First, some disclaimers:
- I am and have always been a non-smoker.
- I agree with all government measures to get rid of cigarettes from visible places in shops, and to limit advertising.
- I hope smoking as a normal habit will go the way of the dodo sometime during this next generation.
I do broadly agree with Philip Womack in his recent article defending the latest Julia Donaldson picturebook, in which a scarecrow lights a cigar. I’m not among the picturebook enthusiasts who believes that smoking should be banned in children’s literature, or that it would even make a difference. Womack summarises this week’s furore:
In Julia Donaldson’s new picture book, The Scarecrows’ Wedding, Reginald Rake, a scarecrow, lights a cigar, and is immediately admonished; he then manages to set on fire the female scarecrow that he’s courting. Cause and effect are clear: smoking harms you and those around you (although Rake gets off with only a cough). What could be more obvious, and less controversial?
Sure enough, I’ve been considering the possibility of having a character smoke in the picturebook app (for older readers) which we’re planning to release later this year. The art has already been done. One of the characters seems like the sort of person who you’d see with one of those lady cigarettes, the kind with the holder, like you’d see on a noir film of yesteryear. Instead, in completing the artwork I pussied out a bit, and instead I have a small stream of smoke coming out of an ashtray, which may or may not be noticed by a reader, and wouldn’t be interpreted as cigarette smoke by any young readers who are lucky enough to have been sheltered from the practice of smoking over the course of their entire life:
(At least I got the knitting needles right.) Here are the problems I see with Womack’s argument, however.
1. FANTASY OR REALISM: WHEN IT COMES TO CAUSE AND INFLUENCE, THE DISTINCTION IS IRRELEVANT
This [furore] misunderstands something fundamental about picture books. They are, first and foremost, fantasies. I don’t see anyone complaining about the fact that the scarecrows can talk; nor that they are brought a necklace of shells by a handy crab when they are nowhere near the sea. A fantasy can be used to make a moral point, as Donaldson does, patently; and since children respond much more easily to ordered, made-up worlds than they do to the baffling real world, it is often the best way to get something across.
And so Womack contradicts himself. He seems to be saying that fantasies are disconnected from the real world of the child while at the same time admitting that fantasies are actually the best way to influence young children. I am very wary about using the ‘it’s only make-believe’ as an argument either for or against anything in the world of literature and other media. But here’s something I’m not seeing come out of this debate. In fact, it’s taken as a given, and is instead being used in the book’s defence:
2. SMOKING IS NOT ACTUALLY A SHORTCUT TO SIGNAL VILLAINY
Many smokers are lovely people. One of the most important things I hope to teach my daughter is that you can’t tell much about a person by looking at them. Goodies and baddies cannot be identified on the street simply by their clothing, physical appearance and accoutrements. If they could, the ‘Keeping Ourselves Safe’ unit they’re learning at school right now might take a different tone altogether. In fact, by conflating smoking with evil, we’re possibly creating two unintended lessons for young readers: 1. People who smoke are evil; ergo discrimination of people who are addicted to tobacco (often the most disenfranchised) are not deserving of help, or of Champax subsidies, come to think of it. 2. People who smoke cool because they have a touch of evil, or subversive, or against the grain; ergo, if you want to identify as alternative in your post-adolescent years, taking up smoking is one way to do it. More ominously, perhaps, children may absorb the message via common tropes that people with bad intentions can be identified by their appearance, in which case, real world people who look ‘normal’ may get away with things they should not. My decision to avoid the more overt smoking scene in Hilda Bewildered and instead have the character pick up a pair of knitting needles was actually down to my reluctance to promote tropes which, unexamined, may be doing more harm than good. If children’s book writers and illustrators are going to avoid depictions of tobacco use in their picturebooks, then I’d prefer it were for this reason.
This week in Western Australia a man managed to get stuck in the gap. There was a happy ending — he was freed after about 15 minutes, without injury. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t really think about all those echoey announcements warning us to mind the gap, and you may have even peered at the gap at one point, wondering how anyone could possibly get their foot stuck down there, except for maybe a toddler.
Public Transport Authority spokesman David Hynes … it was an impressive feat because the gap between the train and platform was less than five centimetres.
Warnings to ‘Mind The Gap’ are so well-known that the phrase is used metaphorically to refer to other things.
This week I have been illustrating the underground scenes of Hilda Bewildered. In this case, the signs warning ‘Mind The Gap’ refer equally to income inequalities.
This is not an original metaphor. Scientific American has used it, for instance, as have many others.
Do you know how this ‘Mind The Gap’ warning is announced in other languages around the world? Wikipedia has a list of translations.
Can you think of any other phrases like this which have become part of popular culture, commonly used to refer to other things? Wikipedia offers ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ as another example.
How many of these do you recognise?
There are four main questions you need to ask of every book:
- What is this book about?
