Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, story apps, eBooks, short stories

Out Now — Free Picturebook — Lotta: Red Riding Hood

Lotta: Red Riding Hood intro media for iBooks

Click to download for free from iBooks Store

If you are familiar with Slap Happy Larry’s story apps for iOS — illustrated picturebooks for older readers — you’ll know approximately what to expect from this pdf eBook.

Recommended for readers age 13 and above, this is a dark tale with a positive ending, and will leave much for younger readers to discuss with older co-readers, especially in regards to personal freedoms, gender expectations and rape culture.

For those without an iPad, also available as a PDF document on Scribd.

Picturebook Study: No Roses For Harry! by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

No Roses For Harry Cover


Human grandmother sends partly anthropomorphised pet dog a coat for the dog’s birthday. The coat has roses on it, and the dog does not like it. He goes to great lengths to lose the coat. It ends up being used by a bird to make a nest.

Harry gave his sweater to a bird


I feel I must preface this part by saying that the entire story is based on the ‘universal given’ that if a male character looks like a female character (ie wearing a sweater covered in roses) then this is an inherently shameful thing. This is an idea that you don’t see so much in modern picturebooks, and that’s a good thing. These days you’re more likely to end up with stories such as My Brother Bernadette (by Jacqueline Wilson), in which a boy or boy character dresses like a girl and manages to subvert reader expectations, with the message that everyone should be able to dress how they feel comfortable without judgement. In this way, the storyline of No More Roses For Harry is dated. A more generous, less feminist reading of this book has me believing that Harry dislikes the roses because he is a dog, and in my experience of dogs, they prefer the smell of cowdung and dead things found in the undergrowth. Then again, the degree of personification of Harry leads me inevitably back to the first reading.

As is Zion’s storyline, Margaret Bloy Graham’s illustrations are ‘genuinely retro’. There have been numerous artists since who emulate this retro style by restricting colour palette and using paper and ink rather than a computer to recreate the feel of the fifties. But if you’re looking for a genuinely 1950s book, you get it right here. In this story you have the nuclear family, with a little boy and girl; you have visits to a 1950s style American department store; you see middle-aged women wearing fur stoles and 1940s headscarves.

No Roses For Harry Grocery Section


If I had to pick, I’d say the illustrations of the Harry books are more masterful than the text. This observation is borne out by the fact that the illustrator went on to both write and illustrate many books, and two of her earlier books had won major awards. The writer ended his career after the Harry series. It would be interesting to know the extent to which the writer and illustrator collaborated on this project, because there are parts of the text which repeat information adequately provided by the illustrations. This of course is also an editorial thing, and leaves me wondering if it’s mainly modern picture books that have evolved to avoid this, because you don’t see it much in picture books published 2015.

Harry didn’t know it, but a bird was watching.

The reader can see from the picture that the bird is watching. Bloy Graham has positioned the bird in such a way that the reader can’t miss it, in fact. In modern picture books, I feel that sentence would have been edited out.

That said, there is some nice ironic counterpoint here and there:

When [Harry] got home, his friends were waiting to play with him. But Harry didn’t feel like playing so they left him alone.

This page shows three dogs sitting in close proximity to Harry, smiling at him and waiting for a response, showing that they didn’t exactly leave him alone at all.

Apart from black and white, the illustrations have been done with a very limited palette of — unusually — fluorescent orange and khaki green. I say ‘unusually’, because many picture books from this era, when ink was very expensive, have been printed in black and red, a more common colour combination. This modern edition, purchased 2015 in paperback form from HarperCollins, has been printed in off-white, yellowish paper, which makes the book seem retro, as if it’s been sitting on the shelf for a few generations already.

The drawings of the human characters remind me quite a lot of the Flintstones, and I believe it’s down to the black ovals for eyes.

For some strange reason, the eyes of Wilma and Barney are drawn as dots while the other characters get more realistic eyeballs.

For some strange reason, the eyes of Wilma and Barney are drawn as dots while the other characters get more realistic eyeballs.

When illustrators depict animals with human emotions, they often add eyebrows where there are none. Humans convey a surprising range of emotions via the eyebrows, and trying to draw a dog or a cat or a horse without them is very difficult.

Angry Harry

Then again, any illustrator who is going to create books with animal creatures had better be a good observer of animals. Below is a picture of Harry in typical shamed dog pose, with his ears down, looking up. Dogs don’t have so much whites in their eyes, so the eyeballs, too, have been personified.

