Coming Second Half Of 2014

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A Storybook [X]

We-were-the-mulvaneys-book-cover

In her novel We Were The Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates describes High Point Farm:

The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the house are five enormous oaks and I mean enormous–the tallest is easily three times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. In summer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive to see the house–what a house! In winter, the lavender house seems to float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child’s storybook. And that antique slight in the front yard, looking as if the horse had just trotted away to leave the lone passenger behind–a human figure, a tenderly comical scarecrow wearing old clothes of Dad’s.

A storybook house you’re thinking, yes? Must be, storybook people live there.

songs-we-sing-art

From Songs We Sing (A Big Golden Book), illustrated by William Dugan, 1957

If you’re an artist and you ever sit down to illustrate a picture book, even if you’ve not considered this question before it may come up as you illustrate:How much of your illustration is going to be ‘storybook’? Which parts of the illustration will draw attention to themselves by not being classically ‘storybook’?

For there are certain ‘storybook’ ways of depicting certain objects. The interior of a child’s bedroom will have a single bed, elevated on four legs (or perhaps bunks); curtains on the window, a few toys scattered artfully around (likely some books). A futon on the floor or a foldout sofa will draw attention to itself. A child’s house will basically be clean, with no peeling wallpaper, or crayon marks where a parent tried to scrub off two-year-0ld artwork and didn’t quite manage it that time. Storybook homes are not mobile ones. They are most typically found in leafy suburbs.

My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children's illustrator, book author and doll designer.

My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children’s illustrator, book author and doll designer.

Parents will drive sensible family cars like station wagons (not convertibles fitted out with child booster seats). Towns will comprise everyone’s idea of perfect capitalism: a grocer’s, a butcher’s, a bakery, rather than the more likely alternative of Walmarts in America and The Warehouse in New Zealand…

Fathers go out to work in the morning rather than at night. They wear button down shirts and carry briefcases. Families eat breakfast together.

These are not rules, of course. These are simply the storybook conventions which don’t draw attention to themselves. Except when they do. Like when more and more readers become dissatisfied with the fact that this storybook world we imagine is in fact a white, middle-class world, which seems to have the 1950s era as an ideal, even when modernity is also apparent.

There is a place for storybook fantasies. It’s also true that we need more diversity in picturebooks. We need:

  • working mothers and shift-working fathers
  • microwave dinners and lunches out of paper bags
  • families without cars of their own
  • untidy houses with piles of un-ironed washing and dirty dishes stacked on the bench
  • mobile homes, and multiple families living together, shared bedrooms, queues outside the bathroom, fold-out sofas
  • urban environments with concrete landscaping
  • lice combing after dinner
  • very tired parents

 

Children need to see these things, as part of everyday stories rather than ‘stories about poverty’. A good writer/illustrator team can make any setting a reassuring one. Young readers need these settings even though it will mean replacing cosy with the real. There will remain a need for cosy, existing alongside the real. But unless the real is included, what we have is symbolic annihilation and invisibility of the poor.


There’s always a settling-in period for new technology. Always.

 

 

I’m sure it started before Socrates, who thought that once everyone learnt to write we would stop relying upon our memories. Looking at the Maori people as an example of a culture who have lost the ability (or the want) to memorise and pass on poems of great length, Socrates was probably right. Yet few would argue for pre-literate era.

socrates and the written word

 

 

Then there were doubters of the Gutenberg printing press.

It was thought that novels would corrupt the minds of young women: Many young girls, from morning to night, hang over this pestiferous reading, to the neglect of industry, health, proper exercise, and to the ruin both of body and of soul. …The increase of novels will help to account for the increase of prostitution and for the numerous adulteries and elopements that we hear of in the different parts of the kingdom.

Initially, many people were opposed to talkies, in the belief that they sullied the purity of silent film.

Then there was opposition to colour talkies:

I hate technicolour. Everybody in a technicolour movie seems to feel obliged to wear a lurid new costume in each new scene and to stand around like a clothes-horse with a lot of very green trees or very yellow wheat or very blue ocean rolling away for miles and miles in every direction.

– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

There was — and still is — doubt about the decision to have a television set in the home. My parents tell me that TV antennae were colloquially referred to as ‘skite sticks’ in New Zealand, when only the richest could afford them.

