Slap Happy Larry

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Out now — short story collection — How To Leave A Stranger

How To Leave A Stranger cover

iBooks Store Description

In this collection of 10 short stories you’ll meet a clairvoyant who struggles to live a spontaneous life, a woman who loves her weekly trips to the dentist, and a young man who is visited in the night by creatures of folklore. You’ll find love letters, thieves, unusual fantasies and ulterior motives. Apart from a general quirkiness, these stories are linked by brief encounters, abrupt desertions and permanent goodbyes.

I don’t think one ought to worry too much about corrupting children, so long as one’s books are honest. It has always seemed to me (and this may sound unduly inspirational) that what is honestly intended, and done as truthfully as the author is able to do it, cannot intrinsically be regarded as harmful. On the whole I am inclined to think that children will pass unharmed over what they do not understand. The objection to the heavy sex novel is not that it is going to corrupt them, but that it is going to bore them stiff — by elaborating on experiences that are beyond meaning for them.

John Rowe Townsend, British children’s writer and scholar


The certainty of story that allows a child to add it — with delight — to the category of ‘things that are so’, also lends to its content the slight implication that this is how things ought to be. We cannot be told ‘Once there was a prince’ without also being told (on some level and in some part) that it was right that there was a prince. What knits together out of nothing, and yet is solid enough to declare that it is so, recommends itself to us, although we don’t receive the recommendation straightforwardly. In this lies the power, and the danger, of stories.

Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

Picturebook Study: Two Summers by John Heffernan and Freya Blackwood


I have a special interest in stories about drought (due to the fact I’ve written one myself). Perhaps because of this, I’ve given thought to ‘subject matter for young readers’ and ‘picturebook endings‘ and ‘juvenile capacity for melancholy’ and things like that.


This picturebook is an interesting example of sad subject matter dealt with through the lens of a pragmatic child narrator who is only beginning to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem of farm life during down years. See also the way this book ends with a sense of hope — the unwritten rule of publishing books for children which sell.


If it’s not clear from the illustrations (which could be set in parts of America, I suppose), the second page of the story makes reference to coming off a bike due to a wombat hole — a specifically Australian problem, I suspect. The Australian setting is integral to the story rather than just a backdrop; though drought happens in other countries, it affects different places in slightly different ways. The language is specifically Australasian: ‘He won’t even notice how crook the place looks’, ‘poddy lambs’ and so on. This book will particularly appeal to readers whose extraliterary experience includes farming.


The book is split into two distinct parts; the first is the narrator remembering how much fun he and Rick had on the farm last year. In his memories, the landscape is green. The story changes at the page which reads ‘Dad says Rick will be in for a bit of a shock.’ We’re not told why; instead we’re invited to infer for ourselves what has happened. The water hole is empty, with the dingy resting on dry banks. There is no green, and the sky looks smokey blue, as if fires are burning nearby.

‘I don’t think we’ll have much trouble at the river this year,’ we’re told, in typical Australian litotes, because we can see there is very little water left in it, making it easy to cross. We can see the ribs on the cows.


The title of this book serves as one signal to the reader about the treatment of time in this story. In stories, time can be indicated only by reference. In picturebooks time might be represented by changing light as the day fades, or with clocks and calendars or seasonal changes or ageing characters. But mostly in picturebooks, the passing of time is underscored by words, and in this case, by the title. The concept of two different summers is also conveyed by the ironic distance between words and illustration; while the young narrator describes how wonderful things were last summer, the reader sees from the illustration how dry the landscape looks, and how cows are dead on the ground.

With the title ‘Two Summers’ the number can be riffed on in a number of ways, and Freya Blackwood has run with this in some of her illustrations:

  • Two boys, one a country boy, the other from the city
  • Two different farm experiences: one visit during a good year, another visit during a dry one.
  • Two eggs in the eagle’s nest
  • When the boys swim in the river the ‘camera’ is set low so that the surface of the water dissects the page (above and below water), in which two fish swim along with two boys
  • The following page is a long, landscape shot. The house and the windpump are positioned on the page as almost a mirror reflection of each other.
  • Next we have a scene where cows cross the river; two dogs stand on either side of the river; one looks hopefully across the water whereas the other has already crossed, and is sniffing at a dead cow on the other side.
  • ‘Last year we rode round the heifers twice a day’
  • On another page, two calves dip their heads into two feeding buckets; two boys each feed two poddy lambs
  • On the page after that we see two dead cows (one with a calf), also in mirror image to each other. The layout of the pages employ the technique of (near) symmetry.
  • Next we have another page dissected, this time by a strip of white for word placement, with a scene of cow branding at the top and a scene of lamb marking at the bottom.
  • On the final page we see a scene of the narrator and his dog, which is a sort-of mirror image of the very first page, in which we see the same scene but from the other side. The dog on the first page is in the process of stealing the boy’s sandwich; now he is licking the plate. By mirroring the initial scene, the story is brought to a satisfying close, though in the world of the story, the visit from the cousin(?) is about to begin. The reader’s end = the narrator’s real beginning.
Each sheep has two versions: the real version and the ghostly reflected version in the soon-to-be-gone water.

