheever wanted to parallel the tale of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who died while staring at his own reflection in a pool of water, which Cheever dismissed as too restrictive. As published, the story is highly praised for its blend of realism and surrealism, the thematic exploration of suburban America, especially the relationship between wealth and happiness, as well as his use of myth and symbolism.


The turning point is marked by the onset of the storm. Ned sees the first red and yellow leaves and starts to get signs that things are not all right. Yet Netty loves the storm. It’s a big drinker’s story. Along with the idea that nothing ever changes is another idea of let it all come down. Inviting destruction. In the opening paragraph everything is lovely. The cloud is like a city, but no ordinary cloud.

Cheever has written an intensely dark story, there are comic elements, such as when the drivers on the highway throw things at him. Even the epic journey itself is fake and therefore laughable. But there is both pleasure and misery in this story. It’s a very slow apocalypse. The beautiful people are moving on, no longer beautiful; Ned has lost everything he ever held dear. The comic elements make this darkness even darker.

Cheever has chosen the names of his characters with care. Neddy’s wife Lucinda, for example, is named after ‘light’, which is associated with time.

Cheever uses sound to create extraordinary atmospheres.

Metaphysical moments are scattered throughout: The constellations of the sky, for example. (Another story like this is Rabbit.) Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it.



The Swimmer” a short story by American author John Cheever, was originally published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, and then in the 1964 short story collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. Originally conceived as a novel and pared down from over 150 pages of notes, it is probably Cheever’s most famous and frequently anthologized story.


The Swimmer is considered to be one of Cheever’s best short stories.

Anne Enright feels that this would never have worked as the novel (as Cheever had originally planned) and feels that it would work even better as a short story had he lost one or two pools. The naturist communists are amusing but we don’t want any more than that.

The Swimmer 1968


The New Zealand writer Keri Hulme writes stories with a blend of realism and surrealism. (Sometimes called ‘magic realism’.) See her collection Te Kaihau.

The surrealism is also a bit like the surrealism of The Graduate.

The Enormous Radio, also by Cheever, has the same sort of surrealism.


Where to start, if your intention is to practice writing a story of magic realism? I suppose we might first start with a theme and build a magical/surreal setting which makes the theme clear to the reader. In this type of story we write in a realistic way but we’re not obligated to write ‘the truth’. How does Neddy get into the public swimming pool? Does he carry spare change in his swimming trunks? I asked myself this question as I read, yet in this type of story it’s not important. When the details are specific and familiar enough, the reader will be drawn along for the ride.

If we’re to be inspired by The Swimmer:

  • Start with a character embarking on a slightly absurd quest
  • Decide what the quest stands for, thematically
  • Include comic details
  • Use the weather to help build atmosphere
  • End with a sting in the tail



Slate’s Audiobook Special


Short Story Study: Goodbye and Good Luck by Grace Paley

This short story is interesting partly because it is written as a letter to a recipient who is unseen. In fact, we don’t know the identity of Lillie (mentioned in the first paragraph) until the final paragraph. It’s not that this person is particularly important. But it poses a bit of a puzzle to the reader. Is this much younger sister really the narrator’s daughter? Rosie is called her ‘aunt’. This question is left unanswered, and adds to the overall melancholy at the end, since Rosie will be travelling so far away.



Rosie, a fifty-year-old woman, writes a letter to her younger sister (?) explaining her longterm relationship with a famous Russian actor at a Russian theatre on New York’s Second Avenue. After starting work there as a young woman, the good-looking Russian actor asks her to tea at a nearby restaurant. He pays for an apartment for her nearby on Ninety-Fourth Street. Rosie’s mother does not approve of this. Rosie gives some money to her family and does something with flowers in the mornings so she can get by financially herself, even after a small raise at the theatre.

Now the manager is after her, too, along with others. So she takes up a relationship with the manager. She breaks it off once she finds out he is married with three daughters. She gets various unpalatable marriage proposals, and turns them all down. The Russian actor comes back and it is revealed that Rosie was hoping something would come of that. He is her lifelong love interest. Instead, he warns her that she’s getting old. In fact, she’s even older than he has guessed. The theatre breaks up, people start to die and the manager has a heart attack. The Russian will spend his retirement writing his memoirs. The journalists put a rosy spin on this.