Harry shame


The facial expressions on the dogs add humour to the story. The humour is amplified because Harry’s cranky expression juxtaposes with the delighted faces of both human and canine onlookers.

There is humour again on the final page, in which Harry is wearing a sweater that has exactly the same markings as the dog himself. This visual humour is used to great effect in the must later Z Is For Moose, in which the zebra wears a zebra-striped shirt.

One plot knot the writer had was: How to have Harry lose the coat when it was tied onto his body? I feel this part of the story is its weak point.

When [the children and Harry] went into a big store to shop, the children took off his sweater and let him carry it. This was just what Harry wanted.

Unfortunately, we never see a picture of Harry ‘carrying’ his sweater, which lead my seven-year-old daughter to ask, ‘How would Harry carry the sweater?’ When she thought about it, she said, ‘Oh, I know how he would have carried it,’ but she didn’t let on to me how it would have been achieved, and now that the question has been posed, I feel completely in the dark on this matter. (If you think kids don’t notice things in picture books, you’re wrong! They’ll be reading the pictures better than their adult co-readers, who are by necessity and training, focused mostly on the words.)

Another small hole in the plot is that Harry runs home and the children, who accompanied him on the outing, are nowhere in sight. The dog and the children make it home independently, and not a word is mentioned of Harry’s running away after the bird who unravelled his sweater. However! I think this is something child readers can accept without too many questions.



First published 1958, this is the second in the Harry series. (Harry The Dirty Dog had been published two years earlier.) There came another two after this.

Margaret Bloy Graham grew up in Canada but moved to New York to be an artist.

Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham were a husband and wife team. There may well have been more Harry books had the couple not divorced.

After the divorce, Margaret Bloy Graham continued to illustrate and also to write. She came up with a new series of dog books. This time, the dog was called Benjy.

Benjy's Dog House cover

published 1973

Bloy Graham was also awarded two Caldecott honors early in her career: All Falling DownThe Storm Book.

As for Gene Zion, he published no more children’s books after his divorce from Bloy Graham. He had been trained as a graphic designer.

Bloy Graham’s obituary in The Guardian



Hairy Maclary From Donaldson's Dairy Cover

Zion and Bloy Graham’s Harry series is one of the ancestors of the very popular Hairy Maclary series by New Zealand author Lynley Dodd. Harry is similar to Hairy Maclary in that:

  • He, most obviously, is a beloved pet dog who lives with a family, trying his best to get along in what is essentially a human world.
  • He displays emotions which are identifiably human (though dog-lovers would argue that these are all emotions that are felt just as keenly by dogs!) Harry is a little more like a human than Hairy Maclary and friends, though not by much. For example, Harry looks into a mirror and recognises the reflection as his own. He feels self-conscious. This is not something Hairy Maclary would do, though Hairy Maclary does seem to feel some self-consciousness when he wins the prize for ‘scruffiest cat’ after barging into the local cat show.
  • Harry goes on trips out into the human world, having adventures that children themselves can rarely have simply because they are more closely supervised. This was true in 1958, but is even more true now.

My Brother Bernadette deals quite differently with a boy who dresses in stereotypically feminine clothing. No attempt is made to ‘cure him’ of this problem.

published 2001

published 2001


Short Story Study: Bernadette by Mavis Gallant

The idea of a strange, perhaps untrustworthy housemaid is particularly discomfiting to a middle class who can afford such luxury; we hate to think that we invite our own evil into our comfortable homes. An untrustworthy woman let into the home is a familiar trope in horror stories.


The Nanny 1965

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle 1992

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle 1992

Sometimes the trope isn’t used in the horror genre, but to lend a bit of horror to a different kind of story.

The evil nanny from season four of Downton Abbey 2013

The evil nanny from season four of Downton Abbey 2013


The reader of Mavis Gallant’s story Bernadette is lead to wonder, what is wrong with this girl and is she about to do something terrible? In fact, the housemaid of this story is simply a magnifying glass into the evil which existed in the house before her arrival.



A housemaid (Bernadette) working for an English family in Montreal falls pregnant. Eventually some houseguests point her expanding belly out to her employers. The wife, based on knowledge of previous infidelities from her husband, thinks that her husband has made the housemaid pregnant. She confronts him but realises that, on this occasion, she may be wrong. The reader is left wondering the same thing.