Each sheep has two versions: the real version and the ghostly reflected version in the soon-to-be-gone water.


What does the sandwich/dog/plate symbolise? The boy presumably goes hungry — is he hungry for just this one meal? Is he feeding his dog in the same way he feeds the poddy farm animals? To continue in maudlin fashion, if drought were to continue, eventually we’d all be losing food. The dog on the final page looks happy, presumably because he lives in blissful ignorance, much as this narrator did last summer.

With a dead cow on one side of the river, the river itself forms a kind of dissection. In stories rivers can symbolise many different things — often they symbolise a journey, but more negatively can also signal an irreversible passing of time. On this page I feel the river signifies a division (between two different life experiences — one of plenitude, the other of meagre pickings, much like the river in The Three Billy Goats Gruff.)


There are lots of poddies. Ewes just walked away from their lambs this year.

Foxes and crows took some. Mum and I grabbed the rest.

The narrative voice feels detached and pragmatic, but it is clear from the story exactly what is happening. The word ‘die’ is avoided, and not just because this is a picture book and therefore for young readers; this is the way farmers talk.


The colour palette is very much of the Australian landscape.

Two Summers Colour Scheme

Freya Blackwood is particularly skilled at drawing from a bird’s eye view, and does so here on numerous pages to show a great variety of things going on in the farm scenes, but also to convey a sense of helplessness, as if these people are like ants, small in their environment, and at is mercy.


This is an interesting question because the unnamed narrator (it’s significant that he’s unnamed) functions a little like a ‘storyteller as character’ — we know that he’s a farm boy, but we actually end up knowing a lot more about Rick — his injuries, his struggles, his character arc (how he gets better at riding a bike and so on). If this weren’t a picture book, we wouldn’t have a picture of him at all. Red-headed Rick’s position as central character is solidified when we consider what Mercedes Gaffron called the ‘glance curve’.

the “glance curve” …  moves from the left foreground back around the picture space to the right background. Because we look first at the left foreground, we tend to place ourselves in that position and to identify with the objects or figures located there … People represented here belong to our side in the figurative sense of the term, in contrast to the people on the right side“. In fact, the protagonists of many picture books … do tend to appear on the left more often than not.

— Nodelman

Sure enough, if you flip through this book with rules of the Western Glance Curve in mind, you’ll see that Rick has been positioned by the illustrator in ‘protagonist position’ — more often than not he is the character we see first.

The Glance Curve


Comparing this art style to something like Thirteen O’Clock illustrated by Tom Barling in the 1970s, in which every leaf of every tree is defined in detail (giving the book a distinctively 1970s look), Blackwood’s approach to painting objects in the distance seems to be ‘draw the spaces between’, as art teachers are sometimes known to advise. Take a look at Blackwood’s trees:

Draw the spaces between


The sense of hope achieved on the final page is backed up by the colour of the sky on the final page — for the first time we’re given a sense that it might indeed rain, with a darkening sky. This could be read in two ways, of course — dark colours in picture books can also convey a sense of foreboding.


Published 2003 by Scholastic Press

John Heffernan has written about thirty books for a range of audiences from early readers to young adults, in a range of genre that includes realistic fiction, fantasy, futuristic, and picture books. He also writes for junior readers under the pseudonym “Charlie Carter” (most notably, the Battle Boy series).