- What is being said in detail and how?
- Is this book true in whole or in part?
- What of it?
If all of this sounds like hard work, you’re right. Most people won’t do it. That’s what sets you apart.
- from Shane Parrish
A British company has produced a “strange, alien” material so black that it absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light, setting a new world record. To stare at the “super black” coating made of carbon nanotubes – each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair – is an odd experience. It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss.
If it was used to make one of Chanel’s little black dresses, the wearer’s head and limbs might appear to float incorporeally around a dress-shaped hole.
The Colours Of Night
I have a Pinterest board called ‘Night’, because I’m interested in all the different ways artists show a viewer darkness, when in reality, night is the absence of light. If you’d never had much exposure to art then you’d be forgiven for thinking that a board full of night would look like a sheet of black. Not so! As Vincent Van Gogh apparently said, ‘I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.’
Apart from black and dark blue, various other colours depict darkness:
- All the different shades of blue
- A little more surprisingly: greens
- Sepia tones
- Orange (see Józef Wilkón’s picture of a boy sleeping outside in a bed. The sky (which he imagines) is orange.
How do illustrators depict night time without losing colour and form and interest?
Of course, there has to be a light source from somewhere, even if it’s just from a few stars. And there is always a light source. Light commonly comes from:
- Light coming out of windows
- Street lamps or electric lamps
- Torches and lanterns
- Phosphorescent insects
- Through keyholes and crevices
A light source can also be entirely made up:
- From special objects, for example from the inside of open books, to light up the character’s face. The light may technically come from some reflected light on a white page, though can be exaggerated. Fantasy scenes are best suited for much exaggeration.
- From a light source which is presumed to be slightly off-stage. Film noir is a good thing to study because you’ll find that shadows appear from unlikely light sources. Light can be artistically manipulated. A light doesn’t really have to exist in real life for the artist to make use of a convenient light source — but it’s unlikely to work unless the artist is manipulating light with purpose.
There are other tricks illustrators use to depict the darkness of night even when there isn’t a strong light source in the world of the narrative. Borrowing a film term, you might call these tricks non-diegetic sources of light.
1. At night scenes lose their colour, and so a simple desaturation can work to convey darkness. To maintain the focal point of the painting, an artist can desaturate some things and not others. Desaturation can be used alone to convey darkness. In fact, look at the picture and if it weren’t for the hues, it’s as light-coloured as a daytime equivalent.
2. The desaturation can take on a sepia tone, or ochre, or turquoise etc. In digital art this is easily done. Add a layer of colour over top of all the other layers (gradient, if you like) then set it to multiply. Lower the opacity to the desired amount of new hue. This same trick can be effective for daylight scenes as well, in which you can take the colour of the sky, then set it to about 5 percent opacity. This gives a unifying effect to a picture which may otherwise look quite ununified due to different elements being on different layers, or painted at different times.
3. A lot of artists make the moon bigger than is possible here on Earth. (Earlier in 2014 we saw the moon at it’s biggest in years, and it still wasn’t nearly as big as seen in many story books!) The moon can seem almost as bright as the sun, especially if reflecting off something light, like a blanket of snow. In illustrations where the moon might be mistaken for a sun, a crescent moon can be preferences. (Because the sun is never ‘crescent’.)
Although in real life the moon is sometimes visible during the day, this isn’t conventional in illustrations, where sun equals day and moon equals night. Even in night scenes without a moon in sight assume the presence of a moon. For example, in the Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight, artist Suzuki Shonen doesn’t show the moon — this would compete for attention with the fireflies, yet the moonlight reflecting off the road is evident, and the artist includes ‘moonlight’ in the title of the work.
4. If you’re not painting the dead of night, it’s convenient to add a band of sky colour on the horizon. A band of orange or yellow in the sky can tell us something about the time of day as well as lending colour to an otherwise monotone scene. Even in illustrations which are not set at sunrise or sundown, there is often an inexplicable light source coming from behind some houses or trees. The sky often gets lighter towards the horizon. In this case, it’s the top of the sky which gives the reader the night-time cues.
5. Some illustrations do nothing whatsoever with the hue or tone to convey darkness, apart from showing a character in bed, or telling us in the words that it is night-time. This seems to work! (See illustration by Gyo Fujikawa, in which the blue of the sky outside might be used equally to depict a bright, sunny day.) See also the book cover The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. The turquoise and the purple form a limited palette which the reader is used to associating with night-time. The shades themselves are bright — and therefore appropriate on a book cover for children.
6. The pink illustration by Guy Shield shows young lovers kissing at the drive-in. This example shows that it doesn’t really matter what palette you use, as long as it’s a limited one, it can suggest the desaturation of night. The viewer also knows that it is night-time because that’s when teenagers used to go to drive-in movies. So the surrounding narrative is also important.