Understanding that she is herself ‘past her use-by date’, Rosie realises when the Russian actor calls to offer her a relationship that he is her only chance at marriage. She is ‘fat and fifty’. She works again in novelty wear. and the Russian’s wife is leaving him for his adultery. He wants a relationship with Rosie and Rosie insists upon marriage. At the end of the letter/short story Rosie asks her much younger sister to explain all this to their mother, for she is leaving to start a life with him in Russia.



Set on the lower east side of Manhattan, specifically at a famous Second Avenue Russian theatre. Second Avenue is now called the East Village, but was then considered part of the Jewish Lower East Side. Plays in this area often rivaled Broadway plays, being of equally high quality.

Lower East Side, Manhattan

Lower East Side, Manhattan


Set in the late 50s, the social milieu is significant. This is a culture which is heavily critical of extramarital affairs, and especially hard on the women. A woman who has worked in low-paid jobs her entire life is not financially secure as she approaches old age. A marriage with a man of means is attractive in its own right. This is during the second wave of the women’s movement. Grace Paley herself, and Rosie her creation, are aware of women’s position.



A whole cast of characters is introduced in the first line, though the reader will have trouble piecing them together on the first reading.

Rose Lieber

Rose is the first person narrator. The very first paragraph tells us that she is a large woman, and this aspect is reinforced time and again throughout the story. ‘I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh.’ Why is her size significant? Because she feels that this puts her at a disadvantage in the marriage market. She must accept who will take her. Whether this is actually true is a moot point: Simply believing it makes it so. At the same time, Rose has bravado when it comes to her body, or perhaps at times she really feels luscious, turning down a cup-of-tea by comparing herself to a Russian teapot.

Russian Samovar


The story both begins and ends with Rose working in ‘novelty wear’.


Mrs Lieber

Rosie’s mother tells her daughter that she is ‘a nothing, a rotten hole in a piece of cheese’. Despite her size (and because of it equally) Rosie would feel invisible on the marriage market, and this is the greatest insult a mother could hurl. Despite this, Rosie understands her mother’s position and continues to pay her money and when she goes back briefly to stay, she spends the week doing work around the house. Still the mother is rude to the daughter. But she has had a hard life, having been married to a man she didn’t particularly get on with, then caring for him as he wasted away.



It’s not clear exactly how old Lillie is, but she is a married young adult.

If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten.

Well, by now you must know yourself, honey, whatever you do, life don’t stop.


The Theatre Manager, Mr Krimberg

The man who interviewed me was the manager, a certain type. Immediately he said, “Rosie Lieber! You sure got a build on you!”

This man is a trope, and all the reader requires is a single line of dialogue. This is the sort of older Russian man from the 50s who thinks it’s okay to comment immediately on a woman’s body. His sense of entitlement is set up right away. He is melodramatic in his justification, perhaps fitting for a theatre manager:

“Little girl, I have told you a hundred times, this small room is the convent of my troubled spirit. Here I come to your innocent shelter to refresh myself in the midst of an agonized life.”

Note how he calls Rosie ‘little girl’. This is condescending, of course, but perhaps it is Krimberg among few others who in fact makes Rosie feel socially-acceptably petite.


Volodya Vlashkin

The love of Rosie’s life, handsome, famous, with his name embroidered in restaurant tablecloths. It’s taken as a given that he has extramarital affairs. When his wife of 50 years leaves him for adultery, Vlashkin understands that actually what has changed is that he is now hanging around the house all day, getting under her feet. Although the reader is told that he is famous, Rosie sees his human side. Their relationship was at first mainly sexual, but over many years morphed into mostly talking. In his retirement he is financially secure. This is now his main drawcard for Rosie, although they will live as equals now. Rosie is the one who insists he marries her.



Even when society thinks we’re not doing the perfectly right thing, we must take our windows of opportunity where we find them. The first scene in the story sets up the theme of ‘windows’. We learn that the spirited Rose walks out on a job in novelty wear because she’s not allowed to sit beside a window. “Missus, if I can’t sit by a window, I can’t sit.”

The passing of time makes victims of us all. No one is excused from the changes which come with time.