Booked Out

PUP by John Heffernan  Chips John Heffernan cover


A Barnyard Counting Book

There is such a thing as a ‘storybook farm’. I’m thinking of board books in which toddlers learn the names of different farm animals. The farm animals have personalities. This storybook farm I’m imagining is probably set in America (not in a drought year), and there will be big American barns, almost always red. Do you have many of these books on your shelf? In picture books, the farm is often a kind of utopia, and will have the following:

  1. the importance of a particular setting (in farm books, a farm)
  2. autonomy of felicitous space from the rest of the world
  3. a general sense of harmony
  4. a special significance of home
  5. absence of the repressive aspects of civilisation such as money, labor, law or government
  6. absence of death and sexuality
  7. and finally, as a result, a general sense of innocence


Rosie’s Walk is one kind of farm utopia, because no harm comes to Rosie — as sorry as we may feel for the poor fox, we don’t assume he starves to death — he probably catches her later, off-screen!

Clifford Farm Book

A lot of popular series have a farm story among them.


Obviously, ‘storybook farms’ are not real. What other storybook setting might you depict in more realistic fashion, while retaining some sense of hope at the end?

How might you take a most-usually American setting (a yellow school bus, an elementary school) or a white-nuclear-family setting and make it more mimetic of real life?

Picture book study: Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton


I have conflicted views about Enid Blyton, but this story is relatively free of the problems I (and many others) have taken issue with in these slightly more enlightened times. We still have a story in which a young patriarch-in-training helps an older female character out by tending to her minor injury and finding a lost cat, which some may read more generously as an example of feminine caring.

All that aside, this was one of my most favourite books as a preschooler — that lady sure knew how to tell a tale to children. Mine is the 1974 version illustrated by Tom Barling in very 70s style. The story itself may have been written much earlier, though Enid Blyton was writing right up until 1975, and it’s not easy to find the years in which specific short stories were published.



Enid Blyton was well-schooled in a kind of superstitious mysticism which she made great use of in her fantasy stories. Fairies, goblins, pixies, brownies, witches, portals into other lands… In this story, she makes use of a very old superstition surrounding the number 13. What’s the basic back story of this unlucky number?

  • Oddly, superstition around the number 13 derives from various unrelated cultures around the world, not just one. This may have something to do with lunar-solar calenders, in which there are 12 point something ‘months’ per solar year. This gives a culture 12 ‘months’ plus a bit of a month (the thirteenth) per year.
  • The number 13 may rather disturbingly be linked to a form of ancient misogyny: In ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The theory is that, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number thirteen became anathema, because (obv!) periods are evil.
  • In modern times, even people who actively avoid the number 13 probably don’t really think of that reason, but superstitious types still manage to find reasons to believe that there is something inherently wrong about the number.

Other authors have taken the number 13 and used it in a plot device for genres such as thriller and horror, but Blyton, in writing for children, pairs this rather sinister tradition with the childlike tradition of blowing dandelion ‘clocks’ in order to tell the time. (Blyton had no significant qualms about refusing to use literature as a conduit to a rounded scientific education.) In Blyton’s story, ‘once in a blue moon’ means that the blue literally turns blue.

photo by Yvonne Gorman

photo by Yvonne Gorman

The thing I loved most about this book was the thing I also loved about the Faraway Tree series, in which Blyton’s wood whispers ‘Wisha wisha’ as the wind blows through the trees. This phrase gave me a deliciously thrilling feeling as a young reader. In Thirteen O’Clock, Blyton not only encourages word play with phrases such as ‘Hoona-looki-allo-pie’ but has created another marvellous phrase of frisson: ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’ This had me hiding under my blankets.



What makes the illustrations in this book seem distinctively from the 1970s? The 1970s was a decade wedged between a time of great printing advancements, with the widespread introduction of colour printing in the 1960s, and the beginning of digital illustration used (at least for some parts of the process) by many illustrators working today. Illustrators were working in colour, but they were also drawing and painting by hand.


It was in the 1960s that a new type of picture book emerged — those in which illustrations dominated the text. This particular book isn’t one such example — in fact, this book is more accurately a richly illustrated short story, since the story can exist in its own right (and indeed does, inside various anthologies) without these pictures.

One thing that makes Tom Barling’s illustrations seem specifically 1970s is the strong use of line. Another illustrator working around this time was Pat Hutchins, who published Rosie’s Walk in 1968, just a few years earlier. In Rosie’s Walk, too, the influence of folk art is strong; line exists not only to add form and shadow to objects but also to act as a decoration in its own right. In Thirteen O’Clock, likewise, there is no attempt made at any kind of aerial perspective; leaves on a tree in the distance are depicted in detail, even though the unseen viewer is too far away from that tree to realistically perceive anything more than a green clump.