Douglas Adams said once:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

So, how’s everybody feeling about the Apple Watch today?


Sluts and Revolting Rhymes

The 1980s cover

The 1980s cover

I have clear memories of this book.

  • First, I remember my father buying it for me in Paper Plus. I was in attendance. He thought I wouldn’t notice, then snuck it into my santa sack.
  • Second, it was very unusual for my father to buy any books at all.
  • Third, this was a whole-family read and I remember reciting it theatrically with my parents laughing and laughing. For some reason I’m under the dining-room table as I’m doing this and it’s a fine summer’s day.

 

I hadn’t opened the book since about 1986, even though I still own my original copy and even though I have carried it from house to house throughout my nomadic years.

It’s funny how things age, isn’t it? This week Aldi seems to have scored a swag of Roald Dahl books and is selling them slightly cheaper than you’d expect as a Special Buy. Someone who has better memories of Revolting Rhymes than I do — or perhaps someone who has picked this book up for the first time ever — subsequently commented on Aldi’s Facebook page that this book contains the word ‘slut’. And now the book has been pulled from Aldi’s shelves. Next follows journalistic descriptions of consumer ‘outrage’, because this is children’s literature we’re talking about here, and this is how things go.

This debacle reminds me of the companion volume to Revolting Rhymes, Dirty Beasts, which I took to school one day for my (very conservative, vest-wearing, monk-living Christian teacher) to read after lunch. If I’m honest, my 9-year-old self had been looking forward to Mr Bayley saying the phrase, ‘And dropped a cow pat on his head!’ as the conclusion to The Cow. Instead, my teacher slammed the book shut and returned it to me with a grim and disappointed expression on his face. I’d been expecting the entire class to laugh at the final line, to pat me on the back and tell me what a wonderful book I’d chosen. I’d been expecting Mr Bayley to read many more poems from Dirty Beasts during our after lunch calming session, but instead he launched us straight into arithmetic, and I remember the disgusted look on Paul Hamlyn’s face as he said, ‘Why did you choose such a short one?’

I wasn’t allowed to pick the after lunch reading material again that year, and it wasn’t just a teacher-enforced thing.

I wonder what Mr Bayley would have done if I’d instead brought my copy of Revolting Rhymes and asked him to read the story with the ‘slut’? The sorts of people who are accusing the world of going PC mad!! are keen to point out that the original meaning of ‘slut’ is of an unkempt, untidy, slovenly woman, and that Roald Dahl did not intend the other more modern meaning which refers to a woman who has too much sex, according to some culturally defined standard. Being old-fashioned if not old, it’s likely my Mr Bayley would have been quite happy to read that one, being ignorant (perhaps) of its other meaning. I’ll never know.

Others chuckle and point out that any Scandinavian translation of a children’s book will end with the word ‘Slut’, since in Danish and Norwegian ‘Slut’ means simply ‘The End’. Our story app Midnight Feast has been translated into Danish, and until I received the translation I hadn’t realised this. I’ll admit enjoying a cheap chuckle. As an argument for the wanton usage of ‘slut’ in children’s literature, though, this oddity of language doesn’t stand up, since when Danish people read Midnight Feast, they read ‘The End’. They’re not encouraged to think of women in a sexual and disparaging way.

 

ALDI’S DECISION IS NOT ACTUALLY CENSORSHIP

One thing I’d like to point out amid all this discussion of ‘censorship’ — Aldi pulled Revolting Rhymes from its stores upon receiving a complaint — is that this is not ‘censorship’ at all. Censorship comes from government, and when Aldi, or any other company decides not to sell something, that company is simply making a ‘business decision’.

 

‘POLITICALLY CORRECT’ DOES NOT EQUAL ‘CONSERVATIVE’.

