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Still Images In Picturebook Illustration

The best picturebook illustrators know all about movement, and are able to convey in a static image a wide variety of verbs that are happening within a scene.

Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay is an example of a picturebook in which movement is very important and expertly depicted. A loose, sketchy, generic style of illustration is very good for ‘high-movement’ illustrations, with realism best saved for sombre, more serious stories.

Rudie Nudie bath scene

Although a professional illustrator has to be good at depicting movement, there is a time and a place for ‘stills’, even inside ‘high-movement’ stories.

Where do we most commonly find ‘still’ images inside a picturebook?

ON THE FRONT COVER

First of all, we often see stills on the front cover, in which characters look as if they have posed for a photograph. This isn’t always the best choice for a story — the most tragic example lately would have to be a family of inappropriately smiling black slaves. Aside from this race issue, there are also feminist issues here — girls are more likely to be depicted still and smiling than boys.

Smile, baby! You’re on the cover of a picture book!

The Fly Gusti

Zukou Asobi

At least in this image of a posed photo a character is actively taking the photo. This is actually an action scene.

At least in this image of a posed photo a character is actively taking the photo. This is actually an action scene.

WHEN A NEW CHARACTER IS INTRODUCED

This often happens on page one, for example in Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats. To the left we see the basic setting — a somewhat lopsided little cottage, and to the right we see the main human characters… and they’re not actually doing anything related to the narrative. They seem to be standing there precisely so they can  be introduced to us.

millions-of-cats-page-one

This is usually a full-body shot (a long shot), not only so we can get the full view of this new character but also because the full-body shot is the least inflected with atmosphere. Look at most rom-com movie posters and you’ll see the full bodies of the characters. Compare and contrast to movie posters for psychological horrors and you’ll more likely find cropped images — faces in half light, most of the body off the page, cropped (…and mutilated?)

The Ugly Truth_400x600 The Proposal_400x591 Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past_400x591 How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days movie poster_400x564 Leap Year_400x592 Love Wedding Marriage_400x592

Lovely Molly_400x592 Seven_400x576 Silence Of The Lambs_400x591 The Others_400x553 In Fear_400x593 Blair Witch Project_400x565

In picturebooks this static, full-body introduction scene doesn’t necessarily happen on page one. It happens whenever a new, significant character is introduced, and serves to slow the action down.

In The Pied Piper of Hamelin, illustrated by Drahos Zak — an even darker version than your usual fare — we see the Pied Piper posing for us as he is introduced. This is the same ‘posed’ image used on the cover. I haven’t yet seen a Pied Piper done in psychological-thriller-movie-poster style, but surely one exists, as it would be even more creepy.

Pied Piper posed image

Pied Piper cover

ON THE LAST PAGE

Finally, of course, in picture books that take place over the course of a day, the main character ends up in bed. Since the norm is to read to children before bed, the very aim of reading picture books to children at all is often (unfortunately) to put them to sleep, so in this case the child is a model for the child, who is also supposed to calm down and settle in for the night.

THE WRITTEN EQUIVALENT OF A STILL IMAGE

There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character. I can tell it from the number of apprentice novels I read that begin with descriptions of photographs. You know the style: “My mother is squinting in the fierce sunlight and holding, for some reason, a dead pheasant. She is dressed in old-fashioned lace-up boots, and white gloves. She looks absolutely miserable. My father, however, is in his element, irrepressible as ever, and has on his head that gre]ay velvet trilby from Prague I remember so well from my childhood” The unpracticed novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard. When I encounter a prolonged ekphrasis* like the parody above, I worry, suspecting that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and is afraid to push out.

How Fiction Works, James Wood

A variation on describing a photograph is to have your character sit in front of a mirror and describe themselves. However, sometimes there are good reasons for using this rather cliched scene.

*Ekphrasis is the Greek-derived, literary word for a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art. I would use it more often if only I could remember its meaning every time I want it. 

Synoptic and Continuous Narrative In Picturebook Illustrations

There are 7 main categories of Narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference but uses frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous
  4. Synoptic
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organization to those who are not acquainted with its purpose concentrating on repeatable patterns and dualities
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events but rather a sequence that is dependent on its location. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compact present and future action into a single image.
Progressive Narrative Art

Progressive Narrative Art

In this post I talk about the difference between Continuous and Synoptic.

CONTINUOUS NARRATIVE

A continuous narrative is a type of narrative that illustrates multiple scenes of a narrative within a single frame.

Multiple actions and scenes are portrayed in a single visual field without any dividers. The sequence of events within the narrative is defined through the reuse of the main character or characters.

It emphasizes the change in movement and state of the repeating characters as indicators of scene or phase changes in the narrative.

Continuous narrative art is pretty much exactly the same as Sequential narrative art except minus the frames that help the viewer to know where one phase ends and the next begins.

Trajan's Column, depicting one event: The Dacian Wars

Trajan’s Column, depicting one event: The Dacian Wars

These days you find Continuous narrative art in comic strips, picture books and story boards.

This scene from In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak looks a blend between Continuous and Sequential, because although there is a frame to separate the pictures, the two frames almost seem to form a diptych (but only at first glance — there are two moons after all). I feel this is, overall, an example of Sequential narration.

nightkitchen121

SYNOPTIC NARRATIVE

Synoptic is the adjectival form of ‘synopsis’, which should give us a clue about what’s going on. Synoptic art = the synopsis of a bigger story.

