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Category: Picturebooks (page 1 of 18)

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.

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

Boring Mrs Bun by Juliet Martin and David Johnstone (1986)

What sort of story is Boring Mrs Bun?

boring mrs bun cover

Almost every story in the world is structured like this.

But #NotAllStories

Rather, not all books we’d call stories. Not all picture books are stories. Some are abecederies. Others function simply to introduce the young reader to new concepts.

Every now and then you get a mood piece.

Boring Mrs Bun is a character sketch.

There is an inevitable problem that comes with character sketches, at least of the thumbnail kind. Spending an entire novel delving into the psychology of a character is a completely different matter, but the best authors avoid thumbnail character sketches.

You may notice that picture book authors avoid them completely. This isn’t because of the common prejudice that children do not like descriptions, preferring scenes and dialogue (because it has been shown empirically that actually children enjoy the pauses in picture books as much as adults do) but comes down to something else:

  1. The wish for reader to see themselves in the character (the Everyboy and the Everygirl)
  2. The wish to avoid stereotyping.

It’s impossible to describe a character without that description meaning something, possibly something you don’t intend at all.

Let’s take a look at Boring Mrs Bun as a case study.

The book opens with this image:

boring-mrs-bun

Mrs Bun works behind the counter of a cake shop. She always looks the same.

She wears a long grey overall that buttons to the neck.

She scrapes her hair back from her face and knots it in a bun.

People look at Mrs Bun and think that she is BORING.

But we know better…

Overleaf:

fun-mrs-bun

We know that when Mrs Bun gets home from work, she rips off her uniform and rummages through her wardrobe for clothes she wants to wear.

She finds jaunty denim dungarees, a sunny yellow tee-shirt and purple running shoes. She shakes her hair loose from its bun and styles it into spikes.

“Ah!” says Mrs Bun. “That feels better.”

And we think she looks COOL.

Already you can guess at the author’s message: Don’t look at an old lady and assume that’s all there is to her. In fact, don’t look at anyone and assume that what you see is what you get — there is always much more to people than the part you see.

Using the same structure, the book goes on to contrast the boring image of Mrs Bun at work with the woman who:

  1. lifts weights in leotards behind the garage
  2. does splits on the kitchen floor
  3. goes snorkelling at the beach
  4. drives a sports car
  5. has a colourful and wild garden
  6. paints abstract art
  7. is in a band and plays drums
  8. wears orange footless tights and goes out dancing
  9. rides a motorbike through the city at night

Finally we are told:

So next time you see Mrs Bun behind the cake shop counter, be brave enough to look into her sparkling blue eyes.

Catch the twinkle… watch her smile… listen for the bubbles in her laughter as they fizz up like lemonade.

BECAUSE WE KNOW THAT MRS BUN IS NOT BORING, DON’T WE?

The unintended consequence of this message is that the grandmother trope is not actually subverted, because having tea parties with your friends, watching TV and then turning in early and ‘scraping’ your hair back off your face and wearing grey clothes done up to your neck is — for women — the undesirable version of ageing.

This is a celebration of youth over age, because the behind-the-scenes Mrs Bun does youthful things and is full of unlikely energy.

The youthful Mrs Bun has her lips and eyelashes emphasised, because she is dressing in an acceptably feminine way.

The youthful Mrs Bun smiles, whereas the old lady Mrs Bun feels no need to smile for your benefit.

Whichever version of ageing you aspire to, it’s clear that the book comes down heavily on one side over the other. A different author/illustrator team might well come up with a story with the exact opposite message — that old lady Mrs Bun feels no need to subscribe to your narrow ideas of acceptable ageing and is past the emotional labour of smiling in a bakery, thank you very much.

And that is the problem with writing character sketches. Sometimes you want your ideology to shine through but other times you don’t. Even if you do, the reader might not get what you want out of it. Also, it’s almost impossible to describe a character without the stereotypes and prejudices of the era shining through.