To provide some rest for the eyes, Barling was making good use of white space — as modern illustrators are still doing today — the roads and the sky are white, and there is an area of blank reserved for the text on every double spread.

Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.

Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.


Tom Barling has of course dressed Sandy in 1970s fashion, with tight jeans that flare at the bottom and a wide belt. He wears his hair long (which happens to be in fashion again for adolescent boys, but isn’t always). It’s interesting to look at how various illustrators of children’s books deal with fashions of the day; if we dress our characters in clothing specific to the year or decade, this will place our stories firmly inside that decade even if the story itself is more universal than that. Is there an ‘unmarked’ wardrobe illustrators can use to avoid decade-placement as much as possible? Certainly, some illustrators rely upon stock clothing for their characters. Mercer Mayer is a good example of that. Though he has illustrated the Little Critter books over decades, his Mother Critter still wears a long dress and apron; the main character is still wearing pyjamas with an unbuttonable backside in them. Mayer’s characters are in fact middle class, 1950s, white America, and sometimes even stretch to Amish (for the mum) but for some reason a disproportionate number of illustrators hold onto lesser versions of this same milieu when illustrating modern books for children. I think it’s because we tend to idolise the era. (Hence Mad Men, which cleverly subverted our expectations.)

Just Shopping With Mom cover

The mother is dressed in a prairie dress, the main character wears overalls, and little sister has a big bow on her head. It is still very common to designate female children as ‘other’ by plonking a big bow on their heads.

Is there a normcore fashion for picture books? Even Shirley Hughes, who places no value in creating Pinterest-worthy interiors or youthful faces (even in children) or dressing her characters up in high-fashion places her characters in a specific era: as Frances Spufford said of her Alfie series, the mother ‘is a frizzy-haired CND-supporting social worker from about 1985’. Though Spufford also points out that child readers won’t assume this about her. In fact, non-British readers — and readers who were ourselves children in the 1980s — probably won’t know this about her — I had to look up CND — fyi, it stands for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which picked up in the 1980s as a backlash to the Thatcher years.)

alfie's mother reading


The historical view of witches is that they are not quite women.

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so. (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3)

In art history, many witches are genuinely unattractive in a reproductive sense, either because they’re very old or because they make no effort to present themselves as alluring, and probably both.

Francisco Goya's depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick

Francisco Goya’s depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick, 1798.

By the 1970s, the nature of folkloric witches in the West had evolved to the point where witches were often depicted as feminine women, but the grotesque mismatch between unattractive essential witchness is made more stark by their feminine style choices. Barling’s witches might also grace the pages of Dahl’s chapter book, The Witches, published about a decade later; their faces are asymmetrical and their noses and chins are comically masculine, but these witches wear lipstick and earrings, and have their hair styled into layered bobs.

Barling's witches

Barling’s witches

Though these witches are standard in any illustration of witches in picture books, I recently happen to have read Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, in which the author points out the extent to which femininity (and here, feminine accoutrements) is seen as an untrustworthy artifice, which is problematic for anyone presenting as feminine, but is especially problematic for transgender women. (I’m sure someone has done a study on witches and femininity in picture books. I’m guessing the witches of picture books are more feminine than scary due to the age of the target readership.)

Extratextual musings aside, Blyton’s imaginary world has no layers; everyone is exactly how they appear.

“I’m going to be nice to her. Besides she’s got a friendly face, rather like my granny’s — I’m sure she isn’t a bad witch.”

Indeed, the witches of this story are not nasty at all:

“You’re the cleverest, kindest boy I’ve ever met!” said the witch. “Most people are afraid of witches because they think we will change them into blackbeetles or something–but that’s an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays we witches are gentle folk, making magic spells that will do no one any harm.”

So there you have it: an anti-bigotry moral from an author who was quite well-known for her xenophobia.


It’s clear reading this book in 2015 that publishers of picture books sometimes had a few lessons to learn in this new era of double-page colour spreads. It’s hard to find a professionally produced book these days in which the illustrator has been schooled in avoiding placing characters’ faces right where the gutter goes.




This is probably the worst example of gutter problem I’ve seen…



This story appeared in a number of different Enid Blyton anthologies, and is the title story of this one, which demonstrates its popularity:


Illustrator Tom Barling was born in 1936, and illustrated a few of Enid Blyton’s stories over his career. He had a varied creative life as author of eleven crime novels about gangsters. Tom Barling is also well-known as a comic illustrator and an animator on the 1973 TV series of The Addams Family. If you look for books hoping to find more of his illustrations, though, you’ll find most of them seem to be out of print.

