Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Out now — short story collection — How To Leave A Stranger

How To Leave A Stranger cover

iBooks Store Description

In this collection of 10 short stories you’ll meet a clairvoyant who struggles to live a spontaneous life, a woman who loves her weekly trips to the dentist, and a young man who is visited in the night by creatures of folklore. You’ll find love letters, thieves, unusual fantasies and ulterior motives. Apart from a general quirkiness, these stories are linked by brief encounters, abrupt desertions and permanent goodbyes.

What is ‘The Fridge Test’?

“You know. You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say, ‘Wait a minute …’” If a film has got the audience until they open the fridge, maintains [director Jonathan] Demme, then that’s all that matters.

So Rose Could Have Saved Jack In Titanic — So What, It Still Passes The Fridge Test, The Guardian

The article also explains that the refrigerator test is a modification on Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘icebox question’.

I suppose as cooling and refrigeration grows more advanced, subsequent generations will find their own terminology to describe the same thing.

Here’s what IKEA thinks fridges might be replaced with by 2025. Maybe a return to ‘ice boxes’?

Ikea concept kitchen 2025

Picturebook Study: Swine Lake by James Marshall and Maurice Sendak

If you’re American, perhaps you’re familiar with the following series:

George-and-Martha

About the Author and Illustrator

The author and illustrator of the George and Martha series also wrote other books, and one of those was illustrated posthumously (after Marshall had died, that is) by Maurice Sendak. Even if you’re not American, if you’re at this blog you’ll most definitely know who Maurice Sendak is!

So Marshall died in 1992 of a brain tumour. The powers that be probably weren’t expecting him to die quite so young, and awarded him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for contributions to children’s literature in 2007.

Maurice Sendak illustrated James Marshall’s standalone book Swine Lake for publication in 1999. Sendak himself died in 2012, but he was 83 when he died and, lucky for him, he lived long enough to see himself awarded that Laura Ingalls Wilder award, as well as receive an honorary doctorate, the National Medal of Arts and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, among others. The moral of that story is, if you’re a talented picturebook creator, make sure you live to a grand old age if you want to live to see all of your awards.

Let’s talk some more about James Marshall.

Marshall obviously enjoyed reimagining pop culture as animals. He came up with George and Martha while lying in a hammock as his mother watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearby. He took the characters George and Martha from that, but turned them into hippopotami.

He’s done it again in Swine Lake which, to the adult co-reader, at least, is an obvious pun on the famous Russian ballet Swan Lake, composed by Tchaikovsky. A synopsis of Swan Lake can be found here.

Swine-Lake-cover

Notes On The Illustration

 

It’s interesting to see that lettering on the cover, in which the block letters incorporate the picture, because it’s become very popular since Photoshop with its layer masks making it so easy to do.

Swine Lake puns intratext

Swine Lake is an example of a picture book in which the intratext is a part of the plot. This page adds to the humour, with a variety of #PigTheaterPuns (let’s make that trend on twitter, shall we?) Later in the book we’ll see the wolf reading the reviews of his own performance, in which the review is part of the illustration.

This is also one of those picture books which includes a subplot running through the illustrations which isn’t mentioned in the text. It’s often a pair of animals which play a minor part, and so it is here with the squirrels who Wolf initially contemplates eating, and who end up laughing at the spectacle of the wolf as dancer. The squirrels know that the wolf is really a wolf even if the pigs don’t. We see them exchange a knowing look on the final page (where there is nothing but a small picture, in true picturebook tradition).

 

The Plot – 7-step Structure

Weakness/Need

The wolf eats other animals and is ungrateful (for example when offered tickets). He is your typical sociopathic wolf. (Actually, I did hear that wolves are basically ‘sociopathic dogs’.)

Desire

He wants to eat pigs.

Opponent

Is there a true opponent in this story? This is one man’s self-revelation. Everyone around him is very obliging. The circumstances stand in his way a little — he has no money to buy a ticket.