CHARACTERS AND DETAILS

There are lots of ‘character details templates’ floating around on the web. Writers can download these and fill these out. They can be a very useful part of the writing process, but that doesn’t mean all those details should end up in the final product.

Pretty much every writing teacher warns against giving too many character details.

In reading for character, readers conventionally use their knowledge of the way people in the world around them usually behave to assign traits to characters, to guess about their motivations, to reconstruct their past, or even to predict what they might do after the end of the story.

Reading in this way implies that fiction is a kind of gossip. It assumes that authors say a little bit about the characters they describe so that readers can have the fun of guessing about all the aspects of character and experience they are not told about. […] But, like gossip, guessing about literary characters can misrepresent them by fitting them into categories readers already possess. Readers who want the pleasure of perceiving something more than or something different from what they already know or believe about human nature have to work with a different assumption: that authors carefully select what they choose to say, and that their choices–both what they say and what they don’t say–define what they wish readers to understand.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

 

I’ll go into detail about how a character looks if I think it’s really important to the storytelling. For instance, Butch the T-Rex, I wrote him to have scars and be very large.

— From interview with Pixar writer

 

Only spend time describing what it’s important to describe, what’s going to matter in the rest of the story. That may be what your characters look like; then again, it may not. You decide.

And even if your characters’ appearance is important to you and your story, the story’s very beginning may not be the best place to go into any great detail about it. You want your readers to be able to imagine your characters, not describe them for a robbery report. Have your people talking and doing: that will make the stronger impression.

— Anson Dibell

Attributes are those elements of character that people have little or no control over because they have been received as part of genetic inheritance or socialisation…Aptitudes, similarly, are largely beyond conscious intention or control, and thus part of our ‘fate’…Memorable characters are those that go beyond their attributes and aptitudes — they are defined, not by what they are, but by what they do. … Aptitudes, similarly, are largely beyond conscious intention or control, and thus part of our “fate”. … Memorable characters are those that go beyond their attributes and aptitudes — they are defined, not by what they are, but by what they do.

— Howard Suber

Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterization’ (age, looks, IQ, job etc.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask).

— Robert McKee

 

A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer

A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer

The story of Helen Palmer is — from the outside, certainly — a sad one.

Helen is ‘the woman behind the man’ in the Dr Seuss duo. It was Helen who encouraged her husband Theo to start writing picture books.

When the marriage ended and Theo embarked upon a second relationship, Helen suicided. It would be nice to think that her separation from Theo had nothing to do with it, because had been dealing with cancer for a long time. But the truth is, she left a note. So we know that had almost everything to do with the timing of it.

Helen was a much better editor than she was a writer, which I’d like to emphasise is no small skill in itself. (Roald Dahl’s editors, for example, had a MUCH bigger hand in making him look great than most people realise.)

The book A Fish Out Of Water is a story that Theo cast aside. He didn’t think it worked. Helen disagreed and made sure it was seen by the world. It’s still reasonably easy to get a hold of. I somehow ended up with two secondhand copies on my bookshelf, for instance. This is possibly a sign that it’s a picture book people decide not to keep.

If this had Dr Seuss’s name on the cover I would certainly agree that this is not him at his finest. I agree with him that it doesn’t work. Let’s take a closer look to try and find out precisely why it doesn’t work, and why Helen thought it still had merit.

Theo and Helen at home

Theo and Helen at home

The illustrations, by P.D. Eastman are as attractive as those done by Theo himself, if without the distinctive colour palette, so it must have something to do with the text or the plot. First, the plot:

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

A boy needs something to nurture and he is the sort of kid who does what he’s told not to do.

He needs to learn to be obedient.

DESIRE

A boy wants a goldfish. Not only that, he wants to nurture the fish.

So far so good. This is all established on the first couple of pages.

OPPONENT

This is a carnivalesque story, so the opponents are the circumstances themselves. The fish getting huge.

Again, so far, so good. It’s common and usually very successful to write a children’s book about something either very big or very small. The young reader enjoys seeing this fish getting bigger and bigger, and can probably predict that it will end up in the swimming pool, or perhaps the ocean.