In the final scene, Bernadette sits alone, as usual, in the womb-like movie theatre, watching a love story which she knows is not a reflection of real life, but enjoying it regardless. Having come from a destitute family in which the mother did not believe in vaccinations, Bernadette does not believe for a moment that her baby will survive. She thinks of her future dead baby, and that she will have her own little guardian angel for always.



The story itself is set in Montreal, but this is an English home. In order to fully appreciate the story, ideally the reader would have some knowledge of the political climate in Canada and in particular Quebec in the mid 1950s. Even without this knowledge, though, we are given enough information to deduce that Nora is a left-wing socialist.

Bernadette is French Canadian and comes from Abatibi, a region of Quebec. We are given enough information to know that she grew up in poverty, in an area with parochial attitudes.

Abitibi Quebec Canada


bernadette characters mavis gallant

Before coming to Montreal, Bernadette had been warned about the licentious English–reserved on the surface, hypocritical, infinitely wicked underneath…

The most important attribute of Mr and Mrs Knight alike is that neither of them is really as they wish themselves to be. They send their daughters to private school even though their politics mean that they don’t believe in the principles behind private schools. Nora Knight pretends to want eradication of the class system as it stands, but has a keen sense of hierarchies herself, telling her housemaid to leave certain arduous tasks for the char. A truly egalitarian attitude would have the family managing their own housework. Robbie Knight is a partner in a firm of consulting engineers but fancies himself a frustrated playwright, getting a cheap fix from offering armchair critique on anything written for the English language stage. Yet Robbie is ‘afraid of words’. “Bernadette reads French better than we do,” Nora says to her dinner-party guests, as if Bernadette’s status as housemaid would automatically render her illiterate and unthinking in her own native tongue.

It is significant that the main characters are not who they appear to be, because at the end of the story the reader is left wondering, as his wife does, if Robbie Knight is who he appears to be. Nora, preparing to move out, imagines the living room as it would look if it were emptied of furniture, knowing that there are cracks in the walls behind the pictures hanging there. There are metaphorical cracks running through this relationship, based on untruths and false political views. Nora holds a party for a priest even though she is anti-Catholic. Even the house is ‘pseudo-Tudor’.

It is significant that Bernadette is Catholic. This is left to be inferred (mainly from the name) but also by the fact that her employer is Protestant, leaving the reader to deduce that Bernadette is not. The difference in religion is just one of many differences between the household and the housemaid.

He prays for me



Things are not as they seem on the outside.

We may think that we’ve been forgiven for our trespasses; indeed we may have been. But don’t be surprised when we’re later accused of something we didn’t actually do.

Forgiveness has its limits. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean revival of trust.

We cannot understand what goes on in another person’s mind. Empathy, too, has its limits when there are class boundaries to be traversed.

Favours done for others are often, if not always, done to appease our own selves.

Egalitarian, socialist political views are easy; harder to stick to your morally correct principles if it means making genuine personal sacrifice.



From the very first sentence the reader is invited to speculate upon what, exactly, Bernadette is counting down to. Given that Bernadette is a young woman, it is easy to guess that she is pregnant, and we feel smart when this is revealed. It is important that the reader guesses correctly because then we are given the confidence to guess at the father of the baby; like Nora Knight, we may well guess that it’s her husband Robbie at fault. We then understand how Nora Knight jumps to the same conclusion. This is a masterful technique which requires the author to understand exactly how the reader is interpreting her work, and at what pace.

The exact setting of the story is not revealed until midway through. The story is set in Montreal, Quebec, where the dominant culture is French. Until this was revealed, I had imagined that the French-speaking housemaid was in an English-speaking part of Canada or America, on the back foot because of the need to converse in a language that is not her own. However, after the revelation that the story is set in the land of the French, this puts the Knights on the back-foot. It is the Knights who are speaking the foreign language. It is the Knights who are compromised in this way. As it turns out, the Knights have communication difficulties between themselves, despite their modern, progressive, California-style way of sharing their feelings and ‘talking things through’ in the kitchen. They are both foreigners in foreign territory, and this atmosphere extends inwards, right into the home. By contrast, the disenfranchised housemaid manages to feel secure, despite being alone in the picture theatre. Is the housemaid really all that much worse off than the people she works for?