Plan

He will get inside a performance of Swine Lake because there will be pigs everywhere. He can then have a pig feeding frenzy at an opportune moment. The hitch in his plan is that he has no money for a ticket, but he is saved by circumstance when a rich sow gives him her tickets.

Battle

The reader is expecting a battle, and this story subverts the expectations. The wolf’s battle is an inner one — what has happened to him? He’s so overwhelmed by the beauty of the play that he’s not the same wolf anymore.

In stories where there is no outer battle there is always some sort of climactic scene. Here, the author takes the climactic scene from the play and uses that to convey the crescendo of the wolf’s emotions.

Self-revelation

Wolf realises he loves the theatre, and his love of this art can even keep his mind off more grim matters.

New equilibrium

After reading such wonderful reviews of his own performance he’ll probably keep going to the theatre and trying to get in on the act. The final sentence says, “And he executed a couple of flashy dance steps.”

 

The Humour

A lot of comedic stories are of the type where the hero wears a mask, metaphorical or otherwise. The structure goes like this:

Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something
Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’
Dealing with consequences  [Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”]
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]

This book is a slight variation on this structure — when his mask ‘came off’ (when he lost himself and flew into the middle of the pigs’ performance to dance) the characters around him assumed he was only dressed as a wolf.

Wolf leaps onto stage

The metaphorical mask he didn’t know he was wearing from the get-go has come off, however: He demonstrates his wolflike bravado when he threatens to chase the squirrels (and then doesn’t), and when he has every opportunity to eat pig outside the theatre (but still doesn’t). This wolf is a lot more at home as a lover of ballet. Now he is free to dance. He also seems to have been freed from his wolflike impulses (though I’ve no idea what he’s going to eat from now on, which is a problem in all of these stories in which a carnivorous animal sees the error of their ways — The Tawny Scrawny Lion is another one!).

Everywhere you look in the illustrations, the more you realise you’re living in pig-land. The banister at the theater has been carved with pig faces, for example. Is this a visit to Pig Town for the wolf, who would surely be spotted right away if he’d really gone to such a part of town, or is this Wolf’s hallucination? We’ve already seen that he is scrawny and sick in bed. He could be dreaming the whole thing.

wolf entranced swine lake

Another word on the humour: A lot of picturebook humour derives from stock characters which have been inverted. In this case, a wolf loves ballet rather than eating meat and ballet dancers are shaped like pigs rather than the svelte figures we’re used to. In other words, it is funny that fat characters are dancing. Of course it is, right? Except for the problematic message this sends. And the fact that ballet is rife with eating disordered young dancers. I’m reminded of the documentary series Big Ballet which sets out to defy expectations by employing dancers with bigger bodies.

For the Channel 4 documentary series Big Ballet, 18 amateur plus-sized dancers were selected from 500 applicants for an experiment: under instruction from former Royal Ballet principal Wayne Sleep and dancer turned artistic director Monica Loughman, the larger ladies (and a couple of men) had just 20 weekends to master Swan Lake.

The Independent

I wonder if Prawn Lake could have been just as funny? I really don’t know. And if we lived in a culture where there was no body-size shaming, this book stands up just fine. I’m simply pointing this out type of humour as an example of just how deeply fat politics run.

 

Picturebook Study: The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury

2015 edition, with updated font and a new, blue background

2015 edition, with updated font and a new, blue background

The Three Little Wolves older cover

Here is an earlier edition of this picture book, with a soft yellow background and classic serif font

 

As you can see from the back cover, this book was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award.

As you can see from the back cover, this book was highly commended for the Kate Greenaway Award in 1993

Back in 1993, this book was a best seller and did well in a number of big prizes.

Most of the picture books I’ve looked at closely have been written in English, but this one started off in Greek, written by a famous Greek children’s author who is also a sociologist:

Dr Trivizas has published many books on literature, and he is one of Greece’s leading writers for children. He has produced more than a hundred books, all of them currently in print, and he has received more than twenty national and international literary prizes and awards.