A synoptic narrative depicts a single scene in which a character or characters are portrayed multiple times within a frame to convey that multiple actions are taking place.

This causes the sequence of events to be unclear within the narrative.

Synoptic narratives typically provide visual cues that convey the sequence, but still might be difficult to decipher for those unfamiliar with the story.

 

This is Mughal painting -- a style from South Asia.

This is Mughal painting — a style from South Asia.

By the way, it would be unusual to find a painting like this in a modern, Western picturebook because the characters are facing the wrong way! In picturebooks, the action goes toward the page turn, unless there’s some unusual reason to reverse it.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CONTINUOUS AND SYNOPTIC

Continuous narrative art gives you clues, provided by the layout itself, about the sequence of phases depicted.

But you have to know the story before you can understand a synoptic narrative. This wasn’t a problem anyway, because everyone of the era understood the basic plot of the myths, fables, stories and wars depicted.

Wanda Gag’s  Millions of Cats

cats drinking milk

the double spread

cats drinking milk close up 2

a better quality image

cats drinking millk close up

a closer look

 

The cat drinking milk is an example of continuous narrative because the fall of the hill forms a clear temporal guide.

Virginia Lee Burton’s Katy and the Big Snow

katy-and-the-big-snow-hero

Again, the road itself provides a temporal guide. So this is an example of Continuous narrative art.

Marla Frazee’s Books

Marla Frazee makes a lot of use of this technique.

For example Mrs. Biddlebox (There’s an image of the thumbnail sketches for this book on Frazee’s webpage.)

from Boot and Shoe

from Boot and Shoe

Jan Ormerod’s books

Usually have the action repeated. See “Sunshine”, “Moonlight”, “Putting Mummy to Bed”.

Sun and Moon continuous narrative

Getting dressed scene in Sunshine

breakfast scene from Sunshine

Falling asleep Sunshine

Sunshine continuous narrative

Ian Falconer

Olivia waited and waited and waited

Here, Olivia the pig waits impatiently for her mother to sew her a different colored soccer shirt in Olivia and the Missing Toy. Not seen here is the bit where she walks off, bored.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

From Olivia and the Fairy Princesses.

I make use of this same technique to show a child getting ready for bed, but in an interactive picture book app, Midnight Feast.

 

Panoptic Narrative Art In Picturebooks

suburban happenings

A panoramic narrative is a narrative that depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Actions may be in a sequence or represent simultaneous actions during an event.

This form was popular in the medieval era and often depicts a myth.

Panoptic narrative art is often a bird’s eye view. The ‘camera’ is above. But the art isn’t necessarily three dimensional: Illustrators can create panoptic artwork in 2D if they’re after a more folk artsy style.

The Conquerors by David McKee

The Conquerors by David McKee

Child Life May 1979

(The term has nothing to do with Foucault’s panopticism — I believe it is made up of ‘pan’ + ‘optics’ as in ‘all-seeing’.)

In modern picturebooks, there is a gradation of activity in a scene. Often, there is way more going on in a single picturebook illustration than would ever be happening in a real life photograph. For example, in the scene of the school fair from Shirley Hughes’s Dogger, below, we can see sorts of things going on — all of which would have happened at the fair — but all of the individual actions are meaningful and it’s unlikely they were all going on at the same time. The work is therefore on the panoptic continuum.

Dogger the fair

Film makers, too, often need to arrange characters within scenes in a way that wouldn’t naturally occur. But we accept these film conventions to a large degree, even when realism is the aim.

What if it’s clear from the context of the story that multiple actions in a single scene are definitely not going on at the same time? This is called Progressive narrative art, in which ctions displayed by characters compact present and future action into a single image.

I believe Progressive narrative art is a subcategory of Panoptic art, and in picturebooks and film the two terms merge, for the simple fact that we in stories, characters live in ‘storybook worlds’, in which it’s perfectly possible all of these things are going on at once. We can’t possibly distinguish between the two states unless we were to know the ‘real events’. But these aren’t wars we’re describing — they are made up from the get-go; there is no basic ‘reality’.

Roland Harvey

Australian artist Roland Harvey is an expert at busy, detailed landscapes and has created a whole series of books with massive panoptic scenes: In The Bush, At The Beach, In The City and panoptic scenes occurring throughout his others.

Eureka Stockade cover

The First Fleet

on-the-farm-our-holiday-with-uncle-kev

Where’s Wally/Waldo

Where’s Wally was created by Martin Handford, English illustrator. These books make the most of that wish to hunt and search, linger and examine.

Where's Wally

Migrant by Jose Manuel Mateo

Migrant

This book uses a single vertical illustration and brief text.  It folds up accordion-style and recounts the story of a young family who immigrate illegally to Los Angeles, one huge image that is slowly unveiled over the course of the story.

 

The Great War : July 1, 1916 : the first day of the Battle of the Somme

The-Great-War-July-1-1916-The-First-Day-of-the-Battle-of-the-Somme__51E3YxrMkTL

an illustrated panorama by Joe Sacco would be worth a look. Not exactly for your younger crowd but an amazingly detailed depiction of what this battle site was like over the period of one day

 

Questions To Ask Yourself When Composing The Thumbnails Of A Picturebook

from Framed Ink: Drawing and composition for visual storytellers by Marcos Mateu-Mestre (2010) and various other sources such as Reading Contemporary Picturebooks by David Lewis (2001).