The letter emulates the voice of someone who is not a writer and not particularly coherent. The first paragraph starts off referring to the writer in the third person, for instance. Characters are clumsily introduced. We are left to piece-together the events. Written in English by a Russian/Yiddish speaking narrator, the English is not perfect. This technique leaves some work for the reader, and the voice ends up sounding authentic.



written 1959

Approximately 4000 words

Epistolary, written to an unseen character.

There was a play based on this short story, performed twice in New York in 2007, with music composed by David Friedman.

Goodbye and Good Luck play

The Imaginary Airship In Hilda Bewildered

What do you know about airships?

Have you seen airships before, in the sky or in certain types of stories?

What does the presence of an airship add to the feel/mood/setting of a story?

Airships are also called ‘blimps’ and are seen quite often at sporting events as advertising vessels. Airships are also called ‘dirigibles’.

In fiction, airships are a common sight in alternative superhero depictions of New York. You may recognise the airship from DC’s Batman series.


The GCPD Blimp from Batman

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s most internationally renowned animator of children’s films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro seems to enjoy animating airships in his un-Japanese, European-esque worlds of films such as Castle In The Sky. Steampunk fiction is also a fan of the dirigible.

An airship crashes in Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service

An airship crashes in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service

Airships were once a fairly common sight in Northern skies.

The most famous real-life airship is The Hindenburg, which caught alight during an electrical storm while trying to land on May 3, 1937. Due to a limited supply of helium (mainly in America), hydrogen was used to give airships lift. Hydrogen is lighter than air but is highly flammable.

The Hindenburg was a massive airship — perhaps the airship equivalent of The Titanic — affordable only to the super rich, because a one-way ticket from Europe to America cost the equivalent of a car. Flight was brand new to humans, and it’s easy to forget that the passengers had never seen the world from a bird’s eye view before.

“Everybody looks up and they see this graceful, slow moving, big object, and that seems to be something people are just fascinated with.”

- Mark Kynett (Senior pilot, Goodyear Blimp) speaks on the documentary When Weather Changed History: The Hindenburg Disaster.

The fact that documentaries are still being made about this disaster shows that we are still fascinated by airships.

If the Hindenburg disaster had never happened, history would have played out differently. We would be living in a slightly different world as a result. No doubt a Hindenburg-type disaster would have happened at one point or another, but it’s fascinating to consider how the history might be slightly different. Airships are often used in fictional worlds which are basically real, but are slightly off-kilter. The presence of an airship helps to create such a setting.

The Hindenburg was thought to be infallible. The vessel was referred to as “Queen Of The Skies”. This connection to royalty is fascinating because the airship as metaphor for royalty and celebrity is a good one. When common people see celebrity it’s easy to forget that these are human beings who are really not infallible at all. Often, celebrities die younger than they should, in ‘fiery’ events which captures the media’s attention.

The metaphor of height differential and flight is common in fiction. Altitude is also reflected in English idioms. We say ‘rise to the occasion’ or ‘look up to’ someone. In this story, a Princess is aware of the world that surrounds her. She can’t understand why she has been born into royalty when the role could just as easily have been given to some other girl. This doesn’t exactly fill her with confidence, as she prepares to deliver her first significant speech as a princess who has recently come of age. In an attempt to elevate herself in her own mind, she imagines herself on an airship, looking down on the world. Common wisdom about calming nerves before a presentation or speech often includes metaphors of lightness and flying: We are often advised to fill our lungs with air by taking deep breaths. We attempt to ‘rise above it’, to ‘glide’ into a room. We may feel ‘light-headed’. All of this relates to the metaphor of the airship. Princess Hilda’s freckles, which she considers proof of her ordinariness (despite being covered in makeup for the cameras), are now lights on the landscape; freckles make the landscape beautiful and therefore she must be beautiful. Or so she tells herself. By looking down on the landscape from high above, she is also trying to regain perspective on her own place in the world; a speech to open winter (a season which will happen with or without her blessing)seems less significant when she looks down on the world from high above, and realises she is not the center of the universe. There is a whole world besides, and not everyone is listening.

This includes the commuters who dash home to their own houses after a working week. These people are not royalists. They are busy with their own lives, and pay her little heed. It helps the Princess to remember these people. To them, she is invisible.

