A children’s book should be written…remembering how few books children have time to read in the course of a childhood and that the impact of each one is probably equivalent to a dozen, or twenty, encountered at a later age.
– Joan Aiken, English author
The current publication life of any given title can be very short and this can result in the fairly rapid silencing of work that challenges prevailing norms and values.
– Charles Sarland, Understanding Children’s Literature
In the judgement of children’s books…for is often the key word. Books are not just ‘good’ but ‘good for‘. Books are used for different purposes at different times — for more things than most books are. Some are ‘good’ time-fillers; others ‘good’ for acquiring literacy; others ‘good’ for expanding the imagination or ‘good’ for inculcating general (or specific) social attitudes, or ‘good’ for dealing with issues or coping with problems, or ‘good’ for reading in that ‘literary’ way which is a small part of adult culture, or ‘good’ for dealing with racism… and most books do several of these things.
– Peter Hunt
This book is less picturebook (compound word), more ‘illustrated short story’ in typical picture book binding. In other words, the story could exist in its own right. The illustrations expand the story, sure, but unlike typical picture books for younger readers the words still make sense on their own. So perhaps this is best described as an illustrated short story for older readers — the most interesting kind of story I know (and sadly, the one most likely to go out of print or never make it to soft back, from what I can gather).
Gary Crew is a writer who defies convention in other ways as well. Not only in his story telling techniques and characterisations, but also in his ability to transcend age and genre boundaries. Take for example his hugely successful 1990 horror novel, Strange Objects (William Heinemann). Among numerous other awards and nominations, this book won the highly respected Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for Older Readers in Australia. But it was also short-listed in the adult category for the Crime Writer’s of America Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award! Likewise, while Crew also writes picture books, more often than not they are written for older readers rather than the youngsters you might expect. So while Gary Crew is primarily marketed as a children’s writer, he is not constrained by marketing boundaries. Indeed, many of his books are ageless, able to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.
Written in first person point of view, the character as narrator, Stuart Quill, describes his university room mate Caleb van Doorn. It’s clear to the reader from inference that Caleb is the human version of an insect. Both Stuart and Caleb are studying entomology. Caleb’s behaviour grows stranger and stranger. He never seems to eat, but is one day caught eating a bowl of raw meat, with blood all around his mouth. On a field trip these two are supposed to be sharing a tent. Instead, Caleb disappears into the forest and manages to find a great collection of very rare insects. In the end, a woman is murdered and Caleb goes missing. The mystery is never solved. But enough information is given to the reader for us to know exactly what happened: Caleb metamorphoses backwards and forward between insect and human, and in some sort of ‘reverse sexual cannibalism’ (that’s what they call it, since it’s normally the females who eat the males), Miss Emily is killed.
Stupidly optimistic, Evarts Molloy writes the first act of a play then uproots his family and takes them to New York on thirty-five dollars, which to him seems like a huge sum. Everything in New York seems to glitter. The reader — more worldly than Evarts and Alice — can see before the hapless protagonists do that these two are being taken for a ride, filled with false promises and dreams by unscrupulous New York agents.
Location and Time
Wentworth Indiana seems to be a fictionalised town of the sort found scattered around rural Indiana in the 1940s: poor, with hard-working country folk and the odd local eccentric. This is the unseen setting of the story, though contrasted constantly with its urban inverse, New York. Continue reading
This is the story that introduced Mog to young readers at the beginning of the 1970s. You’ll see from the illustrations that this is a book of its time, with 1970s fashion and a traditional nuclear family set-up, including a population that, compared to modern day London, is overwhelmingly white. If there is a spectrum of personification when it comes to animals in picturebooks, Mog is still very much cat rather than person, but Judith Kerr manages to convey the idea that she indeed knows exactly what goes on in cat’s world — what cats worry about, what they dream about and what their main concerns must be.
This story is mostly a character sketch of a mischievous cat called Mog. Mog’s mischievousness is reframed as forgetfulness. She doesn’t ‘steal’ an egg at breakfast time; she ‘forgets’ she only has eggs as treats. This lends a gentleness to the character, and allows young readers to empathise. The plot of the story takes off after Mog is shut outside for being a nuisance. It just so happens that a burglar arrives that night. Mog frightens the burglar, who makes a noise by dropping something, thus awakening the family who are able to call the police to apprehend the baddie. Mog is now a hero.
The burglar in this story is an archetypical comic character dressed in a raccoon mask and striped prison uniform. He is smaller in stature than the policeman who comes to apprehend him. Rather than being locked up in handcuffs, the burglar even holds the policeman’s cup of tea while the policeman makes notes on a pad. This comic representation of intruders makes this story a perfectly safe going-to-bed book.
When I was growing up my father knew a man whose hobby was to listen in to other people’s conversations on a radio you could get, but which I believe was illegal. Using this radio, it was possible to listen in on police conversations. He’d know before anyone else about accidents and domestic incidents, deaths and other awfulness. In this short story, likewise, a family thinks they are buying an ordinary radio, but what they get instead is a faulty appliance which — almost supernaturally — plays for them whatever is going on in their neighbours’ houses. This story was written in 1947, in an era where nobody could predict the advent of the Internet in the new century, but because the themes revolve around knowing other people’s business and how this knowledge affects you, The Enormous Radio reads as surprisingly modern.
This story has been described as an example of ‘Domestic Gothic’ literature:
Domestic Gothic fiction may be identified by its uneasy representation of the historical and socioeconomic developments known as the “domestic ideal.” The concept of “domesticity” goes beyond the mere occupation of the physical domestic space and encompasses more than household servicing as women’s work. Rather, it is a wholly ideological construct relating to the interpretation, as well as the use, of the domestic space. Domesticity emerged as a concept in the mid-eighteenth century, alongside the modernizing forces of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. As cottage industry gave way to larger-scale factory production, the nature of the home itself changed. For many, there was a separation of home from commercial premises and many women were removed from the world of remunerative employment altogether. As the domestic ideal became more influential, claustration within the domestic sphere and the possession of appropriate “domestic” qualities became requirements for female respectability. Meanwhile, traditional family relationships underwent radical change. Romantic ideas of companionate marriage and sentimentalized parent–child relationships, and also the development of the nuclear family, helped to create a concept of the home as a place presided over by a “domestic” woman, in which these newly defined relationships might be enjoyed.
In ‘Domestic Gothic’ stories, the house becomes the place of trauma rather than the castle. Continue reading
A tiger comes to tea. Or, a mother and daughter are at home waiting for father to get home from work. An unexpected visitor arrives. It’s a tiger. Mother invites him inside to drink tea and eat buns, but the tiger eats every morsel of food in the house, and ‘all the water from the tap’. Continue reading