— Wikipedia

The illustrations might remind you a little of the soft English countryside depicted by illustrators such as Beatrix Potter. Helen Oxenbury lives in North London and, like Trivizas, has a long list of books to her name. In 2008 she paired with our own Australian Mem Fox to create Ten Little Fingers And Ten Little Toes. Two  years later she co-created There’s Going To Be A Baby with her husband, John Burningham.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS BOOK

ORIGINALITY

At first glance it looks easy to take a classic tale and invert the goodies and the baddies. However, nothing interesting comes of this. The author/illustrator have to be just as inventive as anyone creating a tale from scratch. What Trivizas did here was:

He not only swapped the roles of the animals, he inverted the order of the classic story. In the original, it takes the first two silly little pigs quite a while to realise they should be living in a house of bricks rather than of straw or sticks. But Trivizas surprises us early on by having the smart little wolves build their house out of bricks. Where could the story possibly  go from here? As we find out, the ‘big bad pig wasn’t big and bad for nothing’, and as the little wolves build each successive abode more ridiculously strong than the one before (keeping to the rule of three), the big pig makes use of modern technologies (a pneumatic drill) and dynamite to ‘blow’ the house down.  The detail of the pneumatic drill is great — there’s nothing going down a level of specificity to get a laugh.

pneumatic drill

INVERTED MESSAGE

What’s the moral of the story in The Three Little Pigs? There are probably several, but the one I took from the story as a child was that one should always protect oneself from bad characters. The subtext is that bad characters are essentially bad — it is in their nature. Though what I’m about to say is most definitely an adult’s reading of this text, I’m very much reminded of the message that girls, in particular, get as soon as we start to ‘go out into the world’ ourselves: You must protect yourself from bad men. And if you don’t, well that’s your own fault really, isn’t it.

This particular message has been getting a bit of media discussion recently due to the work on domestic violence by Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, and an increasing awareness of what’s now known as Rape Culture, and the victim blaming that happens with domestic assault. (“Why didn’t she just leave?”)

What I love about the message in this book is that we’re telling children the truth about bad characters. No matter what we do to protect ourselves, if someone with bad intentions really wants to harm us, there is nothing we can do to stop them. A rapist intent on raping, for instance, will rape no matter what. If you manage to stay away from that person, he will simply move on to someone else, so broad announcements to baton down the hatches (don’t get drunk, don’t wear skirts etc.) do nothing. And that’s what happens in this children’s book. Instead, the little wolves have to wait for the big, bad pig to come good. If only real life were this simple, however. The big, bad pig comes good due to The Redemptive Power Of Beauty. In picture books, or especially in fairytales, beauty equals goodness.

 

The other part of the inversion I like is that you can’t tell a baddie from looking at them. Though the big pig is depicted as quite menacing, we are nonetheless conditioned to read pigs as victims and wolves as perpetrators in storybooks.

HUMOUR IN THE ILLUSTRATIONS

Oxenbury must be well aware of the typical child’s reaction upon hearing that a mother is throwing her children out of home. What sort of mother would do that, I wondered as a child. (We set a very high bar for mothers in children’s literature, even when those mothers are animals.) In her illustration — if you look very closely — the adult reader, at least, will notice a few details which depict the mother wolf as a bit of a lush. She has rollers in her hair (and tail), she’s painting her nails nonchalantly even as she’s telling her children to get out, and there is a very small bottle of something hidden in the folds of her bed covers, where she is presumably having ‘hair of the dog’.

Three Little Wolves opening page

On the topic of female characters in this story, there’s no reason why the adult reader couldn’t read the three little wolves as female. This is unlikely to happen because there are no feminine markers either, except one of the little wolves is very taken with his/her precious teapot, and my own stereotyping has me casting this wolf as female.

I like that the kangaroo with the wheelbarrow full of bricks is female. She has to be, of course, if the artist is to include the most wonderful thing about kangaroos — the joeys in their pouch. I like to think that the kangaroo construction worker would have been coded female even without the cute little joey in her pouch. Let’s have more of that in picture books!

Kangaroo

 

Stories come as wraiths

wraiths

The Principle of Intentionality

blue-curtains-9

In film, as in picture books, as in novels, everything has meaning and nothing just happens.

