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Category: Picturebooks (page 1 of 19)

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.

Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.

In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO

For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The mouse.

What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.

But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a stand-in for the child.

Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.

Gruffalo and Mouse

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.

In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by  having Gruffalo walk behind.

Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.

BIG BATTLE

In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one battle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo behind, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.

So what’s the Big Battle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.

Mouse has won.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.

At a lower level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any battle.

At an even lower level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, that thing really will seem true after a while. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

The final page shows Mouse eating nuts, and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before, though I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now.

 

STORYWORLD OF THE GRUFFALO

Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.

Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories, even when those stories don’t have words.

(Frazee is pronounced FRAY-zee.) Continue reading

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is an American picture book written by Judith Viorst, published 1972.

This was the first in the Alexander series, followed by:

  • Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday
  • Alexander, Who Is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move
  • Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever

Writer, journalist and psychoanalyst Judith Vorst wrote her Alexander books modelled on her own three sons, who were about that age when she wrote them. She decided to write the book about Alex because he seemed to have more than his fair share of bad days at the time. At first he wasn’t happy about this and asked if someone else could have the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, but when his mother reminded him that he’d get his name in big letters on the cover, he agreed to be the star. These days he is apparently quite happy about the whole thing.

Much more recently, Viorst has created a girl version of Alexander. Her name is Lulu.

  • Lulu and the Brontosaurus
  • Lulu Walks the Dogs
  • Lulu’s Mysterious Mission

Like Alexander, Lulu is what Viorst describes as ‘a hard like’. These are the Max’s from Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, or some of Shel Silverstein’s characters. Viorst names The Secret Garden as an influence from her own childhood. The children in that classic are also hard to like. Viorst writes these characters because she knows children take comfort in learning that others have the same bad feelings as they do.

Before writing Alexander, Viorst had worked as a children’s book editor. This partly explains how she was able to create such an iconic book that the title became part of the English language lexicon. (She says she is very proud of this fact.) Like all the best picture books, Alexander feels simple. For this reason, it’s worth breaking down.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY

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Elephant and Piggie Storytelling

The Elephant and Piggie books, invented by Mo Willems, are favourites of my 9 year old daughter, who is otherwise long past beginner readers. She has asked for more Elephant and Piggies for her tenth  birthday. She feels a lot of similar level stories are ‘too babyish’ for her but an enduring interest in the Elephant and Piggie series demonstrates the extraordinarily wide age appeal of these stories. As adult co-reader, I enjoy them as much as she does. These books are more than ‘dual audience’. Dual tends to refer to ‘one developmental phase of childhood plus the adults who read alongside’, but in this case the appeal is young childhood, middle childhood, right through.

I listened to an interview at The Yarn, with Travis Jonker and Colby Sharp, in which Willems says: There is no formula when it comes to writing picture books.

There is no ‘formula’, because ‘formula’ suggests ‘low quality’ a la R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. But there is a certain structure that all good stories share. The Elephant and Piggie stories do conform to this structure. This structure provides a coat hanger for the originality that Willems and his writing team bring to each story in the series. Willems describes this structure as ‘a trellis’. He describes himself as a structuralist, ‘but more of a formalist than other people’  in the way he writes and constructs his stories. He says this comes from his time working in television. Television writers have to understand structure in order to get ideas out on time, and when your task is to create something exactly eleven minutes long it becomes even more important.

STORYTELLING NOTES FROM MO WILLEMS

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The Ideology Of Persistence In Children’s Literature

If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.

An episode of a Freakonomics podcast provides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up.  But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.

persistence Continue reading

Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

Light vs. Darkness

Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.

Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is obviously all about the dark.

the dark jon klassen

In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against warms (lights), and the light from a fireplace casts a frame as our baddie creeps towards the door. Continue reading

Read Boss Baby by Marla Frazee. Don’t watch the film.

Boss Baby, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, is an award-winning 2010 American picture book released by Dreamworks in 2017 as a film. Boss Baby was adapted for screen by Michael McCullers, who also gave us Austin Powers and Mr Peabody and Sherman, which will give you some idea of the tone.

Notice the label ‘inspiration’ for the major motion picture. While book and film begin in similar fashion, a film is much longer and needs much more plot.

