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Piper by Emma Chichester Clark

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at a picture book called Piper by Emma Chichester Clark. Piper is a bit of a maudlin tale, and Piper the dog is similar to characters like Oliver (by Charles Dickens). He really doesn’t have great luck in life. But then he does! My daughter called this a ‘happy-sad’ story, which is her word for ‘bittersweet’. This is an entirely unironic take on the ‘unlucky character finds a new home’ tale, which I plan to contrast with a similar but ironic picture book tomorrow.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PIPER

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

This is Piper’s journey and Piper is clearly the main character. We can happily describe Piper as the hero, because he performs an heroic act and also because this is a mythic story. Main characters in mythic stories tend to be called heroes.

What is wrong with Piper?

Sometimes in children’s stories, the only thing wrong with a character is that they are vulnerable. Orphans are especially vulnerable. Piper is not exactly an orphan, but he is taken away from his mother and is therefore part of the orphan tradition of storytelling. Orphans are popular in children’s stories for a number of reasons, but mainly because it gets the protective parent out of the way. (All orphan stories owe something to Cinderella.)

Since he’s a dog, lack of ability to speak to humans is also a huge disadvantage.

WHAT DOES PIPER WANT?

Piper wants to find a new family and be happy with them.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The opponent is clearly the man who buys him, and expects him to chase/eat rabbits to protect the man’s garden. Later, even when Piper manages to run away, the man remains a constant threat, as he may at any time come to collect Piper, having paid for him.

WHAT’S PIPER’S PLAN?

Piper’s initial plan is to try and impress his new owner, but when that doesn’t work he’s at a loss. He has no substitute plan. From that point on, things happen to him.

Note that in stories, initial plans rarely work.

When things go belly-up, your main character doesn’t necessarily find a new plan right away, or at all. Alternatively, they might start with no plan because they like the status quo, but then they find one. In that case, they usually double down on that plan about halfway through the story.

Whether your main character has a plan right from the start or finds one partway through, characters do need plans. Otherwise they are not proactive, and readers don’t want to read stories about characters who just wait around. Characters with plans are also more likeable, so if you want to write a likeable main character, give them a desire and a plan early on. (Not all main characters need to be likeable, but it’s harder to write a good unlikeable one. You need to use lots of extra tricks.)

BIG BATTLE

I haven’t gone out of my way to collect mythic stories for this month’s exercise, which should give you some idea about the popularity of the ‘journey’ story.

In a plot with mythic structure, the main character will undergo a series of battles. Sure enough, Piper is hit by his new owner. Importantly, heroes on mythic journeys also meet characters who help them. These characters are often ‘mentors’. In this case, the rabbits repay Piper in kindness by bringing him lettuce, but note they can’t be of much use. That’s an important point about helper characters. They can offer emotional assistance and advice and sometimes they can provide objects which come in useful, but helpers can never solve the hero’s problems. It has to be the hero who gets him/herself out of bother, even if it’s entirely accidental. (As it is in this case!)

The Big Battle in an unironic mythic story is a near death experience. (Contrast Diary of a Wombat for an ironic take, in which Wombat is never in true danger.) The city setting provides lots of near death opportunities for dogs, who don’t know how to stay away from traffic. Therefore, Piper has a brush with death as he rescues an old lady from being hit badly by a car.

WHAT DOES PIPER LEARN?

When Piper is found injured under a bush he learns that humans can be kind as well as awful.

Kindness triumphs over evil. This is a simplistic message when you put it like this, but surprisingly popular in stories. I suppose we find it comforting. When you write out your own theme in a sentence like that, it’ll probably sound just as simple. That’s okay. It’s meant to. Just make sure you don’t say that sentence anywhere in the text. The theme has to be something readers discover for themselves.

HOW WILL PIPER’S LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Piper has found a new home with a kind old lady. Their similar injuries (both have a broken ‘arm’) symbolise how well matched they are.

But the story doesn’t end with Piper and the old lady relaxing on the couch in the old lady’s home. That would have been enough to complete a narrative, but Emma Chichester Clark has written a fairly run-of-the-mill mythic plot until this moment, and whenever you do that you’re best to add a little extra. In this case, the Villain isn’t dead. He’s been off-stage and is therefore still useful.

The final section of this story focuses on Piper’s enduring anxiety about whether the abusive owner will turn up to collect him. Eventually we learn that he won’t. This is a very happy ending for Piper, and instead of a home-away-home story, we have a very similar home-away-NEW home structure.

Some people call these ‘found family’ stories. They tend to be heartwarming.

Frog Went A Courtin by John Langstaff

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Frog Went A-Courtin, a Scottish folk song from the 1500s, which was turned into an iconic picture book for children written by John Langstaff in 1955. There’s a brief history of the ballad included in the picture book which explains how the words of songs change and evolve over time. This case study is interesting because there is no true main character. This story is about a group of characters.