There’s a meme that does the rounds and you may have seen it, too. Memes often have an element of truth to them but this one is just plain wrong. If the author just wanted curtains, the author would not have specified ‘blue’.

Blue curtains English teacher meme

She didn’t know what she didn’t know until she did know.

She didn't know

 

Pair with this article on Intentional Ignorance from 99U.

Types Of Evil In Stories

Types Of Evil In Stories

MG Book Study: Once by Morris Gleitzman (2006)

Once Morris Gleizman front cover

This is the front cover

Once Back Cover_700x933

And this is the back cover, which is a masterful shorthand way to signal to a reader picking up this book for the first time that this is going to be a sad tale.

To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of this Australian middle grade novel by one of our best known children’s book authors, I’m going to take a close look at it using the 7-step story structure which applies to pretty much everything from advertisements to picture books to novels.

 

The Redemptive Power Of Literature

This is also a story about the Redemptive Power of Literature, about how creating your own stories in the midst of terror can get you through tough times. This is a common theme in MG fiction and it sells pretty well, perhaps because people buying the bulk of books love stories which are about the greatness of books. (Our picture book app The Artifacts is another example, as is The Amazing Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore app by Moonbot Studios.) We know that Felix’s family is ‘Good’ because they owned a bookshop. The mother cared more about books than about clothes, which is what the former bookshop has become since it was taken over by Nazi Germans. (Subtext: Books = depth of emotion, clothes = surface/superficiality/image.) The boy whose family now owns his old book shop even used to wipe his bogeys on the pages of books, which is a concise way of building an ignorant, uncouth character who we know not to identify with. The nun who shelters Felix, too, is a book lover who never had anything bad to say about a book.

On the other hand, books which glorify books can sound a bit insular and twee — Felix has been a big reader, but the downside of this attribute is also shown; Felix learned how to tell if something is dead out of a book, yet he has no street smarts. He’s all knowledge, no clues.

Necessary Prior Knowledge

The reader needs to know the very basics of WW2 — that Nazis killed Jews in Poland. Even then, younger readers without this knowledge will travel through the story with the same level of naivety of Felix, and undergo an historical revelation at the same time Felix discovers the truth. In other words, young readers will respond differently to this book depending upon this prior knowledge.

Voice

Once by Morris Gleitzman is an excellent example of a MG story with an unreliable narrator. The reader is given enough information within the first few chapters to know that Felix is a Jewish boy living in Poland during the Nazi era and his life is in danger. Poor, naive Felix knows something fishy is going on but he hasn’t got his facts quite right: he thinks the Germans are after his Jewish parents because they don’t like the books they sell in their shop. He doesn’t know about the plan to rid the world of Jews.

The book is written from the first person point of view and in the present tense. The linguistic trick which is repeated: Every chapter opens with the titular word ‘Once’. Maria Nikolajeva, when writing about children’s literature in From Mythic To Linear: Time In Children’s Literature breaks prose in children’s books into two distinct categories according to the treatment of time:

1. The iterative — In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening.

2. The singular — In a singular sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening happened in this one story.

Whereas the iterative is associated with the phrase ‘Once upon a time’ (there lived three bears in a cottage…), by truncating this fairytale opening to ‘Once’, Gleitzman plunges the reader straight into the singular — the events in this book happened one time, to one boy. Yet the fairytale quality is still there: This happened long ago. The storyteller narrator is now much older, and is deliberately toying with us, letting us in on the joke of the dramatic irony.

It’s therefore a great choice to switch to the present tense after the single, past tense sentence that opens every chapter. A story written by an unreliable narrator — but one who has since learned the truth — would have no reason not to simply tell the reader the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But the present tense voice is youthful, it takes the narrator himself right back to 1942, and the reader now feels as if the boy is telling us the story rather than the hypothetical old man who is a famous author running a cake shop in 1983. Whereas the opening sentence of each chapter is quite long, the present tense voice is almost staccato, and reads like a Paul Jennings story, with mostly very short sentences.