Boss Baby is a perfect example of a picture book that appeals to a dual audience. Later adoptions and foster care situations excepted, almost every adult reading this book to their child has been through the newborn phase with the little person they’re currently reading the book to. The humour in this story is — to use this taxonomy — predominantly Reference Humour, layered with Character Humour (adults will also recognise the Tyrannical Boss character trope, and enjoy seeing it made fun of. Adults, and slightly older children, will recognise the extent to which Frazee has turned ordinary baby gear into office equipment — the high-chair table becomes a desk; the baby monitor is now a phone. A baby bath is now a luxurious spa; the swing at the park is a private jet. I am confident in saying there is some Character Humour that only adult co-readers will get — when the baby decides to think ‘outside the box’, the child see the ‘box’ is his playpen, but adults will recognise this as cliched corporate jargon.

What will children find funny? Plenty… and this is where the illustrations really shine. As shown a few years later when BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures became an instant bestseller, children LOVE the idea that they run the show. For them, the humour comes from a simple Juxtaposition (called ‘Analogy’ by the guy who runs The Onion). Boss Baby is basically a Status Flip story.

The illustrations are full of ‘Hyperbole’ humour. Boss Baby doesn’t just hand over a folder of instructions — he hands over so many papers it literally fills the living room. The parents aren’t just tired; they’re so exhausted they literally keel over.

Another standout feature of the illustrations is the perspective, which makes a really interesting case study because the general rule of thumb is: Powerful characters look down on weak characters. From the reader’s perspective, when we look down on a character they seem weak; when we look up to a character they seem formidable.

But in Boss Baby, the reader looks down onto the small baby — emphasising his smallness — yet it is very clear from the framing, lighting and body language that he is the boss. Standing in the front doorway, the light from outside casts a massive shadow of the parents. The juxtaposition between the baby’s actual size (tiny next to the briefcase) and the shadow he casts, adds to the humour.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF BOSS BABY

Who is the narrator of Boss Baby? The Dreamworks screenwriters decided to create an embodiment of the narrator, in the form of a big brother. This does make perfect sense, because there is an entire category of picture books about ‘bringing the baby home’., and those are designed to be read to the ‘big’ sibling. Also, the parents are referred to as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, capitalised, but then when you become a parent you’re quite often referred to as the ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’, so this doesn’t in itself mean there’s an older sibling watching on. (Alternatively, the narrator could in fact be the slightly older Boss Baby himself. There is something a little retro about this book, suggesting it’s older than 2010 — the mother is wearing a dress that seems to hail from the 1950s.)

Most bringing-baby-home picture books espouse an idealistic ideology — this new baby is gonna be great! (Just as soon as you get used to sharing him with your parents!) Some little-sibling stories are more emotionally honest. Feelings of uncertainty and jealousy are real when you’re the eldest sibling, and stories which acknowledge the disruption are my favourite kind. Boss Baby is the emotionally honest kind. (Chatterbox is another.)

The picture book is a good example of an ensemble cast. Another story with an ensemble cast is Little Miss Sunshine.

Ensemble casts aren’t quite as easy to break down, because the different ‘functions’ of story are divvied up. While it’s the baby who has the ‘plan’ in this story, it’s the parents who have the ‘problem’.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

The ‘main character’ is the family of three. For the purposes of story analysis I will consider the narrator omniscient rather than an older brother.

The problem this family has: When a new baby arrives in the house he absolutely runs the show. The parents have no choice but to obey his every command.

DESIRE

The baby wants his every need met, including constant company. We assume the parents want some of their freedom back, or at least some sleep.

OPPONENT

The members of this family are their own opponents.

PLAN

Babies, of course, do not make plans. They do not have the executive functioning to do so. That’s why Marla Frazee’s decision to turn the baby into a tyrannical corporate boss works so well. Now the baby’s plan is to dominate his family, deliberately running them ragged for the pleasure of it.

boss baby middle of the night

There’s a slightly noir feel to the lighting in this illustration, with the light on outside the bedroom. It’s almost like they’ve been called to a dark alley by a mob boss. Notice how well Frazee depicts exhaustion. The parents’ regular eyes are dots, but here she gives them larger, more detailed eyes.

BATTLE

The Boss Baby continues to give his parents the absolute runaround — we can see the pace pick up when there are more mini-scenes on a single spread. In a picture book, this is a sure sign of the Battle Sequence. The baby wins. We know the baby wins because the parents are literally flat out on the couch, almost like they’ve been defeated in a boxing match.

boss baby battle

SELF-REVELATION

Sure enough, the Battle Sequence is followed swiftly by not one but two separate self-revelations:

He called a meeting.