The illustrations are by Feodor Rojankovsky, who emigrated from Ukraine to America just as WW2 was cranking up. By that stage he’d already been a soldier in Ukraine and taken prisoner in Poland. If you’re familiar with Little Golden Books you’ll have seen his work elsewhere.

Frog Went A-Courtin won the 1956 Caldecott Medal.

First, a note on frogs in children’s stories.

Frogs and Aesop

Unless you’ve got a really unusual animal like a naked mole rat, when animals appear in children’s stories, you pretty much need to go back to Aesop’s Fables and then you’ll see why these characters are the way they are. Frogs don’t feature heavily in Aesop’s tales, but there are a number of them. Unlike foxes, which are always cunning, or hens, which are always naive and vulnerable, frogs have no clear personality archetype. In Aesop’s fables featuring frogs all of the following can be said:

  • Frogs have no natural ruler, unlike creatures of the jungle, who are ruled by the lion.
  • Frogs are quite vulnerable because they are obliged to stay near water.
  • Frogs can do silly things that lead to their own demise, but they are not natural tricksters.
  • Frogs are capable of doing good deeds. They can also be stubborn, brave, timid and mendacious.
  • Aesop used frogs when he wanted to set a story in or near a pond or in a well.
  • Amphibian frogs exist in contrast to mice, who live on land and are about the same size.

On this last point, the Scottish folktale Frog Went A-Courtin is therefore a direct descendant of Aesop, setting mice up to contrast with frogs. Or perhaps humans naturally see frogs as the ‘inverse’ of mice, Aesop’s cultural influence aside. Humans think quite differently about animals when we don’t have a formal (or cultural) education.

Bear that in mind as we get to the ‘opponent’ part of the story.

STORY STRUCTURE OF FROG WENT A-COURTIN

Story in a nutshell: Frog courts a mouse. No one says that anymore. Frog woos a mouse? No one says that either.

Mouse must ask male relative for permission to wed frog, as she is considered chattel. That’s how women were treated in the 1500s and in many parts of the modern world.

Mouse seems happy about it anyway. Mouse recounts her wedding plans to Uncle. Uncle Rat gives consent. The wedding itself doesn’t go exactly to plan, as a variety of creatures turn up. This creates a carnivalesque and cumulative story within the wrapper story of the courting. Finally the baddie turns up — the cat.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Is Mr Frog the main character? The title suggests so. Mr Frog is a male bachelor amphibian whose life will not be complete until he has found a wife. So at first glance this looks like a romance, but in fact frog’s weakness (he needs to find a wife) only starts the story. He’s like a McGuffin character. (I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a McGuffin character, but we’ll go with it.)

In a true romance/love story, the finding of the bride/groom lasts the entire length of the story and the story stops at (or just before) the wedding. The MAIN part of Frog Went A-Courtin is the wedding itself, which makes this story a madcap farce. There is no true main character. This is an ensemble cast.

What is wrong with the ensemble? (What is their biggest weakness?)

I have to get something out of the way. I’m not sure if we’re meant to think this as we’re reading, though it’s inevitable to an adult, modern reader: This is a cross-species relationship. Also, how is a mouse related to a rat? They can’t breed with each other. Okay. Let’s ignore that for the sake of the story. We’re not supposed to consider these characters animals. They are humans in animal form, to lend the story a bit of madcap comedy. (Turning people into animals always lends a bit of madcap, though we’re so used to this now it’s no longer really funny in and of itself.) As for the frog in this particular frog story, he is heavily anthropomorphised. In other words, he’s basically a human. Man as frog simply gives a story a touch of madcap humour. This frog is the Every Man.

However! When we get to the battle scene (see below) we can no longer ignore the animal-ness of the animals, because that is integral to the plot. The cat would not be dangerous to those smaller creatures if it were not a cat.

To cut a long story short, in stories starring animals, sometimes the animals are people, sometimes the animals act as animals. Authors and illustrators use animals how they wish at any given time in order to suit the plot. That can happen. I do think it happened more in earlier eras of children’s literature. Olivia the Pig is always a little girl, for instance. She never goes rolling about in mud. Then again, Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a contemporary story, and he is both humanlike (as a highway robber) and ratlike (as his punishment, cleaning crumbs from the bakery floor).

Here’s another point about animal characters: When animals act like human and are then required to act like their animal selves, that means everything’s gone to pot. Something’s gone wrong. Someone’s being punished. When humanlike animals behave like animals suddenly, this will only happen from the Big Battle onwards, not before. This is a different take of Masks in Storytelling. All along, the animals were only sort of pretending to be genteel like humans. Then something bad happens and their untamed, wild side emerges.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER ENSEMBLE WANT?