There is also a thematic reason for the word ‘Once’, which has its counterpoint on the dedication page:

For all the children whose stories have never been told.

In other words, this particular story only happened once to this one boy, but this sort of story has happened so many times over the course of history that the ‘once’ becomes an ironic counterpoint.

On the inside of the back cover we read:

Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.

This is truncated from the part where Barney buys Felix some secondhand books with three precious turnips and justifies them by saying everybody deserves something good in their life at least once.

There is a juxtaposition between the dire situation of Hitler’s eugenics regime and the voice of our narrator which, because of his naivety, feels justified.

The Hero

Felix is immediately likeable, which is important in a character who is basically clueless. This is like the MG equivalent of a picture book like Rosie’s Walk — he’s walking around in extreme danger of being shot but narrowly avoids it at every turn.

Likeable child heroes stand up for other children. We see Felix do just that in the opening pages. Likeable heroes are generally the underdog, which is also by far the most common stock character in comedies for adults, too. We like to see underdogs get into and out of scrapes. On the road, he even saves a girl by carrying her on his back. Boys are even more likeable if they rescue girls than if they rescue other boys — a narrative we also saw in the aftermath of 9/11, which Susan Faludi points out in her book Terror Dream, became the dominant narrative — male firefighters saving women and children — and plunged America back into a mindset which glamorised the gender dynamic of the 1950s that exists mostly in our collective imagination.

Felix becomes even more likeable as we see that Zelda, the little girl he has rescued, behaves like a spoilt brat, with some stock brat behaviours such as sticking out her bottom lip, being ungrateful to Felix who has saved her, and turning Felix’s story around to be about her. She complains about Felix’s smelly hat, as prissy girls do.

An audience also loves trickster characters. There’s an element of Felix getting away with something by pretending to be an orphan when he’s not. (At least, he thinks he’s pretending, and we hope so, too.)

 

Seven Step Story Structure

As in the best MG stories, the weakness/need, desire and opponent are all established within the first few pages.

Weakness/Need

Felix is naive. This is going to endanger his life, because if he knew what was good for him, he’d stay where he is, sheltered in the Catholic orphanage in the mountains of Poland. Naivety is a pretty common weakness in MG heroes.

In order to live a good life, Felix must learn the truth of his situation.

Desire

It has been more than 3 years since his parents left him in the orphanage and his great desire is to be reunited with them.

Opponent

The opponents are the Nazis, not that Felix knows this. However, the reader knows this, which is enough.

Plan

The inciting incident happens on the first page. Felix finds a whole carrot floating in his soup. He takes this as some sort of sign from his parents. He will break out of the orphanage, go back to his house in the village and find his parents working in their bookshop.

He finds that when he gets to the bookshop his parents are no longer living there.

Battle

The battle is often a three part affair: gate, gauntlet, visit to death.

The gate scenes happen as the two children walk to the city, where they come across death and destruction everywhere. The image of the dead old lady is resonant, especially since Felix wants to carry her on his back as well as Zelda but doesn’t have the capacity.

There is a really clear gauntlet scene as the children walk into the city. There are soldiers lining the street and Gleitzman paints a really clear picture:

The wide streets are dirty and the tall buildings, five levels high some of them, have all got Nazi flags hanging off the balconies and out of the windows. Army trucks and tanks are parked everywhere and lots of soldiers are standing around telling each other foreign jokes and laughing.

Then there is an actual gate:

We’re heading for a big brick wall right across the street. That’s a very strange place to build a wall. There’s a gate in the wall with soldiers guarding it and the people ahead of us are going through the gate.

The visit to death is where Felix has the revelation that things are much worse than he thought:

What was that noise?

Gunshots.

Everyone is screaming.

Over by the wall two people are lying on the ground bleeding.

Zelda is taken away from Felix at gunpoint and he winds up on the ground. This is a clear ‘visit to death’.

