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Gender Inversions As Gags In Children’s Film

hugh-bonneville-paddington-drag

Humor can be either very dependent on an escapist mindset or the very opposite. Laughter is a diversion, much like fantasy, though it also often requires an understanding of what is actually going on.

– Film School Rejects

There’s this gag in many children’s films which almost everyone else finds hilarious and I find really troublesome.  Continue reading

Picturebook Study: Eric by Shaun Tan (2010)

shaun-tan-eric-cover

NOTES ON THE COVER

Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further.
A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:
judy-moody
Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks:
that-pesky-rat-lauren-child
For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s usually because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.

THE MINIATURE

Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.

Why is the exchange student in this story small? As explained by John Truby in Anatomy of Story:

Whenever a character shrinks, he regresses to a small child. Negatively, he experiences a sudden loss of power and may even be terrified by his now massive and domineering surroundings. Positively, the character and the audience have the amazing feeling of seeing the world anew. “The man with the magnifying glass is … youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of the child … . Thus the minuscule, the narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”

Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?

Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is just a symbol.

Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.

Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:

The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them,and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.

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Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:

  1. The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
  2. It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
  3. The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
  4. The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
  5. The creature in this story is interested in small things whereas the boy in The Lost Thing is the one who is the noticer. (Noticing this creature is a noticer is itself a form of noticing…)
  6. Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
  7. The narrator is left wondering what it all means.

ERIC AS A POSTMODERN PICTUREBOOK

What is a postmodern picturebook?

Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picturebook. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural differenceGrigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.

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STORY STRUCTURE

The main character is the storyteller narrator.

WEAKNESS/NEED

This kid (I assumed it was a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl)  She is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer.

DESIRE

She is looking forward to teaching an exchange student everything about her local environs. This will make her feel like an expert.

OPPONENT

Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore.

eric-illustration

Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.

PLAN

Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:

I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excusions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.

Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. At the casino he gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.

BATTLE

I might have found this a little exasperating, but I kept thinking about what Mum had said, about the cultural thing. Then I didn’t mind so much.

The battle is with herself — between the self that wants to show Eric everything she knows, and the self that’s open to learning from the foreigner.

We see more of this psychological battle at the dinner table when ‘There was much speculation over dinner later that evening. Did Eric seem upset?’ and so on.

SELF-REVELATION

In Shaun Tan’s work, self-revelations are often accompanied by images of doors and windows.

In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.

It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.

The window, however, comes before the battle scene.

Here we have a door: the pantry door.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again.

This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.

Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.

Picturebook Study: The Lost Thing By Shaun Tan

the_lost_thing_cover

If you don’t have a copy of the book, you can watch the short film adaptation on YouTube:

THEME

Interestingly, the flap copy manages to describe the theme in a metafictional kind of way:

I guess you want to know what this book is about, just by reading this cover flap. Fair enough too; time is short, lives are busy, and most smart, thinking people have better things to do than stand around looking at picture books about some big red thing being lost in a strange city…

This is basically a critique of people wandering through life not noticing things.

The narrator’s parents are too busy keeping up with current events. This reminds me of a Freakonomics podcast Why Do We Really Follow The News? tl;dl: We follow the news to seem smart. We follow news for entertainment, treating politics like a kind of sport. But does following news reallyh make you smarter, or do you just seem smarter? Are you following the right amount of news, or is your interest in current events perhaps leaving you without time for the small things in your immediate surrounds?

The final page is again metafictive: “And don’t ask me what the moral is.” This is a nod to the fact that children’s books are expected to have morals (even though the best and latest ones don’t at all.)

Readers will bring their own meanings to this story. I’m inclined to see stories as metaphors for autism. The boy’s massive collection of bottle tops is one clue, as is the fact that he is able to notice things others don’t. He’s offered a sign and “I can’t say I knew what it all meant.” There is a popular view of autism as illness, in which an autistic child is expected to learn to fit in with allistics in order to get on in life. Social skills can indeed be learned, but only at the expense of losing that highly individual part of yourself.

More widely, this could be a story about any child with an unusual worldview who, by social conditioning, is gradually forced into adult conformity.

CHARACTER

Continue reading

Picturebook Study: More! by Peter Schossow

more-cover

This picturebook is wordless in the same way Robert Redford’s All Is Lost is wordless: Both contain one spoken word, imbued with huge weight accordingly.

Gecko Press brought this book from German to English in 2010, and have also translated another of Schossow’s works: My First Car Was Red.

Even a ‘wordless’ picturebook follows the typical story arc.

 

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

A man is small and helpless compared to the forces of nature.

DESIRE

The man would like to enjoy a walk along the shore.

OPPONENT

The wind, who blows off his hat.

PLAN

He will chase the hat.