They want to have a fun time at the wedding party.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

No one, until the cat turns up! A cat is the natural enemy because it is a much larger hunting animal.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

There is a sequence where Miss Mouse tells her Uncle Rat how she would like the party to go. This makes it funny when the wedding party does not go like that. Planning a wedding is a bit like planning a birth — it’s impossible to plan everything to the last detail because events will take their course!

BIG BATTLE

Obviously this is the part where the cat turns up. With no words, the pictures show us the cat creates havoc. The small animals scatter.

WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS LEARN?

Frog Went A-Courtin is not a complete narrative because the ending is left up to the reader. Or rather, the reader is invited to participate in the story to create a full narrative of our own. I believe the ending is left off because it would not be interesting.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Either that, or Miss Mouse got killed and eaten by the cat. Maybe that’s why the ending was left out. Jon Klassen did a similar thing in This Is Not My Hat. We surmise the little thieving scoundrel fish was eaten up by the big fish.

Let’s not dwell on this sad ending. Let’s say Mr Frog and Mrs Frog-Mouse lived happily ever after? And had beautiful frog-mice babies between them?

 

 

SOME MORE STORIES WITH FROGS IN

Because Aesop invented many uses for the frog, when you meet a frog in a modern children’s book you don’t know who you’re going to get. Frogs can be quirky and funny. They have the endearing habit of extending their tongue and catching flies.

Frog's Outing

Frog’s Outing — a Japanese picture book depicting a quirky, likeable frog character. Likeable frogs tend to have human eyeballs. Amphibian eyes are inherently off-putting to humans, as they look like the eyes of snakes.

On the other hand… frogs extend their tongues and catch flies. This is disgusting.

Frogs seem to have great fun. It’s fun to leap and jump like a frog, which is part of flight symbolism.

The Duck Tale by Virginia Bennett. Illustrated by E. Stewart. London – Ernest Nister New York – E. P. Dutton & Co. .c.1908.

“Les enfants et les bêtes” (1936) livre de lecture illustré par Armand Rapeno

The Princess Frog.1956. Artist – Nika Goltz. The frog in this fairy tale is a bit of a trickster. But then, he’s not really a frog but a prince. These stories must exist to coax daughters into marrying whoever is chosen for them, regardless of physical attraction. I suspect a lot of these men chosen for girls were much older, to boot.

SEE ALSO

The Many Versions Of Frog Went A-Courtin from Mama Lisa

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Earlier in the month I looked at a wordless picture book, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Father Christmas, a seasonal picture book by the same author-illustrator. It’s not Christmas here, but it’s never wintry at Christmas Down Under. I prefer to read wintry books in our actual winter. This is just as much a winter tale as it is a Christmas one. Father Christmas is also a very British tale. You’ll soon see why.

At first glance, this picture book also seems to break the main rules of storytelling. It works because it is short. Father Christmas is partly making use of a comedic structure rather than classic dramatic structure.

STORY STRUCTURE OF FATHER CHRISTMAS

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Father Christmas.

What’s wrong with him?

Sometimes the foreign translations of a picture book give you extra clues about the story. The Japanese title means ‘Father Christmas The Cold-blooded Creature’ (or ‘Person who feels the cold easily’). The Japanese publishers put the thing that’s wrong with him right there in the title. More specifically, this is his weakness. He doesn’t like the cold. But I’d say his weakness is a little different.This is not your usual Jolly Santa, the guy most kids are exposed to — the man who lives to give. This Father Christmas’s weakness is that he’s grumpy by nature.  Or is it really a weakness? Is he really that grumpy?

This is a comment on a specific cultural milieu — this old man is proficient in the art of grumbling. He is cranky as a matter of habit, not because he has all that much to complain about. This is grumbling almost as a mantra to self, a reminded that although things may be terrible now, they may get better later. Father Christmas is grumbling to no one in particular, but he is drawing us in with his grumbling. We are invited to grumble along with him as a form of phatic communion. At the end of the story he has broken the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader, so we know we were supposed to hear him grumbling. He was inviting us to feel the cold with him, creating the weather as the mutual enemy to bring two characters (him and us) closer together.

This feels very British to me.

WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS WANT?

Father Christmas wakes up dreaming of a summer beach so we know right away that he wants to be on holiday somewhere. Sure enough, in another book in the series, Raymond Briggs takes him off on holiday. I haven’t read that one, though I’ve no doubt he grumbles about everything while on holiday, too.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

His opponent is the cold weather. Father Christmas expends a lot of energy just keeping warm — tending to the fire, looking after the animals (who can’t be out in the elements), filling his belly with hot cups of tea.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

goodbye cat goodbye dog

We already know what Father Christmas does at Christmas time because this is a well-known cultural narrative. He delivers presents to children all around the world. We watch him do this, but Raymond Briggs’ new spin on it: Father Christmas considers this work, just like anyone else doing shift work on a freezing cold night would feel like they are doing work.