He is saved by a large man in ‘scuffed’ attire. This reminds me of stories such as the Grimm Brothers’ version of Little Red Riding Hood in which a large man rides in to save the child from the beast. It’s generally a good idea to have kids find their own way out of trouble, but in a situation such as this that would be unrealistic. Also, the young hero’s entire desire is to find his parents and save them. Being saved by a large man emphasises how powerless he really is compared to how much he thinks he can achieve. He thinks that if only his parents hadn’t put him in an orphanage he would have been able to save them somehow.

It’s worth noting that later, in the dire situation in the train, on their way to the Death Camp, it is indeed Felix who saves everyone, though inadvertently. He literally saves the day with his book of stories by generously donating the notebook as toilet paper, which he tries to hang on a bolt of the wall, then realises the boards are rotten and they can all escape. The other take home point there is that the earlier battle scene wasn’t actually the most dire. Gleitzman really does get our hero into the worst situation before he comes good.

Self-revelation

In the face of evidence everywhere, Felix eventually works out what has probably happened to his parents. There is no single epiphany — we see his psychological slump when he doesn’t want to tell the other children he meets up with his stories. They have a fairytale quality and he feels they’re irrelevant and pointless in the face of such doom. But he doesn’t lose hope entirely. When Barney tells Felix his parents might not ever be found, Felix is sure he is wrong.

There is an audience reveal near the end of the story too — Zelda’s parents are actually Polish Nazis who have been killed by the Polish resistance for being turncoats. This revelation adds some much needed gray area into a story about war. The problem with war stories is that the audience always roots for the hero. The enemy appears in ‘long shots’ — like the nemesis in superhero stories the enemy tends to be outright evil, and never victims of the same circumstance.

New Equilibrium

This part of the story has been truncated for the purpose of leaving the reader uncertain about Felix and Zelda’s future. “At least we get to choose,” Felix says, of the decision to either jump from the moving train or not. Likewise, the readers get to choose our own ending, and just enough detail is given about the cake shop scenario (an example of side shadowing) that readers can choose that as the story’s reality if they want to. When the story leaves off, however, Zelda and Felix are in the middle of nowhere, having jumped from a death camp train during wartime and Zelda is injured.

A further note on the ending: Just before the last third of the story we are encouraged to believe that Felix is not going to find his parents, but we’re fairly confident Barney the kind dentist will step in to be the parental figure. When Barney heads off towards the Death Camp with a pocket full of syringes this alternative ending we’ve been asked to consider makes the actual ending so much more sad. A similar technique is used in many tragedies, for example in the film Million Dollar Baby. In the hospital Maggie and Frankie discuss going to live in a cabin somewhere in the woods where Frankie will be able to immerse himself in his books while looking after Maggie. Because this alternative ending has been posed, Maggie’s death seems all the more of a shock. The story craft lesson here: In order to get the most emotion out of a sad ending, make sure you pose an alternative, happy ending first, whether this is done overtly (as in the dialogue of Million Dollar Baby), or subtly, as books are better able to do.

And a further note on the character of Barney: This is a rare example of a an adult male who displays emotion.

“I can feel Barney’s tears falling on me. For a while he doesn’t say anything, just strokes my head.”

This is great to see in a children’s book since they aren’t seeing it on the screen. As Howard Suber (film expert) quite rightly points out about movies:

Three kinds of people are allowed to express fear: children, women and men who will come to an unfortunate end. In all three cases, fear is a weakness that either requires someone else to do the job or is a kind of fatal flaw.

— Howard Suber, writing about film (also in 2006)

Although Once reads like a standalone book, it is actually the first of a four part series. So readers do in fact get to know what happens to Felix and Zelda next.

Once Series Gleitzman

Anything Can Be A Girl

Anything Can Be A Girl

Inversion Does Not Equal Subversion: The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt And Oliver Jeffers

The Day The Crayons Quit

This picture book is a best seller and is made by two picture book superstars, so I’d like to use it as an example of something which bothers me a lot in children’s literature and film: Gender inversion that ironically supports the status quo.

This book has a message for young artists: Use all the colours in your crayon box. Use them in original ways. (‘Think Outside The Crayon Box’.) And the gender message for boy readers: If you’re a boy, don’t be afraid to use the pink crayon.