  • When composing a piece, decide first which part of the picture you would like the audience to see first.
    • To draw attention to something, make it bigger, and if it’s not actually bigger, position it closer to the camera.
    • We tend to look towards a vanishing point. So you can position important things there.
    • The audience tends to look in the same direction as the main character, assuming something relevant is going on in that direction.
    • For English-background readers, we are used to reading from left to right. If the action is going in that direction we’ll feel more at ease. If the action is going from right to left we’ll feel something’s not quite right: hard times and difficulty.
  • Decide on the emotion you want to evoke, and its intensity. (Sadness, happiness, action, suspense?)
  • The execution of the artwork — the stylemust suit the type of story being told.
  • In visual storytelling, looking great is not enough. Each work of art (frame) must help to propel the story along. Something which is simply beautiful may pull the viewer out of the story. [I think now of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which some scenes are not vital to the plot but exist only for world-building and atmosphere. This is important too.]
  • Is there anything that can be left out without changing what you want to say?
  • The first shots will establish the milieu and emotional landscape. This must remain consistent until the final frame.
  • To build atmosphere manipulate lighting, pacing and colour.
  • Give the audience the opportunity to create their own reality as much as possible, by creating a gap between the visuals and the text. When answering a question, raise another at the same time.
  • Simplicity, shadows and silences are sometimes more important than detail. Leave the reader wondering about something.
  • Where to position the ‘camera’? Looking up/straight on/from above/from some other weird angle?
  • Naturalistic perspective, flattened or exaggerated?
  • We look at things depending on what we’re focused on at the moment. [So if there was a hint of a gun in one frame, we’ll be expecting to see it, and therefore focused on it, in the following frame.]
  • Curved shapes = subtle/peaceful.
  • Diagonal lines = dynamic/aggressive.
  • Straight lines = assertiveness.
  • Avoid weird coincidences, like a tree growing out of a head just because someone happens to be standing in front of a tree.
  • When cutting in closer to a scene, there is a rule to be followed, to do with proportions. Keep the subject at the same position in both frames so the reader knows it’s the same subject and not a different one.
  • To make an image seem deeper, create an uneven balance of shapes — big to small.
  • To better convey the direction of action in action scenes, make the action follow the lines of perspective.
  • To establish intimacy between two characters, clear the space between them. To create antagonism, put obstacles between them. (Or make use of light and darkness/background shapes.)
  • High and low, right and left are all locations that can have significance. Figures positioned up high may be interpreted as in ecstatic or dream-like states, or may have high social status or a positive self-image.
  • On pages where pictures are mere vignettes or are only partially framed so that the words push in from the side, or where pictures are irregularly sequenced down or across the page in asymmetrical arrangements, then high and low, left and right have no significant value.
  • When studying picturebooks closely, positional codes are used relatively sparingly [when compared to comics and graphic novels].
  • More common in picturebooks: the convention that places figures in motion facing left to right. Any character attempting to move from right to left will be perceived as interfering with the natural course of events: they’ve returned from an adventure/blocking someone’s path/have sinister intentions etc.
  • Children are remarkably quick to take in a scene, even in cases where the illustration is not particularly ept, and interpreting that scene as intended, but there are certain features of visual images that are harder for children to understand: anything which has a meaning over and above what is represented. Children may or may not understand, for instance, that a red cross indicates medical assistance, depending on their age and cultural background.

SEE ALSO

Character Relations In Picturebooks

Levels of Detail In Literature

NOVELS

Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were–it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail.[…] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Wood then goes on to explain that although all this surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake–what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

In the end it doesn’t really matter about any distinction between what is real and what is signified, because “realism can be an effect and still be true”. Wood describes Barthes’s attitude towards realism as “sensitive, murderous hostility” and that’s the only reason why he insisted on this “false division”.

SHORT STORIES

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver explains that even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

— Raymond Carver, On Writing

PICTURE BOOKS

Modern picture books convey all of their detail in the illustrations and none in the text. The text is for conveying the story structure. There are few exceptions to this. Once the text starts to describe the picture, what you now have is an ‘illustrated story’.

Picturebook Study: Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne

Hansel and Gretel is one of the best-known fairytales. Almost everybody knows the basic story but, more than that, this tale is the ur-story for many seemingly unrelated modern ones. For example, whenever a character meets a character in a ‘forest’ (whether the forest is symbolic or not), the audience is put in mind of wicked cannibalistic witches.

Let’s face it: The tale itself is basically terrifying. Anthony Browne, with his postmodern approach to its retelling, does not shy away from the terror.

‘Sweetened’ Versions of Hansel and Gretel

Ladybird Hansel and Gretel

The truth is, my daughter does not like the Anthony Browne version of Hansel and Gretel. For her it is too scary. She doesn’t like the dark version illustrated by Lorenzo Mattoti, either, preferring the cheap Ladybird edition with its brighter colours. This might explain why many illustrators of Hansel and Gretel — and there have been many — are not interested in what the story is really about, because the original is just too horrible.