Because Hilda starts her imaginary journey in an airship, this allows for a dramatic and obvious change in altitude  over the course of the story. After emerging from the underground, Hilda instructs the taxi driver to ‘take the low road’ into the woods, prompting further descent. The imaginary airship sequence is thereby complemented with the alternative trick of spiriting her mind away to a dark basement in an abandoned hotel at the bottom of the deep, dark woods. All the while, Princess Hilda imagines she is not a princess at all — she is just an ordinary girl — an ordinary girl with ‘real problems’ — no loving mother, not enough to eat, no warm clothes, who is on the run from the police, to boot.

Is there an essential self?

Gabby Sidibe Beauty

In an interview on the Incredibly Interesting Authors podcast, creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams, dismisses the common advice to ‘just be yourself’ whenever you’re faced with a difficult situation in which you don’t feel confident. Instead, he advises to act like someone else. He argues that everyone acts all the time, according to how they think they are expected to perform.

  1. What do you think of this advice?
  2. Do you think you have an ‘essential self’?
  3. If so, when does this essential self come out? Are some people better at acting parts than others?
  4. How do you think you are at acting the role that is expected of you? Do you think that people who can act the part end up doing better overall than those who can’t/don’t?
  5. Does the expectation to act different parts according to circumstance vary from culture to culture?

We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works so we embrace it.

- All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin, page 2

Picturebook Study: Wolves by Emily Gravett

On Wednesdays I’m aiming to publish a close-reading of a picturebook I really admire. My favourite picturebooks to read (as an adult co-reader) have a lot going on in the pictures that isn’t explained by the words. Hence ‘picturebook’ rather than the double-worded ‘picture book’. The pictures must be ‘read’ before the story itself is understood. Wolves is a very good example of this. Emily Gravett is both author and illustrator, and I believe this is significant, as this eliminates the need for close communication between two different collaborators.



A very cute rabbit checks out a book from the library. The book is called ‘Wolves’. As rabbit reads the book, the wolf ‘emerges from’ the book (or maybe it doesn’t), coming closer and closer to the rabbit as the rabbit gets scareder and scareder. Finally, we see an extreme close up of a scary wolf looking at rabbit from behind. (Note that the rabbit has been given eyebrows. Animals in picturebooks are often given eyebrows, as this helps a lot with the expression.)



This story belongs to the category in which child readers delight in knowing what’s going to happen, and are gratified when it does. Knowing the ending means it’s no less of a surprise. Further to the metafictive nature of this picturebook, an ‘alternative ending’ is supplied, and it is explained that this has been added for the more sensitive readers. We are then treated to a classic cutesy happy ending, which pokes fun at the picturebook category in general. This will appeal to adult co-readers, who will have seen more than their fair share of picturebooks of the cutesy kind. I wonder when young children realise the joke.



My six-year-old daughter was very, very taken by the fact that you can pull a little library card out of the rabbit’s library book. Later, she is equally impressed at being able to pull an overdue library notice out of an envelope which has been stuck down to the final page. This particular copy is from the university library rather than the local library, in which case any sort of paper engineering tends to get mangled. (The university’s collection of picturebooks, in contrast, seem to be most utilised by adults rather than their kids. No food stains, taped-up pages or scribbles have been found yet.) I did have to explain to my daughter what a library card and an overdue notice is. Although published in 2005, this book may stand as a historical artifact in a world where books are checked-out digitally and overdue notices are sent electronically. Even the postcard illustration, adding interest to the colophon, is something young readers may not have much experience with. This book is a snap shot into the past. These things may need to be explained to young readers.




What makes this rabbit so darn cute? I think it’s mostly in the very expressive ears. One sticks up and one flops over, in the teen-romance equivalent of a lopsided smile. Ears pointing toward the book show rabbit’s intense concentration. Ears pointing straight back show rabbit’s mortification. One ear loops round to resemble a question mark at times. On the cover, the rabbit looks small and inquiring, and looks with interest up at the title — an echo of the interest in the child readers themselves, looking up in the world, trying to figure it out.


The rabbit is innocent until the very end. The story makes use of ‘Rosie’s Walk’ techniques:

Wolves layouts


As rabbit walks along while reading, oblivious to its surroundings, the young reader sees that the grass is actually a wolf’s fur; rabbit is coming to the end of wolf’s snout, and wolf is holding cutlery. There are allusions here to The Gingerbread Man. Earlier, the wolf in a hood is reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood. In fact, the whole story relies on the classic fairytale idea that rabbits are cute and good; wolves are evil and sneaky and bad.