His staff did not respond.

He called and called and called. Nothing.

The boss’s usual demands were not getting their usual results.

it was time to try something completely out of the box.

In other words, the baby’s MO is no longer serving him well, so he realises he’s going to have to get his needs met some other way. This is where he says his first words.

For their part, the parents are delighted that all their hard work seems to be paying off. Not only that, but suddenly in their eyes, the little tyrant in their house seems like a baby rather than a boss.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

When the parents hug their baby this marks a turning point in the family — the really hard newborn phase is over, and now they’re all moving forward into a slightly easier time.

 

I hope I’ve managed to persuade you that this picture book is among the best of the best. I would encourage parents to avoid the Dreamworks film. Mostly for this reason, but also because sometimes the short version of a story is far more powerful than a fleshed out, colourful, noisy plot.

 

Mr Big by Ed Vere Picture book

STORY STRUCTURE OF MR BIG

Mr Big is a tale told by a storyteller narrator, who we meet on the very first page and then soon forget. Almost all picture books have third person narrators but most often we don’t consider who that might be, so there must be a good reason for introducing Mr Big’s friend. The good reason is that the friend is very small, taking up about an eighth of the title page. Then, when we meet Mr Big on the following page, he seems adequately and ridiculously large.

The ideology of the story exists as back cover copy: A true friend comes in any shape or size!

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM OF MR BIG

“Now, Mr Big had a small problem,” we are told. “Compared to everyone else he was extremely… (page turn) big!”

The rule of threes is utilised as the first ‘act’ of the picture book takes us through various situations in which Mr Big is lonely. He is so big he scares everyone away from

  1. The park
  2. The cafe
  3. The bus

His psychological weakness is clearly explained: “No one stuck around to find out who he really was. So inside, Mr Big felt very, very small.”

Mr Big in the restaurant

DESIRE

As in many picture books, our  main character’s weakness has been clearly stated in words. In this format there’s no time to show it, hoping the reader will work it out for themselves.

The desire, on the other hand, is left up to the reader’s deduction.

Mr Big is lonely; therefore he wants __________. Any child can probably work that out.

This has me asking a question I haven’t had until now, even after all this time of breaking down the structure of picture books: Do successful picturebooks spoon feed EITHER weakness/need/problem OR desire, but not both? This is something I’ll have to take a closer look into.

OPPONENT

Mr Big’s opponent is his own body — a variation on ‘he’s his own worst enemy’. But for a story that’s never quite enough — the opposition has to be personified (anthropomorphised in this story, ‘peopled’ with animals). The opponents are all the smaller creatures who refuse to stick around to get to know who he really is.

PLAN

Mr Big gives up on friendship with ‘people’ and instead seeks solace in the company of a piano who looks all alone in a shop window. He feels a connection to it, takes it home and sits down to play, to assuage his own loneliness.

BATTLE

Instead of everyone gathering for an epic battle, everyone gathers in the square to listen to the beautiful music coming from Mr Big’s window, sort of reminiscent of Rapunzel. Remember how the prince hears Rapunzel singing as he rides by and makes it his mission to discover who it is? I’m also reminded of the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday in which a piano player has the ability to enchant the people around him, changing their lives.

The ‘battle’ sequence in this kind of story is perhaps better called the ‘Culmination’. The piano playing ends with him getting invited into a local jazz band.

Note in Mr Big

The ultimate success of a piano player is to be seen on the stage, and so we see him playing to a crowd, who now think he’s marvellous.

SELF-REVELATION

But the stage scene is also the self-revelation.

At last everyone could see the real Mr Big!

Just like a film such as Le Week-end, self-revelations/end-of-battles often occur in front of an audience. This is a staple from traditional mythic structure. The 3000-year-old version of ‘Photo or it didn’t happen.’

Mr Big playing on stage

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Mr Big in a pink cadillac

Wisely, the author replaces the problem of loneliness with the problem of celebrity:

Mr Big has a new problem. He doesn’t get much time to be alone… and that’s just the way he likes it!

 

More and Better by Margaret Neve (1980)

more and better cover margaret neve

STORY WORLD OF MORE AND BETTER

Once upon a time there was a green valley, with a hundred farmhouse windows shining across the meadows. People were happy and prosperous there, but as the years went by the land grew poor. Many farmers left the valley for the town.

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The Amazing Bone by William Steig

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

The Amazing Bone William Steig book cover

 

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE AMAZING BONE

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