The sweetening of this tale started with the Grimm brothers, who needed to make money to support their collection hobby, so they rewrote some of the horrible tales into versions they considered appropriate for middle class children.

in the dark woods

The Grimm Brothers Made It Worse, As Per Usual

By that I mean, they made it horribly patriarchal. And we’ve been using their version ever since, sweetening it up a little, but the basic patriarchal message is the same:

The Grimm brothers rewrote and refined their version of the tale before it was published in 1857. It bears little resemblance to the original oral tale told to Wilhelm in 1810. While the mother figure is clearly demonized in this story, the father’s involvement in abandoning his children is carefully downplayed.

— from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The main differences in the oral version:

  • It was originally a mother, not a stepmother. The Grimm brothers obviously thought that having your blood mother turn on you was too scary. They did retain the shortened form of ‘mother’ in some passages though.
  • The mother/stepmother grows harsher.
  • The father grows more introspective and milder.
  • Wilhelm made the tale more dramatic, more literary, and more sentimental. For example, the children’s escape from the sinister woods across a large body of water, one at a time, on the back of a duck. In the original they simply run home.

Anthony Browne’s Version

Hansel and Gretel Anthony Browne book cover

Anthony Browne is one writer/illustrator who does understand what this tale is really about, though he does go with something more like the Grimm modification rather than the original, oral tale.

This is no sweetened version. The fact that this is a modern setting, with a TV and a step-mother who smokes cigarettes, and that they live in a brownstone detached house mean that the child reader can no longer pretend abandonment and famine happen only in ‘fairytale land’.

dining room table

The mother does not consider herself a part of the family, based on her refusal to sit at the dinner table. Instead she gazes into the TV.

walking into the woods

Here’s the thing Browne underscores the most:

The mother and the witch are the same person.

In Hansel and Gretel, the mother figure is split … and clearly has cannibalistic desires.

— from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniels further explains the double/duplicitous/split nature of the (step)mother/witch with the help of some 20th C psychoanalysis:

The witch locks Hansel up in a cage and wakes Gretel up by yelling: “Get up you lazybones! I want you to fetch some water and cook your brother something nice. He’s sitting outside in a pen, and we’ve got to fatten him up. Then, when he’s fat enough, I’m going to eat him.”

This is a portrait of a powerful cannibalistic woman, the bad mother, who is directly juxtaposed with the good mother figure. Two facets of the mother figure are represented in this fairy tale: the evil, threatening, cannibalistic one embodied by the witch/stepmother and the comforting, feeding persona initially presented by the old woman to lure the children. The link between the stepmother and the witch is made explicitly — they both wake the children with the phrase “Get up, you lazybones” and they are both dead by the end of the story: the stepmother is the facet of the bad mother/breast who denies the children nourishment and abandons them; the witch is the mother/breast who threatens to retaliate. The duplicitousness of the bad mother is also emphasized: in her manifestation as the stepmother she pretends to be as pleased when the children find their way home; as the witch she pretends to be a kind, generous, good mother in order to lure the children into her house.

stepmother and shadow

The mother equals the witch. The clue is in the way her shadow is cast, and the way the curtains form a witch’s hat in the perfect position.

Oral Aggression?

Bruno Bettelheim [who was a total asshole, by the way — I can’t write about him without slipping that in there] considers “Hansel and Gretel” to be a tale about a child’s inappropriate oral aggression, that “gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and thus destructive desires.” But it is noteworthy that in this tale the children are orally nonaggressive. They do break off pieces of the house and “nibble” them but then they are about to “perish of hunger and exhaustion” (Grimms.) It is the witch who is aggressive and cannibalistic, but Bettelheim does not discuss this.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

the cottage made of sweets

Hansel and Gretel and Child Development

killing the witch

When children defeat a witch in a fairy tale this signifies separation from mother — a necessary stage in psychic development.

 

I’m no Freudian, but here’s some quoted psychoanalysis if you like.

freud's_psychosexual_stages

It is interesting to consider the ending of the tale in terms of psychoanalytic notions of child development. The children’s task is to escape the clutches of the devouring mother and to proceed from the oral phase to the oedipal stage and a meaningful relationship with their father. They live in her house for a month while she feeds Hansel on “the very best food” and waits for him to get fatter. Hansel, then, partakes of the good breast while Gretel, who “got nothing but grab shells” to eat, is denied it. They are clearly in the oral, pre-oedipal phase. By threatening to eat Hansel, the witch/bad mother clearly intends to incorporate and psychically obliterate him. Gretel kills the witch/bad mother by pushing her into the oven so that she is “miserably burned to death”. The threat of incorporation she poses is thus neutralized.

Since the children have now successfully separated from the witch/mother, they are able to reenter her house/domain “since they no longer had anything to fear.” There are children find “chests filled with pearls and jewels all over the place” and they fill pockets and apron with this treasure before leaving the house for good. Tracy Willard contends that while the good mother is not reclaimed literally or explicitly in this tale, she is symbolically reclaimed through the treasure the children find in her house. I suggest that this tale illustrates the process whereby children reconcile themselves to the duality of the mother; her presence and absence, her giving and withholding of food, and the gratification and frustration that result. The children in the tale not only kill off the bad mother but they also leave behind the oral phase. When they arrive at the house in the forest, all they are interested in is food (gratification from a maternal source), but when they leave the house/maternal domain they take treasure (economic wealth associated with the father) with them which enriches their lives, so that they can enter the paternal oedipal domain, and live with their father in “utmost joy”.