I’m surprised at Aldi’s decision, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. Aldi continues to demonstrate ultra conservative attitudes. When pink dolls and dollhouses are on special at Aldi, there is a big sign up saying ‘Girls’ Toys’. Trucks and aeroplanes are labelled ‘Boys’ Toys’. Mothers’ Day each year is preceded with sales of cosmetics and scrapbooking equipment. Right now we’re heading full-throttle towards Father’s Day, and this week you’ll find garage tools and leather work gloves on the Special Buys table. None of this is coincidental. Despites exclamations to the contrary, Aldi cares not one jot about political correctness. Hell, Aldi calls all manner of different green unidentifiable-by-white-people vegetables ‘Asian greens’, like Asians are likewise one big indistinguishable conglomerate of leaf-eating people. Aldi care only about customers buying as many products from Aldi as possible, cashing in on impulse purchases if at all possible, in which case the customer needn’t do any more thinking than absolutely necessary. When Aldi accidentally stocks a children’s book containing the word ‘slut’ in a derogatory fashion and then receives a single complaint, it really only takes a single complaint, because if the  movers and shakers at Aldi knew that word was in the book then they wouldn’t have bought a truckload of them in the first place. A children’s book containing the word ‘slut’ goes against Aldi’s conservative principles.

 

ETYMOLOGY ISN’T AN ARGUMENT, EITHER

Here’s the thing: whether you do or don’t read this collection to your own children or to your own class of students, it’s kind of irrelevant to talk about the ‘original use’ of a word, because language changes, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that here in Australia, in 2014, the word ‘slut’ no longer refers to an unkempt, slovenly woman, but is instead a cringe-inducing, violent word which is used to try and keep women, especially young women wearing low-cut fashions, in line.

 

CULTURE, AS WELL AS CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, EVOLVES, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING

I have a liberal attitude towards use of taboo language, partly because I think that liberal use of bad words saps them of their power, which is actually a good thing. When I’m ready to have a discussion with my daughter about the meaning of ‘slut’, then I might be happy to read her Revolting Rhymes. Roald Dahl, along with Enid Blyton, was my favourite author when I was in primary school. But honestly, that’s because I wasn’t exposed to much else. My own six-year-old has access to a far wider range of reading material, not only because children’s publishing has flourished in the last 30 years but also because I’m an enthusiastic curator of literature myself. For some strange reason, my daughter isn’t interested in Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl, at least, not yet. Without looking at the colophon, she is always drawn to the newer stories. But this isn’t strange at all.

Roald Dahl’s use of the word ‘slut’ may indeed have been innocent (I doubt it). I’m going to let this one word stand as a symbol for the entire body of Dahl’s work. I’m  happy we’re having this cultural conversation. I’m not writing all of Dahl’s work off, not by any means, but let’s not forget that Roald Dahl was a man of his time, and though his personal ideologies died with him, his work lives on.

Should Aldi have pulled these books from its shelves? Probably not. The book has just received a big shot of publicity, like it needs it. Should Aldi still be stocking the work of Dahl and Richard Scarry (with Scarry’s outdated, heavily gendered division of labour) to the exclusion of newer bulk purchases of children’s books with modern, less problematic ideologies?

No.

Good riddance to Revolting Rhymes; bring us instead Zita the Spacegirl. Bring us bulk-purchased award- winning modern classics less then 10 years old. Bring us box sets of the Lunchlady series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Let’s support the publishing industry instead of reminiscing about times of yore, before the world had Gone PC Mad.

 

VAGUELY RELATED STORY

Speaking of pulling products from shelves, and Scandinavians, a Norwegian brewery has pulled its fart-smelling beer.


The Role Of Glamour… If only!

The following are notes from a podcast from Zocalo Public Square: Why Do We Need Glamour? The speaker is Virginia Postrel, who has also delivered a TED Talk. Her book is called The Power Of Glamour.

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What is glamour?

 

The word ‘glamour’ gets sprinkled around on magazine covers: shiny furniture, jewel tones, satin dresses. This conveys the mistaken idea that glamour is a kind of style. In fact, glamour is neither a style nor a personal characteristic (because cars/cities/ideas can be glamorous also) and it changes with the audience. The best way to think about glamour is to start by thinking about humour. Glamour is in the same category: There is an audience and an object. Somehow in the interaction of audience and object, a specific emotion occurs. In the case of humour, the emotion is amusement/laughter. In the case of glamour the emotion is projection and longing: If only… (I could do that thing/be with that person/be on that beach/relax and have a hot stone massage…)

Glamour is a form of non-verbal persuasion. It can be a deliberately constructed form of rhetoric, and it is sometimes something that simply emerges (much like humour can either be constructed by a comedian or emerge naturally in normal discourse). Glamour can be deliberately crafted but whether it works or not doesn’t depend on the efforts of the person creating it — it depends on the audience.