There is a phrase which is repeated, in relation to Bernadette: There are certain things of which she never doubts. One of them is that men in the street will want to sleep with her, and so that’s what happens. In the final paragraph the phrase is repeated: ‘It would be born and it would die. That it would die she never doubted.’ This is disturbing given what we have learnt of Bernadette — that she gives herself over to what she thinks must be inevitable. Since this girl will be responsible for the baby’s life, we are left with a sense of foreboding. The last three words of the story are ‘ready for death’. The masterful thing about this foreshadowing is that it culminates in terror.



Who is the father of Bernadette’s baby? For the purposes of the story — in order to understand the theme — no answer is necessary. But is it just that? Are we supposed to try and work it out?

Robbie refers several times to Bernadette’s ‘snail’-like hair. This suggests he does not find her sexually attractive; snails are the least sexual things alive, well-known for being mostly hermaphrodites. It’s unlikely that Robbie found Bernadette physically attractive. But of course this means nothing, because non-consensual sex (if it was that) doesn’t always involve physical attraction, being about other things, such as power.

Bernadette is shown a number of times throughout the story to be a devout, or at least a very mindful, Catholic, which forbids sex before marriage. But when she goes looking in shop windows she usually ends up with a man, ironically because she has been warned about such things and therefore finds it inevitable.

‘Unexpectedly, in that ghostly way they had, he was beside her at the book case.’

Robbie grabs Bernadette’s arm in a baffling way. Bernadette represents warmth and comfort, which she brings into the room with her. It is explained that Robbie has a fascination for women ‘of the people’. In short, he may well be interested in Bernadette because of her difference and mystery. He even tries to get some answers out of her, asking if she has a big kitchen back home, and if her farm is quite modern.

‘she had, in a sense, accepted it as inevitable that Mr. Knight would try to seduce her. When it was over she would have another sin to account for. Mr. Knight, a Protestant, would not have sinned at all. Unique in her sin, she felt already lonely. His apology sent her off into the strange swamp world again, a world in which there was no footing; she had the same feeling as when they tried to make her read books.’ It’s unclear, written in a subjunctive sort of mood, whether this seduction actually happened or if this is something Bernadette is worried might happen, given that Robbie is English, and that she has been warned about the English. The one slip of the subjunctive is ‘His apology sent her off…’ Did Robbie apologise to her, and what was it for, exactly? Are we back in the present now, with Robbie apologising for grabbing her arm?

Bernadette tells Nora that Robbie ‘should know’ about her pregnancy, and doesn’t want him involved at all.

In short, we’re given enough evidence either way, which leaves us in limbo as regards Robbie’s guilt.


Approx 8,500 words

Dated 1957

Third person point of view, switching between the characters of Bernadette, Robbie and Nora. The story begins and ends with Bernadette, the title character.

Found in The Cost Of Living.

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant


The Heroine by May Sinclair, also about a housemaid who goes above and beyond duty, leading the reader to wonder about her motivations.


Have you ever been baffled by the behaviour of someone you have invited into your home?

Have you ever known someone whose political beliefs do not reflect their real-world actions? Do you struggle with this kind of discordance yourself?

Have you ever been at a party which started off amicably but descended into arguments after the liquor kicked in?


Picturebook Study: Perspective

The illustrators I admire the most have one thing in common: They each employ the full range of perspectives and points of view: high angle, low angle, up through tunnels, long shots, close ups and so on and so forth. Much can be gained from thinking about perspective in picture books, though Perry Nodelman the whole thing up in a few sentences:

Generally speaking, figures seen from below and against less patterned backgrounds stand out and seem isolated from their environment and in control of it; figures seen from above become part of an environment, either secure in it or constrained by it. Also generally speaking, illustrators who make significant use of changing angles tend to be those who emphasize the intense drama of the stories their depict; Van Allsburg and Trina Schart Hyman, both of whom tend to depict highly charged emotions, use extreme views from above and from below in book after book…As well as viewing their characters from varying angles, picture-book artists can place them against differing sizes of backgrounds, much as movie directors do, in order to focus our attention on specific aspects of their behaviour. Long shots, which show characters surrounded by a lot of background, imply objectivity and distance; they tell us about how a character’s actions influence his environment, or vice versa. Middle-distance shots, which show characters filling most of the space from the top to the bottom of a picture, tend to emphasize the relationships between characters. Close-ups generate involvement with characters by showing us their facial expressions and, presumably, communicating the way they feel…In picture books, close-ups are rare–not surprisingly, for the width of most picture books makes it difficult to show a face without any background behind it. IN any case, this is a literature of action rather than of character, and the empahsis is on events and relationships rather than on subtleties of feeling. If close-ups are used at all in picture books, they tend to be on the front cover or dust jacket and to operate more as an introduction to a character’s appearance than as a way of revealing character.