The reader’s comprehension of this story hangs on understanding that rabbit is reading a book within a book. To achieve this, the book replicates the half title page — which is red with the single word ‘Wolves’. We then see an extreme close up of rabbit clutching a book, advancing towards the reader with a library in the background. Interestingly, the rabbit’s head has been cut off. This helps set the ominous tone.


White space is used both within the fictional book and in the actual book. The reader can’t be distracted. Our eye is guided straight to the critical spot on the page, in this case to a clump of trees that — to the rabbit — now look like a big wolf. Is this the illustration within the book, or is rabbit now looking around its own environs, seeing wolves everywhere? Rabbit spans both the main frame and the embedded one. Which world is rabbit in?


The colour palette is limited and red is, of course, symbolic. When the rabbit supposedly gets gobbled, the reader sees only the red, scratched-up, photo-realistic cover of the rabbit’s book.

The jam sandwich shared by rabbit and wolf in the ‘alternative ending’ is made out of scraps of torn out paper. This is wonderfully funny because the astute reader will see that it’s not a fictionalised ending at all. Did the wolf really eat the rabbit in the world of the story? We never really know.




Bronze award winner of the Nestle Children’s Book Prize 2005. (The Nestlé Children’s Book Prize, and Nestlé Smarties Book Prize for a time, was a set of annual awards for British children’s books that ran from 1985 to 2007. So this won in the second to last year of the prize.) Although I’m sad that this prize no longer runs, I don’t like to see highly sugared and processed food associated with children’s products.

Almost square in size — slightly higher than it is wide — medium size.



Another beautifully produced book about rabbits with impressive pop-up engineering (and a surprise on the last page) is The Rabbit Problem, also by Emily Gravett.

The Rabbit Problem

Each page is a month of a rabbit’s calendar (anthropomorphised). Again, the book is full of mock-copy such as rabbit cookbooks, rabbit newspapers and so on. Most of the text is found within these artefacts.


Then there’s Battle Bunny, for another example of metafiction which pokes fun at picturebooks in general. It seems rabbits are an excellent choice for picturebook parodies, probably because they’re so ubiquitous and also because they’re inherently cute, furry and helpless, lending themselves to cutesy stories.

battle bunny

The Tawny Scrawny Lion is an example of a classic picturebook in which a carnivorous animal turns vegetarian for narrative purposes. Sure enough in Wolves, the alternative ending has the wolf sharing a jam sandwich with the rabbit and becoming best of friends.


Color Symbolism in Hilda Bewildered


How does the colour of the sky throughout Hilda Bewildered give clues about the time of day, the plot sequence and the difference between Princess Hilda’s reality versus the imagined scenes?

Highlight below for some answers.

Golden — The story opens with a wintry dusk.

As nightfall comes, the sky looks green through the dining hall window.

The blue sky from Hilda’s imaginary airship is a cerulean, unlikely sort of blue. This is also the blue of the screens which appear throughout the story — the detectives’ computer screen, the view through the security cameras. Events behind a screen are not real for the viewer (even though real for the characters depicted), just as Hilda’s imaginary world of unnaturally blue sky is also one-removed from reality.

The sky of the grimy city is a browny yellow, to contrast with the golden colour surrounding the palace — an oasis of riches.

As the taxi moves into the forest the sky turns blacker and blacker as Hilda finds her way into her mental cave (and eventually to a basement in an abandoned hotel in the middle of a dark forest).

But on the final page the sky is back to dusky yellow, because The Other Hilda is wholly imagined: It is still sunset and Hilda has yet to make her speech. As she makes the speech she imagines she is talking to tussock rather than to a daunting crowd of people. From the stage, though, she sees nothing but bright lights.



Death green, Life green

Death green, Life green


Brainstorm some ideas/themes which are commonly symbolised by the colour green in storytelling and in pop-culture.

There are many different shades of green. Do different shades of green suggest different meanings?

Do a Google image search for green movie posters (by going to advanced search and setting the colour to green). After looking at a large number of green movie posters, what kinds of stories are associated with green?


Princess Hilda’s ring is emerald green. What does the colour green symbolise in Hilda Bewildered?

Highlight the text below for some answers.