Glamour_magazine_cover

How does glamour work?

Glamour takes our inchoate (not fully formed, rudimentary) longings: to be respected/loved/comfortable/wealthy etc and focuses them on an object.

Glamour can have unexpected consequences and take unexpected forms but it always says something about who we are and what we want. We’re told that we can fulfil that desire.

Glamour is a psychological process. We see something we know is ridiculous — a trip to a special place/electing the right president/pursuing the right career — something will make us have the perfect life, yet we choose it anyway.

This is not just about women. How many Air Jordans have been sold? (Not to women…) The superhero is the epitome of glamour. (Not Batman — Batman works better as an icon than as a symbol of glamour, but other superheroes embody glamour and appeal to boys and men.)

air-jordan-shoe

One of the best encapsulations of glamour can be found in the book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House. A lot of movie stars are not particularly glamorous, but you see the epitome of glamour in Home and Garden magazines.

 

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House Cover

From the acclaimed author and columnist: a laugh-out-loud journey into the world of real estate—the true story of one woman’s “imperfect life lived among imperfect houses” and her quest for the four perfect walls to call home.

After an itinerant suburban childhood and countless moves as a grown-up—from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska; from the Midwest to the West Coast and back—Meghan Daum was living in Los Angeles, single and in her mid-thirties, and devoting obscene amounts of time not to her writing career or her dating life but to the pursuit of property: scouring Craigslist, visiting open houses, fantasizing about finding the right place for the right price. Finally, near the height of the real estate bubble, she succumbed, depleting her life’s savings to buy a 900-square-foot bungalow, with a garage that “bore a close resemblance to the ruins of Pompeii” and plumbing that “dated back to the Coolidge administration.”

From her mother’s decorating manias to her own “hidden room” dreams, Daum explores the perils and pleasures of believing that only a house can make you whole. With delicious wit and a keen eye for the absurd, she has given us a pitch-perfect, irresistible tale of playing a lifelong game of house.

Goodreads

Why is glamour important?

 You can shape your career and therefore your life with it. In the early 90s a bunch of people went to law school because they watched LA Law. The same thing happened with CSI and forensic science.

Glamour can affect how a country is run. Barack Obama is god’s gift to glamour. This guy is really glamorous. He was young and good looking and graceful and eloquent but people projected onto him their hopes and dreams and what they wanted for the country. The fact that he didn’t have a long record in public life (like Hilary Clinton) made him alluring. He is self-contained nad has a kind of mystery about him. Obama is a Rorschach Test.

 

Three elements that make Glamour work:

1. Promise of Escape and Transformation.

Glamour takes our discontent and focuses it. It is a form of escapism, but not escapist in terms of distraction but escapist in terms of amplifying desire and focusing it on something in particular.

They are either around travel or around fashion/transportation/something you can inhabit. We all know its horrible to fly on a plane but when we see a picture we picture ourselves as the airplane. There’s still this image of glamour. Transportation vehicles are like clothing — they can be inhabited, and take us out of the everyday.

glamour-airplane

One of the stereotypical touchstone ways of using glamour in advertising is to sell beauty products. Fire and Ice was created by REvlon in the 50s (and then again in the 90s.) If you get this red nail polish you will unleash the secret siren in yourself. You will have this  moment where you feel yourself to be a different sort of person. It allows you to imagine yourself in this different life — not necessarily a life you want to be in al lthe time but which speaks to a side of you which needs to be sometimes fulfilled.

But this is just as glamorous: The Container Store. This is the most glamorous store in America, because what Americans really want is not so much luxury but a respite from all that stuff, and some sense of having control of their lives. You go in the container store and you see all the shelves and boxes and you can imagine your life will be perfect. These fit in your own house. You get that same sense of projection and longing with the promise of escape and transformation as you get when looking at a magazine with a diamond ring in it. Glamour is not only the things we think of stereotypically as glamorous but these king of things, which produce that same sensation of escaping and transforming.