Willard […] sees the children’s home (or mother’s body) as a place that becomes hostile to them, expelling them into the forest and denying them food. They try to return but are rejected and thrust out to fend for themselves. The children find a house in the woods that appears to offer them what they desire (a return to the mother’s body) but it turns out to be a trap. Thus “the dangers of returning home are clearly outlined.” The children, Willard argues, must deal with the image of the split mother so that they can attain “a fully integrated image of the mother”. They do this by committing matricide, an act which Kristeva argues is the clearest path to autonomy. By killing the witch/bad mother, the children are free to return to their father, but they take with them the “best parts” of the split mother figure, symbolically represented by the jewels. […] The symbolism of food and the theme of eating (including cannabilism) in the story have profound psychic resonances with infantile anxieties relating to the mother which is arguably why the story continues to be popular.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The Role Of The Father and ‘Mothers In Fridges’?

But what of the role of the father in this tale? The Grimm brothers’ version celebrates the oedipal complex and reinforces patriarchal hegemony. As Zipes argues, this story twice demonizes the omnipotent mother figure but it also, significantly, was rewritten by the Grimms in order to rationalize the abandonment of the children by their father and to bolster phallocentric discourses.Hansel and Gretel must, Zipes argues, “seek solace and security in a father, who becomes their ultimate authority figure” while the mother is conveniently killed off. This situation marries with Jessica Benjamin’s theorization of object relations whereby the child identifies with the mother and maternal power and turns to the father for help in order to overcome the perceived negative aspects of the mother. However, once his help/authority has been accepted the father figure remains in control, continues to dictate the child’s life, and can be “benevolent or sadistic”. Patriarchal hegemony and phallocentric logic are thus reinforced in the Grimms’ narrative and the outcome is rendered natural or rational.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

reunited with dad

water from the well

SYMBOLISM

The Red Shoes

witch shape in curtains

What do you associate red shoes with? Perhaps you associate them with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, in which the bad witch is squished under the house, her ruby slippers poking out?

Ruby Slippers Oz

The Red Shoes is a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, so not of the Grimm variety, but ‘fairytale’ enough for readers to get the possible meaning in the picture above, in which red shoes sit next to the mirrored wardrobe door.

A peasant girl named Karen is adopted by a rich old lady after her mother’s death and grows up vain and spoiled. Before her adoption, Karen had a rough pair of red shoes; now she has her adoptive mother buy her a pair of red shoes fit for a princess. After Karen repeatedly wears them to church, they begin to move by themselves, but she is able to get them off. One day, when her adoptive mother becomes ill, Karen goes to a party in her red shoes. A mysterious soldier appears and makes strange remarks about what beautiful dancing shoes Karen has. Soon after, Karen’s shoes begin to move by themselves again, but this time they can’t come off. The shoes continue to dance, night and day, rain or shine, through fields and meadows, and through brambles and briers that tear at Karen’s limbs. She can’t even attend her adoptive mother’s funeral. An angel appears to her, bearing a sword, and condemns her to dance even after she dies, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen begs for mercy but the red shoes take her away before she hears the angel’s reply. Karen finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so but the shoes continue to dance, even with Karen’s amputated feet inside them. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches, and teaches her the criminals’ psalm. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church so people can see her. Yet her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking she is at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way. Karen gets a job as a maid in the parsonage, but when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. Instead she sits alone at home and prays to God for help. The angel reappears, now bearing a spray of roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: her heart becomes so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.

— Wikipedia summary

pink fripperies

The pink fripperies spilling out of the dresser drawers suggest several things about this step-mother:

  1. She is not a good housewife (when the implication is that a good housewife is also a good mother, and that being a good housekeeper is the job of the woman.
  2. That women who are over-the-top feminine — look at all the feminine accoutrements, signified by the colour pink — are over-the-top vain. The mirror adds to the impression of vanity, and we will subconsciously conjure up Snow White and the magic mirror in that tale.

Note that the step-mother has not one but two mirrors in her bedroom, which is considered excessively vain, but apart from that, there’s the whole ‘witch/mother’ mirroring going on.

CANNIBALISM

10 Historic Famines That Caused Cannibalism

Repulsive as it sounds in times of plenty, cannibalism in times of famine isn’t all that unusual.

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child.

In modern literature, there is a horrific scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the main characters happen across a baby being roasted on a spit. It seems McCarthy, also, understands that babies are more likely to be eaten than older children in times of famine.

Paternal cannibalism is of a different nature and can be seen in The Juniper Tree (sometimes called The Almond Tree). In cases where the father eats his child in a fairytale, Tatar sees it as an expression of ‘biological ownership through incorporation’. The child can (in a strange sort of way) live on via being made into the father’s own body. The father in the Juniper Tree is not cast as good or evil in the same way fairy tale mothers are.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Other fairytales that start in a time of famine:

  • Tom Thumb
  • The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn
  • God’s Food
  • The Sweet Porridge — better known in English speaking countries as The (Magic) Porridge Pot
  • The Children of Famine — exemplifies the plight of families unable to feed their kids. The mother becomes unhinged and desperate when she is unable to feed her own children.
  • Little Red Riding Hood also has cannibalistic elements which are sometimes sanitised. This tale is pretty much the only European tale in which a good — a good girl no less — is involved in cannibalism.