BATTLE

The battle takes place over a number of double spreads, and we see the man thrown higher and higher into the air, until he is level with an aeroplane.

SELF-REVELATION

He likes it!

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

He will let himself get swept up in the wind again.

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Ask a child the colour of sky and they’ll tell you ‘blue’. They get this from picturebooks, perhaps. In reality, the sky is many colours. But in this picturebook we have a distinctly green hue. Why? What was behind this choice?

Well, the thing about green is, it feels otherworldly. Green is associated with the subconscious; it’s thought we see green just before passing out (though I haven’t given this a go). The other thing is, a green sky means the sky is part of the land. There is no real distinction between land and sky. Did this story really happen, or is it entirely in the man’s imagination?

Notice the sun, also — this is not a distinctly delineated circle but rather a roundish glow, suggestive of some sort of magical haze. Yet at the end of the book we have a crescent moon. Over the course of a day the sky changes from bright to dark, but in this story the sky remains the same otherworldly hue of green. It’s only once you notice the moon that you realise the man has been flying in the wind all day. This is not the first time he’s asked to go again!

Though this is not a Christmas book, the colour palette is made up of green, white and the red of the man’s trousers and scarf. Red and green are complementary colours, so shouldn’t be commandeered by Christmas, sure.

This limited palette means the man is the same colour as the bits of rubbish blowing in the breeze.

This character has a very big nose. In fact, the nose is the first thing we see of him. I thought it was a chin. Then I realised the nose matches the shape of the shoes; these are big clodhoppers of shoes which should plant the man firmly upon the ground.

I’m left with one question though: What happened to his dog? Normally if the story starts with a dog it reappears on the final page. Did the dog get sick of him and go home alone? I believe the dog is an example of a picturebook McGuffin. The dog is the reason the man sets off on a walk in the first place, but after the inciting incident, the audience (generally) doesn’t think about the dog again. And it does work. For me, the dog’s fate was a refrigerator moment.

 

Louis C.K. And His Conflict With Reading Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn To His Daughters

Picturebook Study: The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan (1998)

the-rabbits-cover

Shaun Tan writes about his work on his own blog. I highly recommend taking a look at Tan’s entry on The Rabbits if you haven’t already.

I can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said about this book elsewhere. Except, perhaps, for a closer look at the story structure. John Marsden has done a couple of interesting things with the traditional story structure, especially in the final two steps.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The native creatures are not very numerous. They are vulnerable to invasion.

DESIRE

At first they want to get to know the rabbits. There aren’t many rabbits. But after a while too many rabbits come.

OPPONENT

Now the rabbits become the opponents.

PLAN

Unfortunately for the native creatures, there is no real plan other than to try and protect themselves.

BATTLE

“Sometimes we had fights … We lost the fights.”

The main battle page is the double spread in which the children are stolen. The reader has already realised that this tale is an allegory for the white invasion of Australia and the decimation of Aboriginal peoples. The stolen children remains one of the most egregious politically sanctioned crimes in Australia today, so this part is treated very carefully: Each word is separated within the illustration, giving it due weight.

and-stole-our-children

SELF-REVELATION

Instead of a typical self-revelation, we have a few double spreads of reflection:

Where is the rich, dark earth,

Brown and moist?

and so on.

 

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Unusually for a story, this one ends with a question. “Who will save us from the rabbits?” Despite the question, the new equilibrium is clear: The native creatures are in trouble.

Picturebook Study: A Squash And A Squeeze by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

a-squash-and-a-squeeze-cover

There have been various editions of this book in its 20+ year history of reprints. Here is a slightly more ominous sky:

a-squash-and-a-squeeze

CHARACTER

Note that Donaldson is working with tropes here, as she almost always does. Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype, and a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!)

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The old woman feels her little house is too small for her. The four walls make her feel ‘squashed and squeezed’.

DESIRE

She wants a bigger house, we guess.

OPPONENT

The Wise Old Man is a secret-ally opponent. He at first seems to be making her situation worse, but there’s method in his madness.

PLAN

She asks the local Wise Old Man what to do.

The word 'plan' is even used in the text.

The word ‘plan’ is even used in the text.

BATTLE

The battle scenes are slap stick set pieces as the Wise Old Man tells her to bring her farm animals into the house. He starts her off on the smallest farm animals and ends with the cow.

squash-and-a-squeeze-battle

SELF-REVELATION

Compared to having a house full of farm animals, a cottage with just her in it no longer seems so small.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.

ANNIVERSARY EDITION

This book was first published in 1993 and the publishers released a red edition to make the 20 Years edition. I don’t know. The blood red sky makes it look a bit ominous, though it fits the brief of seeming quite different:

a-squash-and-a-squeeze-20-year-edition

Kafkaesque Children’s Literature

The following works have been described as Kafkaesque:

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
  • Amphigorey by Edward Gorey
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • The BFG by Roald Dahl

Then of course there is the book My First Kafka, which reimagines three of Kafka’s tales for kids.