BIG BATTLE

As you can see already, this is another mythic structure, in which the main character goes on a journey. This is not your classic mythic structure, however. Father Christmas is a modified version of that — known as a home-away-home story. A character leaves home, has an adventure, then returns home again. This home-away-home story usually takes place over a single day, and the child (or childlike) character usually goes to sleep at the end.

In general, a series of minor battles end in a big one. But sometimes, when there’s no fight or argument or near-death experience, the story includes something that stands-in for a battle.

In Diary of a Wombat, Jackie French used the ‘accumulation’ technique, where several objects pile up/come together.

Raymond Briggs uses a variation on that. After visiting a number of ordinary houses to deliver presents, including a caravan which he has trouble getting into, Father Christmas visits the Palace of Westminster, presumably to deliver presents to the most important children in the land. We have an accumulation effect going on, but it isn’t a piling up of objects. Instead, it goes from ‘ordinary to extraordinary’, or ‘ordinary to grand’. This stands in for the big battle scene, which exists to let us know the journey is coming to an end.

WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS LEARN?

Nothing. Because this story is comedic, not dramatic. Father Christmas is the ultimate recurring character. He appears year after year and never changes. Therefore it makes sense if he doesn’t change. It also makes sense if he’s a bit grumpy about that. Which is the gag.

However, the story still works as a complete story. Why?

In lieu of a character arc, in which Father Christmas learns something, we see Father Christmas on an emotional arc. When Santa gets up he’s grumpy because there’s so much work ahead of him. But over the course of his day he overcomes many small hardships, stopping in between to enjoy his snacks. Finally at the end he is happy to be home, but before bed he’s unhappy again, because he knows he’ll have to do it all again next year. The unrelenting nature of work would appeal to adults more than to children, I’m guessing. This story therefore appeals to a dual audience. Young readers also know what it’s like to do something they don’t want to do, and everyone (in most parts of the world) knows what it feels like to be uncomfortably cold.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

It won’t, but Father Christmas is home safe in bed, which is enough to close the story on. It’s not original, but it works, time and time again.

 

FURTHER NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE

Did you pick up the main ways in which this story is not typical dramatic structure?

  1. The only opponent is the weather. Usually there is a human opponent, or a monster as well.
  2. The main character doesn’t learn anything.
  3. His life won’t be any different from before. He’s basically an automaton.

This is because the story is a comedy. Here’s the thing about comedic structure: It only sustains its audience for 5-10 minutes before we tire of it. That’s why comedic structure can work in picture books. They’re short. When Father Christmas was adapted into a short film, and by short I mean over 20 minutes, the script writers wisely decided to combine two of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas books. There is simply not enough in this picture book to sustain 20 minutes’ worth of entertainment.

Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Today I look closely at a picture book classic by iconic American author/illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Outside Over There is a mythic journey of the imagination, with emphasis on atmosphere and emotion. It is a changeling story with the strong influence of fairy and folk tale.

Maurice Sendak’s most famous work is Where The Wild Things Are. Entire theses have been written about Where The Wild Things Are. I’ve summarised some of the key thoughts about that picture book myself, and have since noticed just how influential it was in its depiction of difficult feelings, previously taboo in stories for young readers.

Yet some children’s literature specialists believe Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work. In its publishing history, this picture book hasn’t always been marketed to children. This is one of those ‘children’s books’ which appeals to adults in a different, possibly deeper, way.

STORY WORLD OF OUTSIDE OVER THERE

Continue reading

Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Yesterday I analysed the structure of an Australian bush ballad. Today I stay in Australia, with the modern picture book classic Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.

Like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Diary of a Wombat is a parody of a diary. We expect that if someone has taken the trouble to write something down then it must be something important. But wombats don’t really do much and have little to report. Jackie French could have anthropomorphised the wombat and taken her off on an adventure to save the world, but this wombat is inspired by the wombats around French’s own house. Bruce Whatley illustrates animals in a mostly realistic style, with only a few modifications to make the facial expressions more human, making the pairing perfect.

Tuesday Diary of a Wombat

STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WOMBAT

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The wombat.

Unusually for a children’s book, the wombat is female yet has not been given any typically feminine markers, such as a big pink bow. This is partly to do with the realistic style of art. (There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in wombats — you can’t easily tell the sex of a wombat unless you’re an expert.) I wonder if you assumed the wombat was male until “For Pete’s sake! Give her some carrots!” A study by Janet McCabe told us that unless animal characters are given obvious female markers then we tend to read them as male.