 

2. Grace

Glamour is an illusion. The word originally meant a spell to make people think that whatever was in front of them was better than it actually was.

In its modern metaphorical sense glamour still has this element of magic and illusion. We often use the word ‘magic’ in conjunction with this concept eg ‘the magic of the movies’. the illusion is that glamour always hides things. It hides flaws/distractions/costs/disadvantages/effort.

Effortless glamour is a very common phrases. The sense that things just flow along without difficulty is an essential element of glamour. Glamour exemplifies nonchalance — all the practice and exertion which makes something possible is hidden.

The two different types of grace:

Theatrical Grace: Grace which actually exists in the moment. When Fred and Ginger dance they actually are graceful. However they didn’t actually meet up in some park and start dancing like that. There were hours and hours of practice, bloody feet, people helping out behind the scenes and so on. In the golden age of Hollywood a lot of the costumes were either too tight or too heavy for the actresses to sit down so Jean Harlow has to lean on a leaning board in between takes because her dress which looks so fantastic on screen has a hidden flaw, which is that you can’t actually sit down in it or it will tear.

Darkroom Grace: This is grace that is never actually there in the first place. YOu hide things on the image. The Gibson Girl. Whenever you look through a catalogue of interior furnishings somehow all those lamps light up without a cord, and they are not run on batteries. Eitehr the cords have been hidden by the stylist or they’ve just been deleted in Photoshop. Sometimes even the supports for the tables are taken away. Today’s critics of over shopping sometimes think these things started with Photoshop, but it’s older than that. In the Golden Age of Hollywood there were retouched and unretouched versions of actresses.

Glamour is neither transparent nor opaque: It’s translucent. It allows us to see a tantalizing, intriguing amount but lets us fill things in from our imaginations, directed by our own longings.

Glamour is often associated with physical distance — often literally distant — Shanghai perfume, because Shanghai was very glamorous in the 1920s. Ralph Lauren has said that he’d never been to aFrica, but if he had he would probably never have designed the clothes he had. His clothes were about an imagined destination rather than the true destination.

Another way glamour establishes mystery is often something in the past that we imagine went on. The silhouette is a glamorous trope. We can’t see a man’s face. Mad Men, for instance, is set in the imaginary 1960s where everything is hyped and his a very specific setting. No one is schlubby — everyone is dressed perfectly. [The 1950s and 1960s are particularly well-utilised in fiction for conveying the glamour of the perfect home with the aproned wife and blonde, blue-eyed children, even though this was a very unusual and temporary time in history.]

mad men silhouette

A future can also provide a glamorous setting: The final frontier. Star Trek fans find the setting glamorous. One of the things it represents is the glamour of an ideal workplace. People can picture themselves as themselves being valued for their contributions in a perfect meritocracy. But glamorous ideas of the future were very prevalent in the 20th C up to the 1970s. Modernity and the future were intertwined and glamour was one way people figured out what this whole modern thing was about. They got their ideas from advertisements and movies, not from manifestos, though there were plenty of those. What is this glamorous future that we’re all headed toward? What is glamour in the present that may be removed from me? What do rich people have now that will someday be available to me? (American fridges eventually became available to British people.)

The difference between glamour and charisma

These terms are often conflated.

Glamour is a response to a stimulus and depends on the longing of the audience. There is always mystery. When we get to know somebody, their glamour disappears, along with the mystery.

Charisma is a personal characteristic like intelligence. A house cannot be charismatic. Nor can a city be charismatic. A person owns that, and is often much  more open. It does not require any mystery. You might know everything about Bill Clinton and still find him charismatic. Charismatic inspires loyalty. You want to be liked by the charismatic person. You cannot perceive charisma in a still photograph. One of the results of that is that when a charismatic person dies, the charisma dies with them. Andrew Jackson (seventh president of the US) is an example like this. Joan of Arc, on the other hand, has glamour. Regardless of what she was really like, her story lives on. The audience projects all sorts of things onto her.

The formula for creating glamour

  • bring out the best
  • conceal the worst
  • leave something to the imagination

But good luck with this, because it really depends on the imagination and longing of the audience.

 

QUESTIONS

What do you most want for your next birthday/Christmas/gift-giving occasion? According to the definition above, would you say this desired item includes an element of glamour? (Find an advertisement for that product — it might help you out.)