PLAN

Unfortunately this is where the plot starts to unravel. The boy can’t solve this on his own — first he calls the police. This is kind of comical in itself because the police are depicted as being right on the end of the phone waiting for his call, and it is clear that they deal with the overfeeding of giant fish on a regular basis.

The problem with putting the fish into the pool is that the swimmers don’t like it, so the boy’s plan changes and he is forced to call the man who sold him the fish.

It’s never ideal to have adults step in and save the day. Not in a children’s book. Even if an adult technically saves the day, the child hero must show more initiative.

BATTLE

The ‘battle’ in a carnivalesque book is a sequence of increasingly dire situations, and these keep going until the writer’s imagination is at a limit. Preferably, in the most successful stories of this type, the writer is able to go one or two steps further than the reader’s imagination. A great example of this is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more could happen, it does. This is where the surprise comes in, and carnivalesque stories in particular are all about fun and surprise.

There is no surprise here. All of us could imagine a giant fish being taken to the town swimming pool, and in fact I expected the fish to end up in the ocean.

The battle sequence does not surprise us enough.

SELF-REVELATION

This is where the book really fails.

The writer cheats. We see the fish seller dive into the pool and do something to the fish. The fish becomes small again. The boy (and reader) is told to not ask what was done.

This is the wrong way of using magic in stories. The audience must know the basic rules of the magic even though magic, by its very nature, is mysterious. 

 

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The boy takes the fish back home and will never feed it too much again.

In the end, this is a moralistic tale about the common childhood tendency to overfeed fish in bowls.

failed-magic

THE TEXT

The scansion and rhyme of this story is not up to the same standard as Theo’s other books. This is clear from the very first page:

“This little fish,”

I said to Mr Carp,

“I want him.

I like him.

And he likes me.

I will call him Otto.”

Reading that, you get the feeling it should rhyme but doesn’t quite. Overleaf, we do have some rhyme:

“When you feed a fish,

never feed him a lot.

So much and no more!

Never more than a spot!

This is why, when writing a picture book, decide whether you want it to rhyme or not and then stick with your decision.

 

In conclusion, Theodor Geisel put this book aside for good reason. But I’m glad it exists, as a lesson in what doesn’t work, and also to know that even the masters like Dr Seuss didn’t write a winner every single time.

River Symbolism In Storytelling

Where there is a river there is symbolism. At least, in stories.

River = The Power Of Nature

The flow of a river is a force outside human control (at least, before the days of civil engineering). Crossing a river is unexpectedly treacherous. It’s a common way for trampers (hikers) to die in my home country of New Zealand. Rivers rise suddenly and without warning.

Roald Dahl created Wonka’s factory as a symbolic forest. Sitting mysteriously just outside Charlie’s town, nobody is able to penetrate this forest and get past the mighty beast. This metaphorical forest, we discover, is full of all the perils of a fairytale forest — poisonous berries, tests to see if you’re good or bad, dangerous creatures and a treacherous (chocolate) river.

Augustus is at the mercy of his own natural greed and is killed by the river.

charlie-chocolate-factory-river

Scene from the 1970s film adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

An opponent can be defeated by throwing him/her into the river.

wolf-falls-into-river

Detail from Garth Pig and the Ice cream Lady

 

In a comedic journey the danger of a river can be inverted. In The Big Honey Hunt a father and son hide in safety from a swarm of angry bees whose honey they are trying to plunder.

the-big-honey-hunt-river-as-refuge_1000x719

Symbol Of Fertility

In ‘hygge‘ picturebooks there will probably be a gentle river nearby.

Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge

Note the grassy roof and the background river. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge

In cosy stories, even winter rivers are for having fun

In cosy stories, even winter rivers are for having fun

barber-fishing-hole_1000x1288

Iced-over rivers still provide sustenance.