The wombat hasn’t been given a name. Often this is because a character stands in for a group. In this case, she stands for your typical wombat, doing typical wombatty things.

A standout feature of the wombat is the distinctive round bottom, which may be why Bruce Whatley chose to depict the wombat from behind in a number of illustrations. This is surprisingly uncommon for picture books, in which we’re more likely to see ‘posed for a photo‘ characters. Bruce Whatley doesn’t vary the top-bottom angle of the wombat, keeping to one-point perspective throughout, without making use of high/low angles. This allows the reader to remain right alongside the wombat as an equal at all times. His choice to depict the wombat in various cardinal directions may partly be to do with the need to vary each illustration from the others. But when wombat sits and stars at the boarded-up door, we really feel her petulant patience for carrots, even though we can’t see her face.

The choice is masterful.

Diary of a Wombat back view

What is wrong with her?

Since our main character a wombat she is unable to communicate what she wants to the humans. This is one of the reasons animals are so common in picture books. They are like young children, also unable to communicate what they need in words.

She is also capricious and according to typical human work ethic, she’s comically lazy.

This is an oblivious character who doesn’t see the havoc she wreaks behind her. She doesn’t realise the humans filled up her hole because they didn’t want a hole. Unlike Peter Rabbit, she doesn’t realise the carrots in the garden have been planted there by someone and that she thieved them. She thinks she happened upon them.

WHAT DOES SHE WANT?

The wombat has simple needs and lives in a wombat utopia — a rural human environment with a large supply of carrots growing in the garden, good soil for digging holes and everything else she could possibly want. The wombat’s stand-out feature is that she wants for nothing. But for narrative drive, a story requires that the main character want something.

Jackie French has fulfilled this story step by giving our wombat the strong desire for carrots. Not only that, she is endlessly greedy for carrots and even when given carrots, she still wants more. This desire drives most of the story but, comically, she eventually has enough of carrots and decides she wants rolled oats instead. This is where her main weakness comes in: she is unable to tell the humans that she now wants rolled oats.

By the way, comic characters often have insatiable appetites. In a comedy ensemble you’ll usually get one who is obsessed with food.

  • In Kath and Kim, Kim is always eating. (Sharon stress eats as well.)
  • In Seinfeld it’s Kramer who is always going to Jerry’s for cereal and whatnot. He is shown to be a fruit connoisseur, and in another episode the big gag is that Kramer could have won a lot of money after being scalded by hot coffee, but he is delighted with a lifetime’s supply of free coffees instead.
  • In The Simpsons, Homer is the character who represents the stomach.

Characters are also funny if we can laugh at their stupidity. The obliviousness of the wombat means that Jackie French created her loosely  based upon the classic Dolt character. There are many different comedy character archetypes. Here are a few more.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The human family are in opposition to the wombat not because the humans are trying to get rid of her, but because they have different goals which cannot coexist:

  • Family wants a front door, wombat wants to gain their attention so chews the nice front door.
  • Family wants carrots for dinner so grows carrots in garden; wombat digs them up.
  • Family buys carrots from shop; wombat sits in back seat of car and eats them out of the bag.
  • Family wants a nice garden bed; wombat wants to dig holes where garden bed is.
  • Family wants to dry washing on the line; wombat doesn’t want things dangling onto her nose, so chews washing on line.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

With a lazy, roly-poly character like this wombat, you aren’t going to get a complicated plan. The plan is simple: to walk to the family’s front door and make a nuisance of oneself until food is provided.

The family’s plan is to work around the  mischief of the wombat, filling in holes once they’re dug, buying more carrots once the home store is depleted.

BIG BATTLE

Though it’s not obvious at first sight, Diary of a Wombat has a mythic structure. Rather, this is a parody of a classic story with a mythic structure. In myths, a hero goes on a very difficult journey to achieve a goal, meets lots of challenges along the way and finally gets what he wants (or not, in a tragedy). The hero then either returns home a changed person or finds a new home wherever he ends up.

The journey of the wombat is down the garden path to the front door. Sure enough, she meets obstacles along the way, but these obstacles are no more fearsome than a bush or a pair of wet pants which tickle her nose. Her ‘big battles’ are therefore ironic.

Okay, so until now I’ve been saying the same things, which are general rules but rules can be broken. So far I’ve told you that in a story with mythic structure the battles increase in intensity until one massive life-and-death battle. This is seen clearly in the Solla Sollew picture book by Dr. Seuss, which is why I included it in this series.

Jackie French shows us that there doesn’t need to be any big battle. In fact, in a parody, where nothing much happens by design, the story wouldn’t cope with one.