Pinkification

The problem with pink and gendered constructs in general.

(Please tell me who created this graphic if you know.)

This is of course a response to the pinkification of toys and games that’s been happening over the past 10-20 years.

1. Do Gendered Toys And Playtime Have Their Place Or Is It All For Profit? from The Mary Sue.

2. Stereotyping Childhood from Don’t Conform Transform. Why does the pink and blue division of toys matter? See also: I’m Dreaming Of A Non Pink and Blue Christmas from the same blog.

3. Beauty And The New Lego Line For Girls from The Society Pages (See also: Retro Lego Catalogue Praises Little Girls’ Imagination from The Mary Sue. And if you’re wondering what the new Lego for Girls looks like, you can see it at Ms Blog.) Here are a couple of retro Lego ads, and as far as I’m concerned, they should still look pretty much like that.

4. Lego For Girls Already Exists. It’s Called Lego from Mommyish, and here’s more commentary on the superfluousness of the new Lego line, which is discussed amid a handy explanation of Stereotype Threat from Don’t Conform Transform. (Girly Lego Sucks, But It’s Selling Like Hotcakes – an update from Jezebel.) And if anyone here is still wondering what the problem is, Peggy Orenstein tells Mommyish Why Those Girly Legos Should Give Parents Pause.

5. Gender Typed Toys: What The Research Says from naeyc

6. On Vanity And Princess Culture from Blue Milk, talking about dolls and other faux-harmless toys for girls

7. Pink Or Blue: Defining Gender Neutral Parenting – Baby Storm’s parents have not revealed Storm’s gender.

8. Toy Ads And Learning Gender from Feminist Frequency (a video)

9. But just because it’s not pink, doesn’t mean it might as well be.

10. Monica Dux conducted an experiment: ‘Walking my baby up and down a busy shopping strip. She was dressed in a lime-green hoodie and pink pants but before I set out I covered her pants with a grey blanket. The immediate assumption from all those who cooed at my infant was that she was a boy.’ The rest of the story is here.

11. Embracing Girly: On Letting Girls Be Who They Are from Don’t Conform Transform: ‘There’s nothing wrong with a child choosing any or all of those things or loving them, but there is something wrong with media and marketers providing only one vision of what a girl can like and who she can be.

12. A short clip from the comedian Jared Logan about the difference between the television commercials for boys’ vs girls’ toys.

13. Feminizing The Masculine, a Pinterest collection which ends up being a visual guide to how pink is used to market to adult women as well as to girls.

14. Are Gender Neutral Spaces Actually Doing Anything?, from Inequality by (Interior) Design

15. Dame Jacqueline Wilson dares her publishers to not put a pink cover on just one of her books, to prove they would still sell, from The Telegraph

16. Loving pink for boys, hating it for girls, from Motherlode

 

pink

 

The Difficulties Faced by Authors/Illustrators In Conveying This Message

Best selling title that it is, lauded for its gender subversion, there are some potential problems in this story.

First I’ll quote Jennie Yabroff who wrote in The Washington Post:

Even children’s books that seem radical in other ways reinforce a male-dominated universe. The current bestsellers “The Day the Crayons Quit” and “The Day the Crayons Came Home” have been praised as parables of inclusion and celebrations of diversity. One bookseller I spoke with even described the rebelling crayons as a metaphor for the Occupy movement. Yet not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun. Just about everything and everyone in the books — from five of the crayons to a paper clip to a sock to Pablo Picasso to the crayons’ owner, Duncan, to his father to his little brother — is male, or not assigned a gender. The exceptions are a female teacher and Duncan’s little sister, who uses the otherwise under-employed pink crayon. To color in a picture of a princess. And is praised for staying in the lines.

 Anita Sarkeesian has already explained in detail our culture’s tendency to create a cast of male characters, each with differing personalities, then create a new ‘female’ version, in which her defining characteristic is ‘femaleness’. The audience knows that this is the girl because the creators have slapped a bow on her head, put her in heels and a dress, given her eyelashes or marked her out with pink.