City Kids, Country Kids in Children’s Literature

There was once an old woman who left the city to get away from all the noise and confusion. Out in the country she found a small house by a creek with a big shade tree in the back yard, writes Janet Lunn, in a town-dweller moves to the countryside where strange things happen kind of tale.

Duck Cakes For Sale, 1989

 

White people love to be outside.  But not everyone knows that another thing they like to do is make people feel bad for wanting to watch sports on TV or play videogames.  While it would be easy to get angry at white people for this, remember it is hard wired in their head that the greatest thing a person can do in their free time is to hike/walk/bike outdoors.

Stuff White People Like: Making you feel bad about not going outside

TOWN/COUNTRY SYMBOLISM IN LITERATURE

COUNTRY = NATURAL, CITY = NOISE

[The] symbolic significance of the city is better understood in contrast with the “non-city” which surrounds it. The city versus nature contrast is one of the major symbolic contrasts in story forms for the city is the greatest overall symbol of mankind. Raymond Williams in The Country And The City notes that the country offers “the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.” On the other hand, the city:

“…has gathered the idea of an achieved center: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition: on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance and limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times.”

Symbolism of Place

Many classic children’s books are written with the ideology that children should be outside, self-governed, exploring, free and unencumbered by the rules of the city. Sometimes when I’m reading classic children’s books I hear the voice of my seventy-something-year-old friend, and I wonder what Edith Nesbit and Enid Blyton would say if they saw the way children are playing together today?

SEND EM OUTSIDE WITH A STICK AND A HOOP

There may be a generation gap between parents of young children today and older adults who raised their families before computer games were a thing. I know a woman in her seventies who is completely against computer games of any sort for any child under the age of 18. (I pressed her on the exact age at which computer games become acceptable, yes.) Yet for our resident eight-year-old, computer games — especially Minecraft, which she plays online with a friend — are an important part of her life. Minecraft in particular can be of huge benefit for children with AD/HD and LD, for example, and the reasons are explained in detail in this webinar from ADDitude. There seems to be some research to suggest that one hour per day of gaming is better than none at all, whereas three hours is too much. This is partly because other kids are also playing games, which makes friendships easier, but also to do with the fact that young people are unable to remain computer free until adulthood if they’re also expected to be productive members of a computer-filled workforce.

See also: Kids who play video games do better as adults from Penelope Trunk. The dominant professional view of children and videogames seems to be: Set limits, and include video games as part of a balanced ‘play diet’.

Is this ideology reflected in classic children’s literature?

Forget futuristic computer games: Reading some classic literature you soon get the idea that many authors don’t even approve of cities.

Let’s take a look at what the septuagenarians in our lives were reading as children, and again, no doubt, to their own children. Is this ‘country kids are superior to urban kids’ ideology seen in children’s books published today?

jan-brett-town-mouse-country-mouse

What did Aesop think of the town versus country? Here’s the thing about Aesop’s fables, which applies equally to religious texts: The reader brings their own values to the text rather than the other way around. Each age of readers has interpreted these fables according to their own existing worldview.

Was Aesop criticising sophisticated city folk, or did he just happen to situate the proud mouse in the town, and the humble mouse in the country?

BEATRIX POTTER

The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse

John Town-Mouse is Beatrix Potter’s retelling of the Aesop Fable. It should be clear from a cursory glance at Potter’s illustrations which of the two environments she preferred. Her censure of town mice (children) is clear from the dialogue below:

Timmy Willie longed to be at home in his peaceful nest in a sunny bank. The food disagreed with him; the noise prevented him from sleeping. In a few days he grew so thin that Johnny Town-mouse noticed it, and questioned him. He listened to Timmy Willie’s story and inquired about the garden. “It sounds rather a dull place? What do you do when it rains?”

 

EDITH NESBIT

E. Nesbit was particularly clear on her views of child-rearing in London:

London is like prison for children, especially if their relations are not rich.

Of course there are the shops and the theatres, and Maskelyne and Cook’s, and things, but if your people are rather poor you don’t get taken to the theatres, and you can’t buy things out of the shops; and London has none of those nice things that children may play with without hurting the things or themselves – such as trees and sand and woods and waters. And nearly everything in London is the wrong sort of shape – all straight lines and flat streets, instead of being all sorts of odd shapes, like things are in the country. Trees are all different, as you know, and I am sure some tiresome person must have told you that there are no two blades of grass exactly alike. But in streets, where the blades of grass don’t grow, everything is like everything else. This is why so many children who live in towns are so extremely naughty. They do not know what is the matter with them, and no more do their fathers and mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, tutors, governesses, and nurses; but I know. And so do you now. Children in the country are naughty sometimes, too, but that is for quite different reasons.