However, did you know that Bananas in Pyjamas is not just an irritating but super popular Australian children’s show but was originally a book written by Enid’s nephew, Carey? That was also illustrated by Tom Barling.

Bananas In Pyjamas Tom Barling

Barling also illustrated in an art noir style when required:

Frankenstein Tom Barling

Comic book illustrators are required to draw from a variety of different, extreme perspectives. We see this skill a little bit in Thirteen O’Clock with a low-angle view of Sandy:



There are many fantasy picture books (and chapter books) in which the child character goes off for an adventure, finds him or herself in a magical world, then goes back to the main parent (usually the mother) and is told that whatever happened is nonsense. But the reader is let in on the secret. Blyton’s authorial voice comes through clearly in the final paragraph:

“Eat up your lunch and don’t talk nonsense!”

But it wasn’t nonsense, was it? Sandy always puffs the time on all the dandelion clocks he sees now — perhaps one day it will be thirteen o’clock again!

The message here for children is to cling on for dear life to childhood, because the world of adults is devoid of magic. This sort of plot might be compared to a book for children written by Richard Dawkins, presumably as an antidote to stories such as these.


The Magic of Reality is a fantastic book and I wish every child in the world would read it as they embark upon the study of high school science. But I think there is room for fantasy; clearly, some forms of fantasy are simply better done than others — fantasy which tells readers something about the real-world is the most valuable, and fantasy which urges children to believe in fairies even after the story is over is perhaps the laziest way of ending a story. However, Blyton was nothing if not prolific, and her stories were written in the oral tradition. It is therefore up to the adult co-reader to read this story with a nudge and a wink.



If fantasy stories for children are to do anything other than entertain — and pure entertainment is a satisfactory goal, no mistake — we must aim to pull readers out of a fantasy world with something to ponder. An io9 article outlines how reading Harry Potter has been shown to make readers better people.

…because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups. The “muggles” get no respect in the wizarding world as they lack any magical ability. The “half-bloods,” or “mud-bloods” – wizards and witches descended from only one magical parent – don’t fare much better, while the Lord Voldemort character believes that power should only be held by “pure-blood” wizards. He’s Hitler in a cloak.

— Robbie Gonzalez

Is this partly what makes the Potter books so popular, even though scholars of children’s literature struggle to put their finger on exactly why H.P. took off while many recent ancestors of the series which seem just as adeptly written muddle along with middling sales?

How to leave the preschool reader a better person by making use of fantasy in a picture book? That’s your ultimate challenge.

My daughter said she didn’t want old-fashioned books. But we raced through the Little House books. My son decided he didn’t want any books in which the protagonists were girls. But I said let’s just try Ramona. And he of course, loved it.

Kevin Henkes, author of Kitten’s First Full Moon and many others

The Influence of Evelyn Nesbit

The Railway Children cover

Edith Nesbit (married name Edith Bland; 15 August 1858 – 4 May 1924) was an English author and poet; she published her books for children under the name of E. Nesbit.


E. Nesbit belonged firmly to the writers of the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, marked by its stories about children who acted rather than thought. These were resourceful and resilient children, and they were proud of their class. They were patriotic. Children are wiser than adults in many respects. Nesbit was one of the first to create this dynamic (e.g. Story of the Amulet), which would not have been possible without the ‘romantic reevaluation of childhood‘.

E. Nesbit introduced the technique of Paralepsis as Secondary Narrative into children’s literature.

Nesbit wrote some magical stories and some realistic ones. In her non-magical stories — The Bastable series — she removes one parent (prison/death/faraway country) and interposes a surrogate (housekeeper/Great Southern Railway Company) between the children and the remaining parent. This surrogate can now be upset without emotional repercussions. The Bastable series has influenced all those books that have come since, in which children have autonomous adventures: e.g. Swallows and Amazons, and the Melendy series: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. by Elizabeth Enright.

Melendy series Elizabeth Enright

Nesbit had an influence on another well-known children’s writer, C.S. Lewis:

The author’s voice in the Narnia’s books kindly explained things to the child reading…It was a gorgeously certain voice, which in itself lent a wonderful solidity to Narnia’s stars and sausages, so that they blazed in their spheres and swelled in their skins, but it never spoke from a position of adult detachment…He used the trick of uncondescending explanation, borrowed from E. Nesbit, only to involve you in perceptions you couldn’t have had on your own. Which made it doubly frustrating when the book was over, and you couldn’t invent any more of what you had taken part in.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

J.K. Rowling counts the books of E. Nesbit of some of her own childhood favourites:

I love E Nesbit—I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day.