 

Picturebook Study: Chatterbox by Margaret Wild and Deborah Niland

chatterbox-cover

This is a very satisfying book to read aloud and my daughter just loves it.

Deborah Niland has made a great job of illustrating the characters, and I especially like that she’s drawn a very modern Nana — not your stereotypical Nana with her blue rinse and pearls. In fact, she doesn’t even have wrinkles. The main difference between the Nana and the mother is that the Nana wears glasses.

chatterbox-characters

The story taps into that very common dynamic where you can’t wait for your baby to start talking. But when she does, it feels like she’ll never shut up.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Max, the big brother, is impatient…

DESIRE

…for his baby sister to talk.

OPPONENT

Daisy is the opponent as she just won’t talk.

PLAN

Max, along with the rest of his family, try to get her to repeat things. They say things slowly and take her to all sorts of interesting places but she just won’t copy anyone.

BATTLE

The battle scene is when Daisy suddenly spews out all the nonsense that’s been repeated at her.

SELF-REVELATION

By the look on Max’s face, he regrets wanting Daisy to talk.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Now she won’t be quiet.

Picturebook Study: The Story About Ping

the-story-about-ping-cover

 

 

The author of this story is American, born on Long Island, in fact.

I’m reminded of the work of Margaret Wise Brown in that both Wise Brown and Flack had the uncanny knack of including the most unlikely details, which they somehow knew would appeal to young children. While Brown is writing a story about saying goodnight to all of the things in and outside a bedroom, Flack just knows to put eyes on the boat.

Basically, this is an adventure story with mythic structure.

First published in 1933, it belongs to the first golden age of children’s literature. This applies in both year of publication as well as in morals: Children in this first golden age were expected to take ill treatment on the chin and face up to their infractions of rules set by (supposedly caring) adults in authority.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

The illustrator, however, did live in China for six years as a young man. (Kurt Wiese is German.) He lived in a variety of different countries. It’s interesting, therefore, to look at his choice of colour palette, which is quite unusual. For him, China is cast in a yellow hue.

about-ping-yellow-cast

Asian Dust (also yellow dust, yellow sand, yellow wind or China dust storms) is a meteorological phenomenon which affects much of East Asia year round but especially during the spring months. The dust originates in the deserts of Mongolia, northern China and Kazakhstan where high-speed surface winds and intense dust storms kick up dense clouds of fine, dry soil particles.

Asian Dust, Wikipedia

yellow-dusts-beijing-2010

 

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Ping’s weakness is that he doesn’t pay attention to home time. And when he realises he’s late to get back onto his boat he ‘chickens out’ of going home at all — he is too scared to face the whipping he’ll get for being the last.

DESIRE

But after a night in the reeds he is lonely and wants to find his way back to his family.

Here the reader looks over Ping's shoulders. This encourages us to identify with Ping.

Here the reader looks over Ping’s shoulders. This encourages us to identify with Ping.

OPPONENT

A boy falls overboard and finds him. The mother is the main opponent; she wants to cook Ping up for dinner.

PLAN

The boy is the one with the plan. (In a picturebook this often happens — the ‘hero’ of the story is shared by an animal character and a human character. Hence, the story steps switch to the human character at some point. The boy plans to release the duck before his mother can cook him. He comes very close to death, because dusk is falling outside the basket, inside which he is trapped.

BATTLE

Ping walks the gang plank back onto his boat but he suffers a whip.

SELF-REVELATION

He realises that even if he’s late, being whipped is better than being without his family.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Back with all his family…

Home again on the wise-eyed boat on the Yangtze river.

 

THE POPULARITY OF PING

I didn’t grow up with this story. In New Zealand we were listening to Badjelly The Witch every Sunday Morning on Radio New Zealand with Constable Keith and his Alsatian, Sniff. (The dog was actually a stiff puppet.) We also had plenty of The Little Engine That Could, and a story I wish I could find now about some slugs who loved the ‘nice juicy lettuces’ (read in a beautifully deep voice), though shows that focused on reading weren’t part of 1980s broadcasting, unfortunately. The closest we had were the picturebooks shared on Playschool.

Meanwhile, in a different part of the world:

Ping has appeared on television since the 1950s. Actor Sterling Holloway or possibly Captain Kangaroo (or his friend Mr. Greenjeans) read Ping once a week on his show for seventeen years, while displaying its colorful illustrations in stark black and white on the screen. Only Stone Soup, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and The Little Engine That Could had longer runs on the show.

What’s not said is that this refers to ‘American’ television. (We can assume an American bias in most Wikipedia articles, I suppose.)

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