So what did the author do instead, to lead us gently towards a conclusion? She used a trick I’m going to call ‘accumulation’. This is exactly what it sounds like — various things from the story come together. By ‘things’, most often I mean ‘objects’. Another (really obvious) example of an ‘accumulation battle’ occurs in Stuck by Oliver Jeffers in which a boy gets something stuck in a tree. He keeps throwing more and more things into the tree hoping to get the other things down. The story gets more and more ridiculous as the things accumulate in the tree.

In Diary of a Wombat, the gag doesn’t rely on the accumulation plot, so it’s much more subtle. You can see it in the line, ‘Demanded oats AND carrots’. Oats and carrots have been the important twin desire lines throughout the story and they come together at the end.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Wombat learns that if she makes a big enough nuisance of herself then the humans will give her exactly what she wants.

The reader learns, comically, that animals can train humans, not just the other way around!

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this mythic journey the wombat finds a new home, even closer to the humans than before, burrowed under the house.

We can extrapolate that things will continue as they did before, but this time the wombat’s life is even more convenient as she doesn’t even have to walk up the garden path to get fed.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

  • I’ve already mentioned Stuck by Oliver Jeffers as another example of an accumulation plot. Another example of an accumulation plot is Let’s Go For A Drive! an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems. In this early reader, two characters collect all sorts of things they’ll need for a drive. These things pile up on the floor. They eventually realise they haven’t got a car so they have to play make believe instead.
  • Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins has other subtle similarities. The hen in Rosie’s Walk (Rosie) is unaware that a fox is trying to catch her. She walks happily through a farm. Rosie’s Walk has been heavily influential as a story in which the text says something completely different from the pictures. Jackie French’s wombat is similarly oblivious, though her life is not in danger. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a big gap between the pictures and the text. The text is first ‘person’, from the wombat’s point of view, but only the reader knows how much of a nuisance she’s being to the humans she lives with.

 

Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. So far I’ve analysed picture books. Today I analyse a song using the same seven-step story structure, which happens to be Australia’s unofficial national anthem. I own Waltzing Matilda in picture book form, though it always scared me as a kid. Although the tune is upbeat, inspired indirectly by Celtic folk music, Waltzing Matilda is a tragic ghost story about theft, suicide and power.
Banjo Paterson wrote the lyrics in 1895. It’s widely believed the song was inspired by events that happened after The Great Shearer’s Strike of 1891.

The billabong which inspired the lyrics is thought to be near Winton, in Queensland. If you go to Winton today you can visit the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

WALTZING MATILDA LYRICS

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
Up rode the troopers, one, two, three,
Whose is the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
Whose is the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, you scoundrel with me.

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong,
You’ll never catch me alive, said he,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.
Oh, you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WALTZING MATILDA

Waltzing Matilda is a narrative bush ballad, meaning it’s a complete story set to music. It includes all seven steps.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

A swagman. A man travelling through the Australian bush with a swag (a rolled up bed). An itinerant worker perhaps, between jobs.

What’s wrong with him?

The swagman’s weakness is that he farmhand or perhaps he is a homeless man out of work. He contrasts with the more powerful individuals, who have somehow managed to get their hands on land, using it only to benefit themselves. Most people listening to this song would identify emotionally with the swagman rather than with the aristocracy.

WHAT DOES THE SWAGMAN WANT?

He wants a rest from his travels. He sits down to make himself a cup of tea but he’s also hungry, so he kills a sheep which happens to belong to the wealthy landowner on whose property he squats. Sheep stations in Australia are absolutely massive, so you don’t necessarily know there’s someone on your land.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The opponent is the squatter. If this were an English story, he would probably be an aristocratic landowner, but squatter refers to farmers who didn’t necessarily have the papers to properly own their land. The squatter doesn’t want men killing his sheep, which may well be his only source of income even if he is wealthy by comparison. Importantly, the sheep may no more belong to the squatter than to the swagman.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The swagman’s plan is simple. He will kill a sheep and eat it. The simplicity of his plan is his downfall. He should’ve checked he wasn’t being tailed. (It’s likely he was being tailed, given the size of the area, and the low likelihood of randomly being caught.)

BIG BATTLE

Three policemen run after the swagman and apprehend him.

Rather than lose his dignity and his freedom, the swagman dives into the billabong. It’s unclear to me if he meant to suicide with this action — perhaps he hoped to get away somehow. In any case, death is the outcome.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Main characters don’t learn anything when they are dead at the end. Except occasionally they exist in the spiritual realm. There is an entire subgenre of books narrated by dead main characters, for instance. (The Lovely Bones seems to have started that trend.) Dead narrators seem to suddenly become a lot more emotionally mature, because they’re speaking from beyond the grave and have a more omniscient view of events.