And so does Phillip Pullman:

The books I read as a child shaped my deepest beliefs. When I was at university, my friends and I were thrilled to discover that our childhood favourites seemed even more powerful than we remembered. This was true of classic authors such as George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit and Tove Jansson; or 1960s writers like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson and Ursula Le Guin.

How Children Deal With The Dangerous and Taboo In Fiction

Stories in the 1960s and 1970s of the stories children themselves tell at two and three found a relationship between how ‘socially acceptable’ the actions in them were, and how much they took place in the recognisable everyday world of the child’s own experience. If they included taboo behaviour like hitting a parent or wetting yourself, or major reversals of emotional security, like having a parent die or being abandoned by parents, they were less likely to have a realistic setting (69 percent versus 94 per cent), less likely to feature the teller as a character (13 per cent versus 39 per cent), and much less likely to be told in the present tense (19 per cent versus 56  per cent.) Dangerous things were moved further away in place and in time, and were not allowed to happen even to a proxy with the same name as the child. Children a year or two older no longer varied the present tense and past tense, because they consistently told all stories in the past tense; but they used settings in the same way, moving the troubling material outward into fantasy, into the zones where a story event reflected a real event less directly… To castles pirate ships, space; to the forest. There, the terrible things you might do, and the terrible things that might happen to you — not always easy to separate — can be explored without them jostling the images you most want to guard, the precious representations of your essential security.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

[P]olitical ideologies almost always work to distribute power unequally among people in a society and to justify that unequal distribution. Stories in which children question their parents’ authority usually end with the children finally accepting the need for that authority.

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Picturebook Study: Aaron’s Hair by Robert Munsch

Aaron's Hair Cover

Perhaps the most popular of Munsch’s books is Love You Forever, which Munsch wrote just as a family story for a long time, after two of their babies were born dead. That book has sold 20 million copies, even though the publisher only hoped for 30,000 to break even. This book hits the sweet spot between charming and smarmy.

The most discussed of Munsch’s books among critics is undoubtedly The Paper Bag Princess, which is remarkable for a relatively early inversion of gender stereotypes in a picture book:

Robert Munsch is a word-of-mouth storyteller, and his books cannot capture his brilliance in that capacity; but they have been highly successful all the same. The Paper Bag Princess (1980), made into a picture book by Michael Mortchenko, is about a princess called Elizabeth who is going to marry Prince Ronald. Elizabeth reverses the traditional order of things by rescuing her prince from a dragon. Her reward is to be told after all her exertions that she looks a mess.

Written For Children by John Rowe Townsend

As Rowe Townsend says, Robert Munsch is first and foremost an oral storyteller, and it’s for this reason that if you look up Robert Munsch on the Internet, you’ll find him photographed only in animated moments:



Robert’s Hair might be described as the picture book equivalent of a Tall Tale, a form which evolved among working men in various English speaking countries, particularly in Canada and Australia. Indeed, Robert Munsch lives in Canada as an adult, and has probably been influenced by this same tradition. You may have noticed that a lot of the most popular humorous,  performative  books have been written/illustrated by men rather than by women. There are of course exceptions to this, but I have wondered why men seem to dominate in the gross-out, slapstick, performance arena. There is no single answer for this, but the history of such storytelling is gendered male, and there’s no real wonder that male creators are dominating this particular form of picture book.

That said, tall tales have their origins in folklore, with stories such as Little Red Riding Hood originally being performed rather than read, with storytellers pouncing on their listeners as the wolf eats the grandmother, for example. And Little Red Riding Hood started out as a tale for women and girls, to tell each other as they sewed. (Hence the original ‘path of needles and pins’ wending through the forest.)


Marketing Copy

Marketing Copy


This story absolutely benefits from an animated storyteller, preferably wielding a wig.

It is not considered by critics to be one of Munsch’s finest books at all. It’s pretty far from a mentor text. You’ll be left scratching your head if you’re looking for a moral, or for a way to link it to the CCSS. This from Publishers Weekly:

PW Aaron's Hair

On the other hand, children do seem to go through a phase of personifying things (in this case hair), and this story plays into the tendency.