THE FOREST: This is common in myths/legends/fairytales. This is connected to the female principle/The Great Mother. Vegetable life thrives in a forest, free from any control or cultivation. Princess Hilda’s life is so regimented she craves freedom. Foliage excludes sunlight, so the forest is considered in opposition to the sun’s power. The forest symbolises the unconscious. Jung said that the sylvan terrors that figure so prominently in children’s tales symbolise the perilous aspects of the unconscious. Houses and cultivated lands are safe areas but the forest harbours all sorts of dangers and demons, enemies and diseases. (Zimmer). The forest in this tale contrasts with the manicured garden at the Royal Palace: subdued, ordered, selected, enclosed.

LIFE AND DEATH: Green is the colour of life; it is also the colour of death (of gangrenous corpses). Death is represented by black through the greenish shades up to a typically bright green colour, after which it symbolises life. Giving a speech in front of many people feels like a life and death situation for the princess. Life and death are opposites, as are the princess and her alter ego. A forest is full of life, but for an ill-equipped girl, it also means danger and death.

THE MIDDLE PLACE: Green takes the middle place in the everyday scale of colours. Green is an intermediate, transitional colour spanning between the two groups of ‘advancing’ colours and ‘retreating colours’.  (This is because it is mixed from blue, a retreating colour, and yellow, an advancing one.) The Other Hilda lives in the shadows of society (a retreating character) but she would like to advance socially – she just has no idea how to go about it. This is impossible for a girl in her position with her plain looks.

Green can also be associated with the ghostly/uncanny, with peace, growth, branching out, turning over a new leaf, imagination.

Short Story Study: Madeline’s Birthday by Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant died last year, but if she were still around she might not think much of my attempt to dissect her stories in order to learn from them:

Gallant is dismissive of analysing or explaining her work, and distrustful of academic attempts to do so.

- The Guardian, 2009

The same Guardian article says of her work, ‘One of the most striking things about Gallant’s work…is its cinematic quality, shifting perspectives and chronology, resulting in what Lahiri calls “narrative that refuses to sit still”.’ This is the sort of story that, if you were to upload it to a peer review writing site, would be shot down as an example of ‘head-hopping’. Yet as Gallant’s work demonstrates with ease, it’s possible for an adept omniscient narrator to dive in and out of heads without confusing the reader in the slightest.

Mavis Gallant is a master at condense writing. Of novels she said:

A lot of it is just stuffing between the important things. In between is nothing.

Mavis Gallant herself feels that she didn’t develop her own style until the 1960s, yet this one was written a decade before then.


full story available at The New Yorker online but it's behind a paywall

Full story available at The New Yorker online though it’s behind a paywall.



This story was published in 1951 and the setting is modern for the time. Apart from workings of the telephone (which back then needed operators) and absence of the Internet (in which Paul could have emailed his professor), there is not much about the story that is different from a modern-day setting. We are told that this is set in rural Connecticut.


We are told that this takes place 7 days before Labor Day, significant because both of the young house guests are counting down the days until the end of summer, when they can leave. In the popular imagination, summer is, in contrast, a happy and carefree time, not a time to be endured.



Madeline's Birthday Jhumpa Lahiri



Mavis Gallant introduces a complex cast of characters in the economy of a short story.

Characters Madeline's Birthday Mavis Gallant


The theme of this short story is conveyed through the attitude of Mrs Tracy. Point of view is important, switching between close third-person POV and a more omniscient one when Gallant chooses to tell rather than show. The story starts with the point of view of Mrs Tracy, switching next to that of Madeline, then to Mr Tracy. POV is not strictly adhered to, switching only after double paragraph breaks; the narrator weaves in and out of heads as appropriate.

I know who they are, what they do and what they are saying to each other. And I know more than they do, because I know about all of them.

- Mavis Gallant

The main juxtaposition is that between Mrs Tracy’s memories of childhood at the farmhouse, and the reality of living with a single daughter and an emotionally distant husband who is there only on weekends. In an attempt to recreate the bustling, lively childhood she remembers, Mrs Tracy invites guests each summer. There is no backstory about Mrs Tracy’s childhood; it is enough for the reader to be told that it was marvellous: ‘Technically, the Connecticut house belonged to his wife, who had inherited it. Loving it and remembering her own childhood there, she looked upon her summers as a kind of therapy to be shared with the world.’ 