Five Children and It

In the Edwardian era it was thought not only that the countryside itself was better, but also that people who came from the country were better… at least, if you needed their services as staff:

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

ENID BLYTON

Enid Blyton was another author of the view that country kids are wholesome whereas city kids are corrupt. At the beginning of The Enchanted Wood, Jo, Bessie and Fanny move from the city to the country, where they are immediately absorbed and influenced by the natural landscape. In the later books they are visited first by Dick and next by Connie. Both of these children, being from the city, are therefore separate from the landscape and problematic. Blyton is particularly harsh on Connie, and punishes the character for her interest in pretty clothes by covering her in water out of Dame Wash-a-lot’s soapy old washing water. Country kids — pure and unadulterated — do not care about their clothes, wearing them only for practical reasons.

Connie Wet Folk Faraway Tree_600x776

Blyton’s love of the country comes through most clearly in her Cherry Tree Farm books, in which children from the city have their lives dramatically improved after moving to an idyllic farm of the kind you’re likely to see on margarine lids. I absolutely loved this idyll as a child reader.

the-children-of-cherry-tree-farm

enid blyton nature books

COUNTRY VS TOWN IN MODERN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

In modern kidlit you won’t find that kind of proselytizing, for sure. It’s much more subtle than that.

A problem faced by children’s authors writing in a modern setting is that there is little legitimate room for adventure. One solution is to take the children into ‘the wild’, where they can undergo the requisite maturity without the interference of adults.

On the other hand, the city itself can be turned into a symbolic wilderness, and there’s nothing stopping modern authors from doing just that. Cities, after all, can be just as terrifying as jungles and forests. John Truby explains:

City As Jungle

City as jungle is the opposite of the city as ocean. Here the three-dimensional quality of the city is not liberating but rather the source of deathenemies lurk all around, and a fatal attack comes from any direction in an instant. This kind of city is typically closely packed, steaming and wet, with the residents portrayed as animals who differ only in the way they kill. Many detective and cop stories have used this metaphor, to such a degree that it long ago became a cliché.

  • Spider-man (New York) and other superhero stories such as Jessica Jones and Batman
  • Fish Tank (Essex)
  • Blade Runner (L.A.)

City As Forest

City as forest is the positive version of the city as jungle. In this technique, the buildings are a scaled-down version of the city, more human, as though people were living in trees. This city looks and feels like a neighborhood or a town in the midst of impersonal towers. When the city is portrayed as a forest, it is usually a utopian vision in which people enjoy the benefits of teeming urban life while living in the coziness of a tree house.

Anatomy of Story

  • Ghostbusters
  • Harriet The Spy

Don’t forget, too, that the suburbs can just as terrifying, especially as they are ‘apparent utopias’, rotten just beneath the surface.

Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

In picturebooks for younger readers we have examples such as Olivia by Ian Falconer. Olivia lives in New York, which you might expect to be a stifling place for children, and I’m sure it can be if money is tight. But Olivia is taken out to museums and ballet performances as well as to parks and to the seaside. It’s hard to argue that city kid Olivia is at all psychologically bereft for having been brought up in the city.

Olivia cover

You’ll still find plenty of ‘storybook farms’, but these exist alongside more realistic depictions of rural life, such as the Australian picturebook Two Summers, which is all about drought.

twosummers

Children’s Authors Who Did Their Own Illustrations

Even though they weren’t illustrators…

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince

the little prince 2 the little prince the little prince 3

Eleanor Estes

Ginger Pye

Ginger Pye

Pye house

Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons

pearl diving

dick overboard

Houses of Nashville

The TV series, written by Callie Khouri, not the actual city.

(I’ve only seen the first two seasons, so the commentary is only on that…)

A house is an outworking of the character who lives inside it. Sometimes, in fiction, the house even seems to come alive in its own right.

JULIETTE BARNES

Here’s Juliette’s house from the outside: square, modern, white. Perfectly manicured.

Juliette's house

Though these windows are covered in net curtains (probably to diffuse the light for the sake of filming), it’s significant that Juliette lives in a glass house. The whole world is watching her every move. There is no real boundary between Juliette and the public.

Juliette herself is small in stature, but her house is enormous. This juxtaposition emphasises her loneliness.

Juliette is young and so her tastes are modern.

Juliette's living room

This house is basically a modern castle. Where else do we find castles? In gothic fiction. These traditional castles have dungeons and hidden passages and are surrounded by gloomy forests and this isn’t that kind of castle, but it is still almost part of the female gothic tradition, in which the character inhabiting the space graduates from adolescence to maturity.

The Female Gothic permitted the introduction of feminine societal and sexual desires into Gothic texts. It has been said that medieval society, on which some Gothic texts are based, granted women writers the opportunity to attribute “features of the mode [of Gothicism] as the result of the suppression of female sexuality, or else as a challenge to the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture”.

Does that sound like Juliette? Another feature of the female gothic is the threatening control of a male antagonist.

Jeff Fordham_600x378

The heroine possesses the romantic temperament that perceives strangeness where others see none. Her sensibility, therefore, prevents her from knowing that her true plight is her condition, the disability of being female.

Juliette is definitely vilified due to her gender — the way she is set upon by the public when she is implicated in the Wentworth break-up is one example.

RAYNA JAMES’S HOUSE

Rayna's house

Rayna has plenty of money, though it’s clear from the pilot that she is ‘cash poor’. She has married a ‘trust fund boy’ and lives in a house typical of the one percent. Exactly the sort of house we’d expect a middle-aged country singer from Nashville to live in. But this is a warm house compared to the white cube owned by Juliette.