– Words About Pictures


Jumanji Van Allsburg

from Jumanji by Van Allsburg

from Zathura by Van Allsburg

from Zathura by Van Allsburg


A Child's Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman

A Child’s Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman – bird’s eye view

A Child's Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman

A Child’s Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman – over-the-shoulder view of empathetic character

The Kitchen Knight Trina Schart Hyman

The Kitchen Knight Trina Schart Hyman – drawn from the height of a child reader looking on

Burkert's Snow White - an example of a close up of a face on a front cover

Burkert’s Snow White – an example of a close up of a face on a front cover


Picturebook Study: Conventions From Photography

[F]or many decades after the invention of photography, blurred objects represented inferior work, for we do not actually see fast activity as a blur, and people therefore did not understand the blurs in photographs. But now we have learned from photographs to interpret blurs as objects in motion, and the conventionality of conventions is confirmed by the fact that even illustrators now sometimes imply speed by drawing a blur.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures


Scene from Hilda Bewildered

Blurred scene from Hilda Bewildered

Hilda Bewildered is full of illustrations which borrow from photographic conventions; indeed, that’s what the story is all about — surveillance. For more information, see the close-reading notes, available as a link from within the app.


Picturebook Study: The Glance Curve

The Glance Curve

Perry Nodelman makes use of the term ‘glance curve’ in relation to our reading of picture books:

[O]ur tendency to read pictures from left to right has other effects…In a discussion of how pictures seem quite different if we reverse them photographically and look at their mirror images, Mercedes Gaffron suggests that we conventionally look at pictures in terms of “a certain fixed path which we seem normally to follow within the picture space”. Gaffron calls that path the “glance curve” and suggests that it moves from the left foreground back around the picture space to the right background. Because we look first at the left foreground, we tend to place ourselves in that position and to identify with the objects or figures located there: “we not only feel that the objects represented here are near to us, but also that they have greater importance to us. People represented here belong to our side in the figurative sense of the term, in contrast to the people on the right side”. In fact, the protagonists of many picture books — the characters we are asked to identify with — do tend to appear on the left more often than not…In illustrated versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the young girl almost always stands to the left of her mother in the first picture–at least in many versions of the story in which the first picture shows mother holding up a finger while she offers her daughter instructions.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Honestly, this is something I hadn’t noticed particularly, but it’s funny how things sink in regardless. When I illustrated a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood earlier this year, I indeed had placed Lotta to the left of the mother, although this particular retelling does not include the ‘mother holding up a finger’ scene that Nodelman describes. I’m not sure what this says, exactly, except that everything we’ve ever read is obviously an influence, because things get embedded in the brain without us knowing it.

Page 2 of Lotta: Red Riding Hood

Page 2 of Lotta: Red Riding Hood, in which the grown-up empathetic character is introduced

Sure enough, a cursory glance tells me Perry Nodelman is right, and why have I not noticed it before?

Little Red Riding Hood, as illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

Little Red Riding Hood, as illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman


I’m guessing part of the reason why a child protagonist situated to the right seems more daunting is because of the ‘chasey’ nature of it; pages are turned from left to right, and typically in picture books, the child character leaves safety, has an adventure, meets with peril and returns home to safety. A child on the right means that no one is propelling/chasing the character forward.

Nodelman offers other examples of ’empathetic character placed to the left’, and mentions Rosie’s Walk. At first glance, Rosie is the empathetic character — after all, the book bears her name — but Nodelman argues that because the fox is consistently drawn to the left of Rosie, then it is actually the fox with whom the audience is encouraged to empathise. This is the fox’s story. I liken that to Road Runner, in which the Road Runner is indeed the title of the show, but the poor old coyote engenders sympathy.

Roadrunner Coyote

Of course, none of this suggests that the empathetic character is always placed on the left in picturebooks. Nodelman has noticed that:

  • If this rule is a thing, then if an empathetic character is placed to the right, the reader senses that the character is in peril. Where The Wild Things is a good case study in this technique.
  • Once a dangerous event is over, the positioning of a protagonist on the right might in fact suggest rest rather than tention, particularly in the last picture in a book. This is because the last thing we look at signifies an ending.