I recently had a birthday and bought an Apple Mac. Apple is very good at selling glamour, especially by pitching itself in opposition to the nerdy and staid and functional PC.

 

Do you resist glamour or embrace it?

I had been resisting this purchase, I’ll admit, partly because it’s such a cliche. I thought they were a bit overpriced [though I've revised that opinion now] and I was determined to avoid the cliche of glamour and ‘go in manual’ by building my own PC. In the end, the hardware — especially the screen — convinced me that I was better off just buying an Apple Mac.

Do you think your parents have a different idea of glamour? Where do your parents get their glamour fix? What about your grandparents?

My mother loves to change the furniture around in her house, and prioritises the purchase of new furniture. My father likes to work in the garden, creating the kind of space  you’d find in a Homes and Gardens magazine. They both like to visit open homes in their spare time, and twice they have made (what seemed to me like) impulse purchases of new houses after visiting an open day on the weekend. They especially like to visit houses which have not yet been finished — they might have the foundation down and the wooden frame up, but they like to step inside and imagine what the house could be, and how they would decorate it.

I have different interests — a brief tour of our house would tell you that we are functional people. The TV is positioned for best viewing (no reflection from window) rather than for best aesthetics. You’ll find cords everywhere, because we preference fast Internet and easy accessibility of gadgets over hiding tech equipment away. Rather than furnish our living room with expensive chairs (which we got rid of), we watch TV on a mattress which can be moved away to play Kinect games.

Do you and your friends agree on what’s glamorous and what’s not? Which words do you use to describe the idea of glamour?

My friends definitely enjoy dressing up more than I do, and will look forward to occasions which require makeup and high heels. I have a more unusual take — if I can’t go somewhere in either gumboots, jandals or sneakers, I tend to feel inconvenienced! I do share a love of Pinterest with many of my friends, however, and I suspect the huge success of Pinterest can be found in its imaginary glamour. Without even going to the shop to buy containers and labels, you can imagine you’ve reorganised your life. Until you turn away from the screen, this is a very cathartic feeling. Even just organising pins onto boards gives the user a sense of purpose.

 

 

 

 


Which Is It?

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

David Mamet, on why he stopped being a ‘Brain-dead Liberal’.

 

Even if this playwright is wrong about people (if), what if he’s right about drama, and its ‘only fit subject’?

What might this mean for children’s literature, or perhaps for a ‘definition of children’s literature’, as opposed to literature for adults?


Tobacco Use In Picturebooks

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:

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Can you see the ashtray?

(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

Womack writes:

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.


Minding The Gap

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.


Picking Berries Underground

Picking Berries Underground

 

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?

 


4 Main Questions To Ask Of Books

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


Writing The Dark

The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports–silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?

– A beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates from We Were The Mulvaneys


Illustrating The Dark

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.

Blackest Is The New Black

 

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:

  • Purple
  • 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.
The night is depicted with green

The night is depicted with green

Józef Wilkón Boy Sleeping

Józef Wilkón Boy Sleeping

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:

  • Moonlight
  • Lightning
  • Light coming out of windows
  • Street lamps or electric lamps
  • Torches and lanterns
  • Candles
  • Fire
  • 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.

new yorker cover brightly lit city

 

Adolf Fassbender

Other Tricks

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.

shaun tan

chris van allsburg night

We know this isn't a black and white picture because the moon is yellow.

We know this isn’t a black and white picture because the moon is yellow.

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.

The White Night by Adolf Fassbender

The White Night by Adolf Fassbender

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’.)

Paoli Domeniconi

Paoli Domeniconi

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.

Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight

Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight

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.

Notice how the sky gets lighter as it gets further away due to aerial perspective.

Notice how the sky gets lighter as it gets further away due to aerial perspective.

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.

by Gyo Fujikawa

by Gyo Fujikawa

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.

Lakewood Drive in by Guy Shield

Lakewood Drive in by Guy Shield

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.

The Graveyard Book Italian Version

Total Darkness

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 dark jon klassen

The same technique has been used by a variety of illustrators:

darkness outside the night

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.

Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui

Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui

Strawberry Hill