This main juxtaposition is foreshadowed/explained with a series of present-day incongruities. First there are the incongruities that Mrs Tracy notices herself:

1. Madeline is not the bright-humored girl she thought she might be. Instead, she is a teenage girl suffering the aftermath of a broken family, a father who has left to remarry and a mother who can’t cope with the fact and who has gone off to Europe.

2. Paul is the inverse of Mrs Tracy’s idea of a German. He is dark not blonde, can’t swim, doesn’t enjoy the outdoors.

3. Madeline and Paul do not get on even though they are fairly close in age. So the young house guests themselves serve as contrasts, with Paul being of stable mood and Madeline being emotional; Paul being tidy, Madeline being messy; Paul being sensitive to the emotions of others, Madeline deliberately brushing over them. ‘They did not even have a cake of soap in common.’


Then there are the incongruities that Mrs Tracy is not aware of, but which the reader is privy to via the nature of the storytelling:

1. Although Mrs Tracy is full of plans, she’s not a woman of action, instead leaving the task of making Madeline’s birthday cake up to the housekeeper. Mrs Tracy can’t even remember telling the housekeeper about the birthday cake, thinking she might actually be making waffles for breakfast. While Mrs Tracy is ‘propelled’ out of the house, Doris has ‘a deliberate tread’. Mrs Tracy has an active imagination, who (ironically and comically) imagines that Doris’s imagination may have been ‘uncommonly fired’. Even the task of braiding her own daughter’s hair is off-loaded to the seventeen-year-old houseguest. Mrs Tracy is not the practical sort. ‘[Madeline] could hear Mrs Tracy downstairs, asking Doris if she had ever seen such a perfect morning. Doris’s answer was lost in the whir of the electric mixer.’ In an attempt to make her own life exotic, she thinks of Madeline as a ‘jeune fille’ (when she could just as easily have thought ‘young girl’).

2. Mrs Tracy’s routine life at the farmhouse is not the lively setting she strives to achieve, and so the contrast between the house of her imagination and the reality of running a household is stark. Unlikely comparisons come from Mrs Tracy, demonstrating her richer inner world: ‘The hall seemed weighted at one end–like a rowboat, she thought.’ She finds her husband’s morning greetings tiresome precisely because nothing new happens overnight, and because he says the same thing each morning he’s there.

After lunch with a lawyer friend on a trip to Montreal in 1955, he drove her back and stopped in front of “a very charming looking house with vines growing up it. ‘I’d love a house like that,’ he said. And I said, ‘It’s not for me.’ Saying, ‘How was your school day?’ every evening . . . I’d run away.

– Mavis Gallant

Mrs Tracy says to her daughter, “My summers have always been so perfect, ever since I was a child.” But the reader knows this isn’t true, from the single paragraph outlining the various houseguests over the years, from Mr Tracy’s point of view, in which it is revealed that one of the previous summer guests had been a single mother who killed herself.

2. Although Mrs Tracy is curious about Paul’s troubled childhood in wartime Germany, hoping to use him for her own entertainment, he doesn’t talk about the war at all. Mrs Tracy’s curiosity shows a lack of empathy for a boy who is probably suffering post-traumatic trauma to some degree. Mrs Tracy’s need for socialising and merriment at her idyllic house in the country doesn’t equate to empathy for others. She wonders why the boy sleeps with his shades drawn, perhaps because she’d like to spy on him herself, but likely simply a metaphor for Paul’s introverted ways.

3. Although Madeline is younger in age, it is Madeline who is world-weary and Mrs Tracy who has maintained a youthful but unsustainable optimism. This is established in the first paragraph: The morning of Madeline Farr’s seventeenth birthday, Mrs. Tracy awoke remembering that she had forgotten to order a cake. It was doubtful if this would matter to Madeline, who would probably make a point of not caring. The difference in attitude is underscored later on in the story, when Mrs Tracy enters Madeline’s room to wish her a happy birthday, and Mrs Tracy ‘looks younger’ than the birthday girl. While Madeline was ‘ideally happy’ during her three weeks of isolation in her mother’s abandoned apartment, Mrs Tracy is at her happiest when surrounded by people.