But when main characters die, the reader does learn something. Young child readers learn that stealing can lead to terrible outcomes. Older readers can see that a person without capital can lose everything over very little (a meal), and we learn that some people can gang up on other people without just cause. We learn that life is unfair, basically.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this case, the swagman lives on as a ghost near the billabong. He’s achieved freedom from the law, but now he gets to rest by the same billabong forever.


Though my childhood copy of the story is illustrated by Desmond Digby in ‘old master’ style, the song has been more recently illustrated by Freya Blackwood. Freya Blackwood’s style is more oriented to a young audience. Notice the swagman now has a dog, which is not mentioned in the original bush song. However, it’s highly likely he was accompanied by a dog, helping him to bring the sheep down, then sharing the meat.

 

Waltzing Matilda Freya Blackwood

Anyone with an interest in the story which inspired the bush song can read a non-fiction account by Dennis O’Keeffe.

Waltzing Matilda non-fiction

The Chicken Book by Garth Williams

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 a story so simple you’d wonder how it could include all seven steps. Yet it does, between words and pictures. Today’s picture book is The Chicken Book by Garth Williams, first published in 1946.

This makes The Chicken Book an example of literature which emerged between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, when the publishing industry very much took a back seat to other world events. Namely, Garth Williams wrote and illustrated The Chicken Book at the end of the second World War.

The ideology of this story is more typical of the pre-war period. Child characters from the first golden age were self-sufficient, free-range and healthy and robust. The chicks (child stand ins) are not like that at first, but are chided accordingly and end up self-sufficient by the end. It’s basically a celebration of Puritan work ethic. During the wars, there was no room for anyone to take it easy. It was all hands to the pump. Women were seconded to do ‘men’s jobs’ (and didn’t easily retire to the home once the war was over, either.) With mothers out working in bullet factories and whatnot, the war era child was required to pull their own weight within the family. These chicks are wartime chicks.

Garth Williams is a standout illustrator of American children’s books. He illustrated Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web, so his work is still widely seen. His father was a cartoonist and his mother was a landscape painter, so it’s no surprise he combined those interests and ended up in children’s books. He also studied architecture, and brought his drafting skills into his illustrative work. The Chicken Book is one of his first works from a prolific career, and the first as both writer and illustrator.

The less we know about the man himself, the better we can enjoy his legacy. There is a surprising number of people who’ve made outstanding work for children yet in their personal lives were hardly upstanding citizens. Obituaries contain the glowing bits, so here’s a link to that, from 1996.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHICKEN BOOK

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

There is an entire brood of main characters in this picture book, but they are all identical. They are siblings and they look the same. They behave the same. For story purposes, this book has one main character — a chicken.

The other question to ask here: What is wrong with them?

They’re a bit lazy, or haven’t yet learned to do for themselves.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

They all want food. Sure, they each want something slightly different — one even wants a piece of gravel for some reason. But basically they want something to peck and munch.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

If The Chicken Book were a longer story an outside opponent would be necessary, but this is one of those super short narratives which gets away with ‘the main character is their own biggest enemy’.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Since these chicks are by their nature passive, they have no plan. That’s the entire problem. They literally just stand there and do nothing.

When your main character has no plan, someone else in the story has to make a plan for them. (It’s the mother who makes the plan.)

BIG BATTLE

Because Garth Williams places his ‘camera’ near the ground, when the mother hen turns up she’s formidable. When she tells the chicks to go ahead and scratch it feels like a telling off — at least, that’s how it felt as child reader. The Big Battle is the mother glaring at the chicks while standing over them.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When the chicks scratch they immediately find their hearts’ desire.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

This phase is omitted from the story because we can extrapolate on our own: We know that the chicks will keep scratching and finding good things to eat.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST THE CHICKEN BOOK

After The Fall is another example of a main character whose biggest opponent is themselves, although in Dan Santat’s book, Humpty’s anxiety is almost turned into a separate entity.

England’s Enid Blyton is an example of a children’s author who was writing and publishing prolifically all through this world war period of the 20th century. Notably, Enid Blyton makes no direct reference to war, anywhere. For her, writing was an escape, and her stories provided an escape for her young readers equally. In The Chicken Book, America’s Garth Williams has created a utopian version of an American farm, in which food is plentiful if only you know how to look for it.