7. In night time scenes some tonal diversity is still necessary — a wider range of tones makes it easier to create interest. With a little imagination, lighter tones can be exaggerated or made up. An imaginary light source is one thing, but there are also rain droplets on a window which may collectively add up to quite a light painting if there is something lighting them up. Fog and mist are also light in colour, and so a light horizon might be put down to that. Cities seem to light up from below, even in the dead of night. Bodies of water are reflective, and provide sources of light by virtue of reflection. (Presumably a moon.) In any case, a strong contrast between the foreground and the background helps greatly with night scenes. The foreground can be in silhouette (popular at the moment in games such as World Of Goo and also on YA book covers). In this case the background will be more or less in full colour. Alternatively, the foreground can be light against a dark background.
What about when the illustrator wants to depict true darkness, possibly because the darkness itself is part of the story? How do we show darkness while still showing some sort of picture? Jon Klassen worked with this exact problem when he illustrated The Dark by Lemony Snicket. He got around it by making use of the a silhouette technique. The light parts are surrounded by large blocks of black, in which neither the viewer nor the character sees anything at all, at least not until illuminated by chinks of light.
The same technique has been used by a variety of illustrators:
Strawberry Hill by Kurt Knobelsdorf is a painting of a house at night which is also very dark, even though there is indeed a light source coming from one of the windows and a small moon in the sky. Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui is a Japanese example of something very similar — a genuinely dark picture of dark. Even so, the three squares of light give the picture enough interest to warrant it being look-at worthy.
This kind of story relies on what TV Tropes calls ‘The Alternate Self’.
I doubt Sliding Doors (1998) was the first well-known story to use this structure, though it is perhaps one of the best known, since more people watch popular movies than read books. This is a plotline in which a character has a difficult decision to make. Instead of having the character choose one path, then carry on the story until a good point to stop, this kind of story decides to explore the consequences of each decision by having the character follow both paths, perhaps with alternating chapters or something quite complicated plotwise.
This kind of plot can be quite didactic. Usually this sort of story has the following message:
However you imagine your life might have been had you made X decision instead of Y, your imagined other life isn’t as romantic/glamorous as the imagined life in your imagination.
Here are some examples of books which use this plotline.
THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD BY LIONEL SHRIVER (AMERICAN AUTHOR, SET IN ENGLAND, DARK)
Anyone who has read Shriver’s later (and better known) We Need To Talk About Kevin will already be expecting something quite dark. It’s what Shriver is good at. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Shriver is an expert at plotting, as evidenced by her adept execution of this device, which is used for the end purpose of exploring long-term, stable relationships such as in marriage. The end message, for me, was that
…the story breaks into two narratives with alternating chapters: In one, Irena pursues an affair with Ramsey and leaves Lawrence; in the other, she restrains herself and stays loyal. Each choice has its downside.
I think that this book is just as good as We Need To Talk About Kevin. Don’t be fooled by the cover; the bright colours may suggest chick-lit, but it is nothing of the sort.
JUST LIKE FATE (Young Adult)
I have not read this one myself, but here’s what Kirkus had to say:
In an ambitious narrative device, the book juggles two alternating plots, following a prefatory “Before” section. Chapters titled “Stay” are based on the premise that Caroline chooses to remain with her grandmother in the hospital and hears her dying words of love for her granddaughter; in those titled “Go,” Caroline succumbs to her friends’ pressure to go to a party, thus missing the moment when Gram dies.
ME MYSELF I BY PIP KARMEL (AUSTRALIAN CHICK-LIT)
This is a book from 2000 which has been adapted into a film starring Rachel Griffiths. This is much more light-hearted than Shriver’s, and makes use of a structure oft-utilised by writers of picturebooks. When the protagonist comes back from the fantasy world (or in this case, wakes from a vivid dream), they are lead to believe it wasn’t really a dream because they have brought something back with them from the ‘dream world’. Or things have been moved slightly, and their world view is significantly changed (in almost all cases, for the better).
LIFE AFTER LIFE BY KATE ATKINSON
Atkinson’s (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.) latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns (including one, mutatis mutandis, by no less an eminence than George Steiner). But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of Groundhog Day, but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and—in this instance—our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion.
- from Kirkus
Princess books tend to fall into several categories:
1.pink and sparkly
2. fairytale and traditional
3. subversive and ‘tomboyish’ and ‘feisty’
4. as flawed and real
These books are purchased for and I daresay read mainly by — in public — by girls.
But boys seem to like princesses, too. Or, they get princesses whether they really wanted them or not.
I recommend the article Your Princess Is In Another Castle by Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast, which is tag-lined with:
Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.
We all need to understand this, and the consequences of teaching boys that if they’re good, then their prize is a big-breasted, scantily clad young woman.
Of course, feminists have been saying this for a long time. But it takes a man to write it before it gets published at a mainstream non-feminist site such as The Daily Beast.