Picturebook Study: Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay

Rudie Nudie Cover


A sister and brother have a bath together. Their mother towel dries them. Instead of getting dressed immediately, they take a few minutes to prance and leap and enjoy the way their textured environment feels against their skin. The story ends with their parents putting pyjamas on them and tucking them into bed. Everyone is exuberant from start to finish.


The words  have wonderful mouthfeel, and remind me of the prose of Dr Seuss at  his best. This is a kind of chant, which I can see being memorised and played out in real life by children who emerge from the bath.

There’s an argument to be made that there is not enough nudity in children’s book, or in media in general. Left to their own devices, children are interested in the body in its natural form.

Hannah's Undie People

by Hannah, age 6

There may well be a time when we look back on this period of history the same way we modern people tend to look back on the Victorian era: There’s something very strange about how we conflate nudity with sex. And surely this is the reason we don’t see more naked children in picturebooks for young children. Children in real life are naked a lot more often than they are naked in the books they read. The conflation of sexuality and nakedness is especially the case for naked little girls.

As Perry Nodelman writes:

There are few [especially] female nudes in picture books, simply because there are relatively few pictures of unclothed girls in picture books — it seems that we so associate feminine nakedness with sexual availability that artists tend to forbid its appearance in the theoretically sexless atmosphere of children’s books. Nevertheless, the rare female nudes in picture books tend to sit in bathtubs or hold towels around themselves or hide behind trees; they almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity, and they almost always smile out at viewers. For instance, Carl Larson’s “Bedtime scene,” reproduced in Wiliam Feaver’s When We Were Young, shows a young girl in nothing but black stockings, facing the viewer; she stands and looks at us without modesty but clearly not without consciousness of her full frontal nudity. Her gesture implies that she knows she is being looked at and clearly assumes that her viewers have the right to look at her, and her pout makes it clear that she enjoys being looked at.

Even rarer than female nudes in picture books are naked females. The only two I have encountered are both infants, and thus, presumably, representations of a safely asexual innocence, and both were drawn by Maurice Sendak. When Sendak depicts the Princess of MacDonald’s The Light Princess as a naked baby with exposed genitalia, her facial gesture is unlike those we associate with nudity; she is neither smiling nor pouting nor in repose with her eyes close; she looks a little drunk. Of all the naked goblin babies depicted in Outside Over There, only one reveals her genitalia and only once, and that happens when she is too busy dancing to Ida’s wonderhorn to look very enticingly available. The other naked babies in Outside Over There do often take the poses of nudes, but their doing so establishes an ironic tension both with the fact that they are dangerous goblins and the fact that they are “just babies”.

There are more naked boys than girls in picture books, probably because we unconsciously accept that boys can have their clothes off without implying their availability for our pleasure. In fact, pictures of naked boys almost all show them clearly doing something–moving, active, not posing. One of Caldecott’s illustrations for “The Farmer’s Boy” shows a naked boy cavorting on his nurse’s knee while a nude girl with the pouty mouth of many pinups sits quietly in the tub, her voluptuous back awaiting our inspection. When male frontal nudity occurs–more often than does female frontal nudity–the boys in question are too involved in intense activity to be passive pinups. The action lines at the elbows and knees of Carlos Friere’s depiction of the unabashedly naked Simon in Daniel Wood’s No Clothes make it clear that is is in motion even though he directly faces viewers.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures


The wonderful but rare thing about Rudie Nudie is that we see two naked children (one boy and one girl) and neither of them is aware of the ‘gaze’ of the imaginary camera. They are completely unselfconscious in their nakedness. Not only that, but they take great delight in the sense of touch, rubbing their bare feet across the coir doormat, running through leaves, feeling the wind rush past as they run. This is a period of early child which is all too soon gone, but Rudie Nudie is a celebration of that carefree time.



Rudie Nudie bath scene

The best picture book illustrators are able to show characters in motion. Too often (as described by Nodelman, above), characters are too static. It is indeed easier to draw a character who is poised for the viewer. Much more difficult to convey a sense of movement. Emma Quay notes this on her blog, and realised between creating the first drafts and the final that even the mother needed more movement:

When I look at this page from my sketch book, I can see the history of the development of my ideas for the bath illustration. I tried a few positions for the little boy, and at first Mum was a bit too static, sitting on the right hand side of the bath. I decide to move her to the left and have her leaning in to splash the children. The various diagonal lines help add more movement to the picture.