Here we have an Australian picnic scene. Even in the dry landscape of Australia, a river is necessary for a truly cosy outdoors scene.

river_600x366

River As Metaphor For Time

Time is nothing like a river. Time is nothing like a ladder, road, tide or thread, yet all of these things plus more have been used in stories as a metaphor for time, because that is how we perceive it. Are we bystanders on the edge of the river, watching time go past, or are we bobbing in the water? That’s another question, dealt with differently by different authors.
There comes a time in every comedic adventure when the picture book writer must indicate that a whole heap of other things happened/a whole heap of time passed and EVENTUALLY… Here we have a scene from The Big Honey Hunt by Stanley and Janice Berenstain in which father and son go on a fruitless honey-collecting mission. The river symbolises time, as reinforced by the text.
the-big-honey-hunt-river-symbolism_1000x724

Life Itself

In literature as in life, cities and towns often spring up on riverbanks, seemingly brought to life by the river’s movement. The source of the river, typically small mountain streams, depicts the beginnings of life and its meeting with the ocean symbolises the end of life.

The river is one of my favourite metaphors, the symbol of the great flow of Life itself. The river begins at Source, and returns to Source, unerringly. This happens every single time, without exception. We are no different.
– Jeffrey R. Anderson, from The Nature of Things: Navigating Everyday Life with Grace (Balboa Press, 2012)
the-hobbit-river

River as ‘journey of life/character arc’ in The Hobbit

In The Story About Ping the river has various meanings but most of all this is the story of one duck’s mythic journey towards death and back again. The river as character arc.

the-story-about-ping

River As Boundary

The river is a sign of boundaries and of roadways.

the-river-between-us

During the early days of the Civil War, the Pruitt family takes in two mysterious young ladies who have fled New Orleans to come north to Illinois.

(Roads snaking through a landscape work in the same way.)

Path as river in I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew

Path as river in I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew

As a boundary, the river is sometimes used to show the difference between civilisation and those outside it.

i-had-trouble-in-getting-to-solla-sollew-river

The river  has also been used as a symbolic passageway into the heart of the jungle and as a descent into the primitive nature of humanity. (Especially The Amazon and The Congo.)

Sent in 1910 to live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation along the Amazon River, English orphan Maia is excited.

Sent in 1910 to live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation along the Amazon River, English orphan Maia is excited.

Tintin In The Congo

Tintin In The Congo

Doctor De Soto by William Steig (1982)

doctor-de-soto-cover

LITERARY INFLUENCES

Doctor De Soto is an example of a picturebook that owes a lot to Aesop, with the characterisation of the mice and the fox already firmly in place. Mice don’t play as prominent part in the fables as you might think, but foxes are one of the main five, along with countrymen, dogs, donkeys and lions.

That said, there have since been many, many stories about mice in 20th Century children’s literature.

There’s a good reason why Dr De Soto is a mouse and not a rat:

Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

But the influences on Doctor De Soto go back even further than that.

The main value in making a character small is that he immediately becomes more heroic. Jack climbs a bean stalk to battle a giant, and he must use his brain, not his brawn, to win this fight. So too must Odysseus, who defeats the Cyclops by clinging to the underbelly of a sheep and telling the Cyclops that the one who blinded him is named Norman.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

There are also shades of fairytales in here, such as The Gingerbread Man. Readers will already know that tale, and therefore know how very perilous it is to approach a fox’s mouth end. Dr De Soto is obliged to jump right in.

THE NAME DE SOTO

I wondered if ‘De Soto’ had any significance.

There is a famous Hernando De Soto in American history — a Spanish explorer born at the end of the 1400s. I can’t say for sure if Stieg intended readers to make any connection to this historical figure, but I do note that Hernando de Soto’s North American expedition ranged throughout the southeastern United States searching for gold. Enter, the possibly symbolic gold tooth? Like Hernando, the mouse dentist is undertaking a perilous task.

But the similarities end there, really. Unlike the mouse, the historical figure was not someone known to bring peoples together.

De Soto was instrumental in contributing to the development of a hostile relationship between many Native American tribes and Europeans. When his expedition encountered hostile natives in the new lands, more often than not it was his men who instigated the clashes.