4. Then there is the literary symbolism. For example the radio announcer says that ‘McIntoshes were lively yesterday…but Roman Beauties were quiet. Even the garden life is in contrast. The Roman Beauty, incidentally, is a compact evergreen shrub with aromatic, needle-like, dark green leaves with contrastingsilver undersides. Paul looks out Madeline’s window and observes that “The pear tree is dying.” Madeline has already failed to attract the positive attention of Mr Tracy, she doesn’t acknowledge the masculinity of Paul and is feeling down that she has no romantic possibilities in her life.

Pear Tree Symbolism

So there we have garden-inspired contrast again, between Madeline’s nubile age and the dying of the pear tree.



Mavis Gallant uses dialogue tags skilfully. Rather than using, say, adverbs, she explains the subtext of dialogue in a single phrase:

“You probably haven’t read it,” Madeline said, intending the insult.

The ‘starched coverlet’ of Mr Tracy’s bed is a transferred epithet. We learn as the story goes on that the word ‘starched’ could in fact be applied to Mr Tracy himself.

The description of Madeline’s dream is described as an accurate portrayal of how dreams can intersect with the real environs:

In the next room, Madeline had stopped crying and fell asleep. She dreamed that someone had given her a dollhouse. When a bell rang downstairs, it merged into her dream as something to do with school. Actually, the ringing was caused by the long-distance operator, who had at first reported that the circuits to New York were busy and was now ready to complete the call.

The reason for the dream itself is significant, not necessarily in any Freudian way, but because the difference between dreamscapes and reality have been the central theme of the story. Note that Madeline is woken from her dream by a call about a call regarding Paul’s essay; real life minutiae of the dullest kind.



Sometimes characters in a short story have some sort of epiphany. Other times, it is remarkable that they haven’t changed at all. Who has changed in this story? Mr Tracy realises that he is silly to let the teenaged guest dictate the emotional well-being of his household. “She’s only a kid,” he says, and agrees to come home for Madeline’s birthday dinner. His wife, on the other hand, refuses to believe that things are not hunky dory. “People often say things,” she explains to her young daughter, “You must never pay attention to what people say if you know the opposite to be true.”

By this point, the reader of the story knows that the opposite is true; that no one in this household is particularly happy, and that Mrs Tracy refuses to admit it. The birthday party will go on, presumably, as Mrs Tracy wishes it to, with everyone else there under sufferance. Specifically, the story ends with Mrs Tracy telling Allie for the umpteenth time to call Madeline and Paul so that ‘we can get breakfast over with and get this day under way’. By this point, even Mrs Tracy is starting to endure things. Earlier, Madeline overheard her remarking to Doris what a beautiful day it is. So the last sentence serves to highlight to the reader the contrast between hopes/perceptions and realities.



I’m not sure if I’m meant to be wondering this, but I found myself wondering about the nature of the relationship between Madeline and Mr Tracy. Why does Madeline get so upset at a small slight from Mr Tracy in the library? If she cares about his opinion of her, perhaps she has conflicted emotions. Has something happened while Mrs Tracy was absorbed in her own fantasy world? Or is Madeline simply missing her own father, hoping for a more present and engaging father figure for the summer? It is likely that Mr Tracy has no attraction to the girl. His thoughts of her hair are simply about its being ‘too long and thick for the season’. I suspect his assessment of the girl’s hair would be one of admiration if this were a Lolita sort of story.



Approximately 3400 words broken into 1000, 900, 1200, 300 word segments.

The entire story takes place over the course of a few hours, maybe less than an hour, before breakfast.

This story is the first in a collection of Gallant’s earliest stories.

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant



Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, in which a teenage girl starts her day in high spirits but ends in a quite different frame of mind. See also Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss for an example of a pear tree used symbolically.

Mavis Gallant herself recommends anyone who aspires to be a short story writer should read Chekhov.

She has only two words of advice for aspiring short story writers: read Chekhov! “Anybody who has the English language and doesn’t read the wonderful translations of Chekhov is an idiot.” She also admires Eudora Welty, Marguerite Yourcenar and Elizabeth Bowen, although she was disappointed to read Bowen’s letters to her lover Charles Ritchie, whom Gallant knew. “She turns out to be a snob.


  • A birthday (or other instance of contrived fun) which doesn’t go to plan
  • A summer (or other season) spent in a place where you didn’t want to be
  • A character who perseveres with a positive attitude despite surrounding circumstances which fail to live up to expectations