Emma Quay

Illustrators and writers have had difficulty getting naked children published in books, and there are no signs that the self-publishing era is making it any easier. (Apple, for instance, has its own restrictions on nudity in products available on its app and iBooks stores.) Even when naked bodies are published, there is the hurdle of getting past the gatekeepers of children’s literature: teachers, librarians, parents. Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen ranks high on the list of banned books.

So how does Emma Quay avoid the ‘icky’ feeling that some adults harbour about children cavorting naked in books?

1. This is an Australian publication. I’m going to hazard a guess that Australians are generally a little more open when it comes to showing vast areas of skin. It’s probably to do with the subtropical/tropical climate of the top part of this continent. A hypothetical question: Would this book have emerged out of England, or America? If it had, it probably would have taken a slightly different form. I can’t imagine English children finding delight in rushing outside naked for all but a few weeks of the British summer. On the other hand, there are parts of Australia where you wouldn’t let your children run around outside without shoes on. In the end, anything is possible in a picture book.

2. There is no depiction of genitalia. The children are drawn side-on and in motion, and their raised legs hide any genitalia. Their bottoms are in full view, but…

3. These are highly stylised drawings of children.  It wouldn’t do to make these drawings too realistic, to the point where a viewer could recognise the child model upon which the illustrations are based. these children are everyone and no one.

4. The illustration style never lets the reader forget that these are just drawings. Apart from the highly stylised line-drawings, the colour of the children extends beyond the line, reminiscent of cut-outs glued on. So the reader thinks of collage. The graphic design of the book is quite like a scrapbooking project, with blocks of pastel colour forming the background. The ‘cut-out children’ therefore seem like embellishments, like part of a decoration. Their nakedness therefore is very much secondary.

Interestingly, the hue chosen for the colour of the skin is what we typically think of when we think ‘flesh colour’. This is the colour of the ‘flesh’ labelled crayon of my 1980s box of Crayolas. In other words, it’s nobody’s colour in particular, though undoubtedly reminiscent of ‘white’.

Rudie Nudie running down the hall

I really like that there is a father who gets involved in bath time here. Although the story could have been completed without a father in sight, I get the sense that some fathers (more often from an earlier era) feel uncomfortable getting involved in the nitty-gritty personal care of their (or especially other people’s) children.

Rudie Nudie dad's involvement


Published 2011 in Australia by HarperCollins

Children’s Book Council Of Australia short-listed book

Australian book industry award winner


Books mentioned by Nodelman, and which work as counterpoints to Rudie Nudie:

When We Were Young William Feaver

The Light Princess Cover

Scene from The Farmer's Boy

Scene from The Farmer’s Boy


Short Story Study: Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever

Clear Island

Modern Day Clear Island, Massachussetts

This is one of John Cheever’s better known stories. In fact, it was this story which contributed to Cheever’s receiving his Guggenheim Scholarship. An uneasy relationship between two characters who are brothers is a dynamic Cheever returned to time and again throughout his writing career. When he does this, the relationship is always a metaphor for something bigger.

I like the contrast between two brothers, and I prefer the nihilist brother Lawrence, nick-named ‘Croaker’. He may have a tendency to point out the downside of any situation, but he is nonetheless right. When he notes that making improvements on a house near the coast is futile due to erosion from the sea, I’m reminded of that very modern division that can occur between family members at gatherings: Those who worry about climate change and rising sea levels versus those who insist that any climate change is a natural phenomenon and nothing at all to worry about. No matter the era, there will always be somewhat of a clash between pessimists and optimists; that’s what make this story timeless.

After reading this particular short story, I suspected there was far more to it if you cared to look below the surface. Sure enough, after reading Peter Mathews’ essay A Farewell to Goodbyes: Reconciling the Past in Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” I realise that in order to really understand Cheever you would ideally have an understanding of mythology, the history of religion, and a keen eye for symbolism. I’m sure I could keep digging into this one until I reached China.


The Pommeroy Clan gathers at the family’s summer house, built in the 1920’s on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Continue reading

Smile, baby! You’re on the cover of a picture book.

[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”–show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Smiling Girls

As Nodelman points out, it’s easy to find illustrations of smiling girls in passive, portrait position. When both a boy and girl are depicted, it’s the girl who is more likely to be aware of the imaginary camera. Note that even The Little Match Girl smiles. Anyone who has read that story knows that the reader should perhaps be forewarned; this story is no smiling matter!