Children do enjoy slapstick humour. And they especially enjoy slapstick humour when the butt of the joke is someone in authority, such as a traffic officer directing traffic.

Children also find humour in misplaced objects. Put glasses on a dog and children will find it hilarious; likewise, put a boy’s hair on a baby and they’ll find that funny too.

Aaron's Hair03


The best illustrators of picture books tend to draw people in motion. It’s relatively easy to draw a family sitting at a table, but expect the illustrator to depict a mother dropping her coffee, a father wiping his baby’s chin, one child mid-gulp and another jumping down from the table and it seems you’re calling on a different set of skills. Munch’s books have been illustrated by a number of different artists, and this one has been illustrated by the duo of Alan and Lea Daniel. They each bring slightly different art backgrounds:

Fine artist and Illustrator Alan Daniel creates works of art in watercolour, oil and illustration and offers instruction in a variety of mediums. His original paintings and reproductions are for sale and also available for licensing.

Writer, artist and playwright Lea Daniel writes and illustrates for children and also creates dramatic works for the stage.

Alan and Lea Daniel’s Website

I’m not sure how two artists collaborate on a project, but I’m guessing Alan did the watercolour fill. Unlike other styles of caricatures and cartoons often found in picturebooks, the Daniels have brought traditional art training to this work. I’m not sure if the coupling between realistic tones and caricature is a particularly comfortable one for critics of this style of book! There is actually something a little disarming about it.

Aaron's Hair02

There aren’t many pictures of bald children in picture books, either. Just like you don’t see hairy legs on mums, or nipples on anyone. So simply depicting a bald boy is somewhat confronting, perhaps because it is reminiscent of child cancer, without being about child cancer.



32 pp

First published 2000

Published 2002 by Cartwheel



A more recent entry into the realm of Picture Books To Be Performed is comedian celebrity B.J. Novak, whose best-selling The Book With No Pictures proves that when it comes to this genre of picture books, illustrations may indeed be beside the point. I do wonder, however, if Novak has a conscious grasp on all of his own influences, and is aware that there are many picture books apart from his own which are designed to be performed:

Novak has suggested that The Book With No Pictures “could be a whole new way to introduce the children to the idea of what a book can do”.

The Guardian

The sense of humour of children is quite different from that of adults, and changes rapidly every few years as children pass through various developmental stages. There has been talk lately about how the best-selling picture books are overwhelmingly meta now, with questions about who picture books are really for: the children or the adult co-readers who pay for them? But there’s no doubt that books such as Novak’s and Munch’s appeal to a genuine child audience, possibly alienating a lot of adult co-readers a little (though there is still joy to be had in watching your child reading a book — much like watching them open presents on Christmas morning).

Also from the review of Novak’s Book With No Pictures:

Compared to the extraordinary ingenuity and engagement of, say, Viviane Schwarz’s There Are Cats in This Book series, it’s a one-trick pony that I, as an adult, am quite happy to put out to grass. Then again, had I been surrounded by children rocking with laughter and squealing with delight as I was forced to say sillier and sillier things, my attitude might well have been different.

Though, as one commenter noted on YouTube, this book is still meta.

Meta comment

I've Seen It Done Better

An Australian children’s author who specialises in the Tall Tale is Paul Jennings. He writes short stories for emergent readers.

Tongue Tied


“With first graders you can get them to laugh just be saying ‘underwear’. They go crazy! You can’t do that with older kids. They don’t think the same way.”

Robert Munsch

Is it really as easy as all that to get kids to laugh, or is Munsch underestimating the gift of comedy?

Where is that sweet spot of taboo, loved by kids and tolerated by parents, which Munsch describes as ‘middle of the road’? (He wouldn’t use the word ‘goddamn’ for example, though in this book he uses the word ‘hate’, in a world where a lot of parents ban the word ‘hate’.)

Short Story Study: The Bus To St James’s by John Cheever

I bought The Collected Stories of John Cheever as a salve to heal my Mad Men withdrawals, and this is one of Cheever’s stories that absolutely reminds me of Mad Men. Stephen Bruce is a Don Draper character; his daughter is a Sally Draper type. Matt Weiner has cited Cheever as one source of inspiration for Mad Men, and in this story we have an early example of the sympathetic antihero.


A married man (on his second marriage) has an affair with a woman in his social circle. They are seen out and about, the man’s wife hires a private investigator and eventually the woman’s husband leaves her, taking their children to the country.

mad men 660 amc

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