Rayna's kitchen_600x446

Warm houses can be both comforting and terrifying.

The warm house in storytelling is big (though usually not a mansion), with enough rooms, corners, and cubbyholes for each inhabitant’s uniqueness to thrive. Notice that the warm house has within it two additional opposing elements: the safety and coziness of the shell and the diversity that is only possible within the large.

In the buzzing household, all the different individuals of an extended family are busy in their own pocket of activity. Individuals and small groups may combine for a special moment and then go on their merry way. This is the perfect community at the level of the household. Each person is both an individual and part of a nurturing family, and even when everyone is in different parts of the house, the audience can sense a gentle spirit that connects them.

Part of the power of the warm house is that it appeals to the audience’s sense of their own childhood, either real or imagined. Everyone’s house was big and cozy when they were very young, and if they soon discovered that they lived in a hovel, they can still look at the big, warm house and see what they wished their childhood had been. That’s why the warm house is so often used in connection with memory stories, like Jean Shepherd’s Christmas Story, and why American storytellers so often use ramshackle Victorian places, with their many snug gables and corners from a bygone era.

— John Truby

Rayna's bedroom_600x394

 

Inside the house we have Maddie’s bedroom. Teenage bedrooms are easy for set designers to get wrong — there’s too often an unlikely mixture of band posters on the wall. But the set designers have avoided that altogether with Maddie by hanging up some artwork — perhaps her own as a child, which has been framed?

Maddie's Room

Maddy's room 2

The Bluebird Cafe is another example of the ‘Warm House’, and it, too, can be warm or terrifying.

DEACON’S SUBURBAN COTTAGE

Deacon is your archetypal difficult man, the silent type with addiction issues but brimming over with talent. Deacon, we are lead to believe, would rather be living in the woods, just him and his guitar. This personality type — reflected in his niece — explains the backstory of why he never sought fame when he was younger, riding on the coat tails of Rayna.

Deacon's house

Deacon's living room_600x449

SCARLETT’S HOUSE

Okay so the feminist in me wants to say that two young men lived here too, but I only ever see Scarlett cleaning the kitchen, so I’m calling the sunny, warm and retro-vibe kitchen an outworking of her.

Scarlett's kitchen_600x386

Things To Know About Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

1. CHEKHOV DID NOT OVERWRITE

You’ll hear Chekhovian advice in every writing group ever.

In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,–because–I don’t know why.

One would like […] descriptions to be more compact and concise, just two or three lines or so.

Take out adjectives and adverbs whenever you can.

— Chekhov

 

2. OFTEN THE HERO DOES NOT CHANGE

There’s this basic rule of storytelling that the main character has to undergo a character arc, but that does not apply to short stories.

The connection between hero and world extends from the hero’s slavery throughout his character arc. In most stories, because the hero and the world are expressions of each other, the world and the hero develop together. Or if the hero doesn’t change, as in much of Chekhov, the world doesn’t change either.”

Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change. This is more true to life than other forms of storytelling, for example any movie coming out of Hollywood today — audiences are there to see a character change.

Even when the characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.

3. CHEKHOV WAS HUGELY INFLUENTIAL

Chekhovian is now a word. Examples of Chekhovian writers:

  • Henry Green (English) — who likes to ‘gag commentary’ (give even fewer reasons) than Chekhov even did.
  • Katherine Mansfield (New Zealander) — early in her life she admired Ivan Turgenev but after discovering Anton Chekhov she cast Turgenev aside. Sure enough, her best work was written after her discovery of Chekhov. The Garden Party, for instance, has a distinctively Chekhovian ending.
  • Raymond Carver (American) — influenced by Chekhov and Hemingway, who was himself influenced by Chekhov
  • Beth Henley — modern American playwright
  • James Joyce (Irish)
  • George Orwell (American)
  • Strunk & White — who wrote the grammar guide emphasising simplicity
  • Matthew Weiner — because his characters in Mad Men fail to change and that’s the whole point, unlike most other novelistic TV series. “1960 Sterling Cooper is the manor house in “The Cherry Orchard,” a besieged institution about to be swept away by the new order.” — John K.

 

4. CHEKHOV CHANGED THE NATURE OF ENDINGS

And knew exactly what he was doing when he said, “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself […] Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”

Chekhovian endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.

When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.

One story even states: “And after that life went on as before.” While this feels like a ‘non-ending’, what it is, is a truncated ‘New Equilibrium’ stage.

They are subversive endings, designed to undercut our expectations.

These endings force readers to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

The novel, and perhaps even more so, the short story does not provide philosophical answers, and Chekhov was fine with this state of affairs, saying that stories only need to ask the right questions.

Chekhov, and his descendants, may have together influenced children’s literature, including picture books:

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

5. CHEKHOV’S GUN

This storytelling term came from a piece of writing advice he issued once:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

6. CHEKHOV’S SIX PRINCIPLES OF A GOOD STORY

According to Chekhov:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

 

7. CHEKHOV DID NOT REQUIRE A CLIMAX

As well as truncating the ‘New Equilibrium’ part of a traditional narrative, Chekhov often omits a Self-revelation phase.

If he does this, he does so in order to make the reader have the epiphany his protagonist fails to have.

He did this more in his later work.

He did this because an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

Unreliable narrators are particularly useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader.

 

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