CinderellaThe Up And Down BookBaby's ChristmasWildLittle LuluGood Bye TonsilsThe Little Match GirlRed Riding Hood LadybirdLittle Red Riding HoodAlice In WonderlandThe Christmas ABCFun To Cook BookPepper Plays NurseLucy and Tom's ChristmasPhoebe and the Hot Water Bottles

Some Smiling Boys

The boy on the swing is aware of the camera but he is at least doing something (showing off). The boy in front of Baby’s House is proud and prancing about. The red-haired boy looking coyly at the camera is in more typically feminine pose. It’s no accident that he is doing something more typically feminine.

The Up And Down BookBaby's HouseThe New Baby

Smiling Group Portraits

It’s hard to get everyone in a group smiling at the same time, especially when doing something else at the same time, but not if that portrait happens to be an illustration:

The JetsonsLittle VersesHansel and Gretel


Smiling Creatures from Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss was a fan of the portrait-style smile on a front cover. This makes sense, because the inner stories were presented much like a pantomime, with ridiculous goings-on which seem designed to delight a young audience.

If I Ran The ZooGreen Eggs And HamCat In The HatFox In Socks


Other Smiling Creatures

If you’re hunting for smiling-at-the-camera male characters gracing the fronts of picture books, it’s a bit easier to find males smiling who are not human.

Frosty The SnowmanThe Monster At The End Of This BookPuss In BootsSomething ElseWordsChatterly Squirrel

Hell, I’m Not Smiling

Though these are obviously posed, portrait-type illustrations, in which the painted child is in front of an imaginary camera, these children are not actually smiling. Indeed, the twins look exceptionally creepy to a modern audience, though it wasn’t so long ago that nobody smiled for cameras; portrait-sitting was a solemn and expensive event.

My KittenMy PuppyMy Teddy BearThe TwinsWe Like Kindergarten

See also: Nudity In Picturebooks

Stories Must Start With Character Desire

levels of desire

When starting a story, your main character has to desire something otherwise the story won’t work. Don’t skip this step.

At the most basic level, the MC only wants to escape. The MC has been reduced to ‘the level of an animal’.

At the other extreme you have a high fantasy plot, in which the MC desires to save the entire story world.

Once your character has her desire line, she’ll generally need some allies to help her with her goal. In film, the allies will also function as sounding boards, though this shouldn’t be their only function. Use this ally to define your MC. Never make the ally a more interesting character than the MC. The story should be about your most interesting character.

– notes from John Truby, The Anatomy Of Storytelling

Picturebook Study: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Hansel and Gretel Gaiman Mattotti Cover


One of the best ways to retell a familiar story is to add plenty of minor detail. The trick is to make this detail seem both unexpected and surprising.

There are things I really like about Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel:

1. In earlier retellings, it is Hansel who has all the bright ideas. Hansel realises what the parents/step-mother has done to them — abandoned them in the woods. By comparison, Gretel seems naiive and even stupid. In this retelling, Gaiman offsets this interpretation by making Hansel — but not Gretel — privy to an overheard midnight conversation between the  mother and the father.

2. So often in fairytale retellings, it is a step-mother rather than a birth mother who is evil. It is generally thought that a story with an evil mother is too terrible for a young reader to contemplate. If there are unwritten rules in children’s literature (and indeed, there must be few these days, if we include YA), it is that mothers must love their children unconditionally, even if they themselves are too screwed up to care for them properly. If you went looking for terrible mothers in children’s literature you’d be hard pressed to count the evil ones on one hand. But Neil Gaiman does not shy away from the reality that some women do indeed lack mothering instincts, just as many men lack fathering instincts.

3. Not only that, Neil Gaiman portrays gut-wrenching emotion in the father. Counterintuitively, this is what makes this story feminist — a story in which women are not put on a pedestal as mothers, where women have only one representation: self-sacrificing and emotional. In stories, men are often allowed to be just men, even when they have children. They are not judged so much on how effective they are as fathers. In this story, however, the father is the parent with the nurturing instinct, and is at the mercy of his wife’s terrible decisions rather than the other way around. We won’t have gender equality until we have as many bad mothers as there are bad fathers, I guess.

Continue reading

« Older posts

© 2015 Slap Happy Larry

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