 

This doesn’t happen in video games — it happens on TV shows designed for children, in computer software used in schools, in advertising, in toys, and of course in mass market picture books.

Toy makers are in the same moral bind: Consumers want female versions, but how to show femaleness without stereotypical markers of femininity?

Toy makers are in the same moral bind: Consumers want female versions, but how to show femaleness without stereotypical markers of femininity?

Since readers of The Day The Crayons Quit have been acculturated within a system which pinkifies everything associated with girls, it should have been clear to this book’s creators — who presumably understand this tendency in children precisely so they can subvert it — that without gender pronouns, or clothes, or human names, the crayons are all default males.

It should also have been clear to any creators properly schooled up in gender politics that getting the male hero to pass on a message praising his little sister for ‘staying within the lines’ is just the sort of sexist bullshit that turns primary school aged girls into what I’ve heard teachers refer to as ‘colourer-inners’ by the time they hit high school. No, that’s not a grammatically sensible phrase, but an English teacher I once knew used it to refer to her female students who, instead of doing the research and the thinking required before writing any essay, would spend 90 per cent of their allocated time creating an ornamental page border, choosing which shade of paper to print on, then hum and ha over 7 different system fonts without doing any actual work. Having later taught at a girls’ high school myself, I became so exasperated with this tendency that I banned any modification to the Word template at the start of each lesson. Who could blame these girls though, after having been told their entire lives that looking pretty and creating prettiness was the most important thing they should do?

This picture book hardly blows that bullshit apart.

I’m most disturbed by the bit that says:

Okay, listen here, kid! You have not used me ONCE in the past year. It’s because you think I am a GIRLS’ colour, isn’t it?

I’m reminded here of all those picture books for toddlers which are designed to teach children not to be afraid of monsters. The book will then offer up a detailed picture of just exactly what a monster looks like (green and scaly or warm and fluffy) and where it lives (under the bed, behind the curtains). My own daughter was never scared of monsters until she encountered them in other people’s stories, and those first stories happened to be picture books, naturally.

When boys and girls are told that this generic ‘kid’, Duncan, is not using the pink because he is a boy, there is nothing whatsoever within the text or the pictures to say:

AND WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING A GIRL, ANYWAY?

The message is not: Femme phobia is stupid because even though pink is ‘for girls’ girls are just a-okay. No, the message is: You can use the pink crayon even though it’s an icky girl colour. (So long as you use it to make a dinosaur.)

How Might This Book Be Better?

  • The crayons probably do need to be gendered, with 50/50 male/female. The pink crayon could have even been a boy, to really hammer home the ‘pink is for everyone’ message. I’m a bit icky still about all this because in a perfect world these crayons could remain completely ungendered. Also, the pink crayon is not actually marked as female in any other way apart from being pink. Still, if the creators didn’t know that was going to happen, they are surprisingly naive.
  • Don’t praise little girls for colouring within the lines while offering up an example of creative freeform drawing in little boys.
  • Show that Duncan has coloured in the princess rather than creating a dinosaur with the pink. Maybe have the little sister be the one drawing the pink dinosaur.
  • Either get rid of the bit that preaches about pink being related to girls (it should be obvious from the illustrations anyway, for children who already ‘get the cultural message’), or else append with something that challenges the inherent femme phobia.

The first part of the message works i.e. ‘Be creative and original with colour’. But with something as complex as gendered messages, unfortunately inversion does not equal subversion.

This picture book fails in its gender message however. In fact, it makes the whole thing worse.

And the peach thing is a bit problematic, too, as noted by a Goodreads reviewer:

In regards to the “naked crayon” (peach) mentioned by other readers, I believe this refers to Duncan removing the crayon’s wrapper and not the author’s inadvertent implication that peach is the only color equivalent to skin tone. Even so, as others have noted, the illustrations would be improved by diversifying the figures in the book (they’re all colored with peach crayon although brown and beige crayons are referenced), especially since one of the book’s lessons is to experience color in various ways.

 

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