Wikipedia

STORYWORLD OF DOCTOR DE SOTO

I don’t know about you, but 1982 doesn’t feel that long ago to me. That is, until I pick up a children’s book published in 1982 and realise that in 2016 good publishers are no longer putting out stories about professional men and their assistant wives. We might even say that picturebooks are even ahead of the culture in this regard; in our village the pharmacist indeed has an assistant who happens to be his wife, but it’s great that we’re moving at least smashing the glass ceiling in picturebooks, mostly.

As is usual in stories, it is the female character’s compassion which puts the goodies in a dangerous situation in the first place.

“Please!” the fox wailed. “Have mercy, I’m suffering!” And he wept so bitterly it was painful to see.

“Just a moment,” said Doctor De Soto. “That poor fox,” he whispered to his wife. “What shall we do?”

“Let’s risk it,” said Mrs De Soto. She pressed the buzzer and let the fox in.

Doctor De Soto, William Steig

Mrs De Soto is referred to only as the wife or the assistant. She brings equipment on trays and stands behind her husband.

Mrs De Soto is referred to only as the wife or the assistant. She brings equipment on trays and stands behind her husband.

That’s not to say we aren’t clinging on to traditional gender roles by rehashing without much in the way of re-visioning the same old fairytales with their conservative gender roles.

This is a tale of minatures, in which tiny animals have rigged workarounds to exist in a world much too big for their bodies.

dr-de-soto-double-page-spread-donkey

dr-de-soto-fox-bends-down

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like all mice in children’s books, the De Sotos’ main weakness is their small size. They need to use their wits in order to survive against predators.

DESIRE

The De Sotos want to help others by mending teeth and keeping pain at bay. They are an altruistic pair.

OPPONENT

The fox, whose natural inclination is to eat mice.

Part of the humour of this story comes from the (adult) reader’s real-life experience of a dentist. Dentists are known to regularly request a wider mouth. Dr De Soto does the same, but here it’s because the fox really wants to eat the dentist, not because his mouth is simply getting a bit tired!

We see the power of this mighty opponent foreshadowed in the details of the illustration, for example the fanged dentures sitting on the bench in the dental surgery.

dr-de-soto-fang-dentures

We’re also got humour in the Freudian idea that when a patient is under the gas and muttering nonsense, that this nonsense dream is somehow an insight into their true thoughts. So when the fox mutters “Mmm, yummy,” the mice are clued into his intentions.

PLAN

We don’t see what the De Sotos’ plan is — instead we see them lying awake in bed worrying about it.

BATTLE

Since the reader isn’t in on the plan, the fox’s return for his gold tooth is fraught with tension. Stieg amps up the tension by having the fox comically chomp down ‘as a joke’.

SELF READER-REVELATION

As it turns out, the De Sotos glue the fox’s teeth shut and this will last a good few days.

The reader realises that even if you are powerless you can run on wits.

dr-de-soto-fox-is-pleased

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Doctor De Soto and his assistant had out-foxed the fox. They kissed each other and took the rest of the day off.

Implied after the story ends: The fox is able to open his jaw in a few days’ time, but by this time he is well enough away from the mouse dentists that his natural instincts allow him to leave them alone to continue their good work.

Note that altitude is symbolic in this final image — the fox is on his way down (in power) while the small mice stand at the top, as if on a victory podium.

dr-de-soto-descends-stairs

Storybook Farms

Farms in children’s literature are often a kind of utopia. Often these are animal utopias, and the reader is not supposed to even think of what the animals are really there for. Writing of the book Hepzibah Hen, a Children’s Hour favourite from 1926, is described by Margaret Blount as ‘the antithesis of Animal Farm‘, in which

there are a few hints of what a farm is really for, but they seem to relate to a kind of social code — one does not mention the word ‘Christmas’ to a turkey, or ‘Pluck’ to a hen.

Animal Land

HENS

Storybook farms require hens. Honestly, hens are the best kind of farm animal. They have the best personalities!

Hepizbah Hen cover farms Continue reading

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