You might also compare the original printing with a later one from the 1970s, in which printing technologies now allowed mass printing of highly coloured double spreads. My version, printed in the 1970s, is the full-coloured version. Printing technologies have made further advances since then.

with an odd little shrug

The Chicken Book with an odd little shrug

 

 

After The Fall by Dan Santat Story Tips

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Today as case study let’s look at Dan Santat’s After The Fall, a metaphorical picture book with a very simple storyline and a strong message. Still, this isn’t a didactic (preachy) message. Why not? Because it’s metaphorical. If you have a strong message you sure can put it in your story, but you can’t tell readers directly — you have to allow them to put two and two together. (Hopefully they’ll make four.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF AFTER THE FALL

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The main character is a well-known figure from the world of nursery rhymes. Even if modern kids aren’t being read the classic nursery rhymes (due to there being so many other things to read), Humpty Dumpty will still be familiar because of things like the Shrek franchise.

WHAT DOES HUMPTY DUMPTY WANT?

After The Fall opening page

Have you ever wondered WHY Humpty Dumpty wanted to sit on that wall? I hadn’t. I just figured he liked it up there.

To convert a short nursery rhyme into a full story, Dan Santat had to think a bit deeper. He knew there had to be a reason why Humpty Dumpty was sitting up on that wall. “I loved being close to the birds.” (Read: He wants to be close to birds.)

Heavy symbolism alert: Birds and flight are used often in literature to symbolise freedom (along with other things). Here they symbolise freedom from fears and anxieties. (Read: He wants to be free, like birds.)

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Normally, the general rule is that the main character’s main opponent can’t be themselves. This doesn’t make for a great dramatic arc, mostly. This is true for longer stories.

But it works here for two reasons:

  1. Very short works like picture books can break a few rules because they don’t have the problem of a saggy, boring middle.
  2. Humpty’s anxiety is so strong that it really is a formidable opponent. (I just realised I wrote that sentence as if Anxiety is an opponent in its own right.) Dan Santat has talked widely about the very personal story behind this picture book, like at Publisher’s Weekly.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Humpty’s plan is to avoid the scary thing. That’s pretty common in main characters, especially when those characters are pretty ordinary people just like you and me. They don’t have any reason to believe they can overcome adversity, so they sit around hoping they won’t have to. We can identify with this.

But fictional characters who plan ‘to do nothing and hope it goes away’… well, that NEVER happens.

Otherwise there’s no story. Well, maybe there’s an ironic, shaggy dog kind of a gag:

Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall.

He decided not to sit on walls.

So he didn’t.

The End

(Comedic arc is different from dramatic arc. We’re talking about dramatic arc here, folks.)

Humpty’s world becomes very grey and dull. The supermarket/cereal aisle scene shows that. But Dan Santat doesn’t dwell on that period of Humpty’s life. One double spread is enough to get the message across. Notice how the cereal boxes are bright and colourful, but Humpty’s state of mind makes everything he sees (at his eye level) dull and grey. Even the titles of the cereals look rubbish down low. This totally benign cereal display reminds him of the wall. Ladders, and all that. (Notice he’s looking at the ladder and frowning.) This picture says so much.

After the Fall supermarket page

Next, Humpty catches sight of a paper plane so he decides to make those because it’s kind of like being close to birds again, even though he is anxious about getting paper cuts (and does get paper cuts). This isn’t as good as being up there with the birds, but it’s a little bit like that.

All of this is a way of saying: You might not be able to do the REALLY scary thing, but if you do something a little scary you can build on that and eventually the scary things seem less scary.

BIG BATTLE

The Big Battle for Humpty is when he tackles that wall again. It’s all in the hands — there’s a close up of the hand, reaching up to grasp onto the higher rung.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When he’s up on that wall he realises it’s awesome being with those birds again.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Humpty has overcome his fear of falling from the wall, and feels a huge weight lifted from his life.

Is he up there flying with the birds? There are three small white dots in the sky and any one of them could be Humpty flying.

The Really Ugly Duckling by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Earlier this week I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole to show how this classic story structure can be turned upside down, ironically. Today ‘s story is The Really Ugly Duckling.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a metafictional picture book from 1992, by Jon Scieska and illustrated by Lane Smith. It’s a collection of very short stories, but I’m only going to look at one. Like other tales in the book, The Really Ugly Duckling is a re-visioning of the classic fairy tale The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. To get the gag, the reader is meant to know the original tale, otherwise it’s not so funny.

The Really Ugly Duckling shows writers can break the rules of narrative and create surprise. In this case, Jon Scieszka omits the bit that normally comes after the Big Battle. The fancy word for this part is ‘denouement’. In seven step story structure, the denouement is the final two steps.

If you aren’t going to write the last two steps, you need a good reason, other than, ‘I got sick of this story and called it quits’. Usually, these stories with an abrupt ending aim to make the reader laugh.

There are terms to describe these kinds of stories.

  • If the story ends right before the big battle, it’s called a Bolivian Army ending. (The name comes from classic movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We never get to see the main characters die.)
  • If someone’s been spinning a long-winded, really boring story with lots of pointless detail and then refuses to finishes it off to make you groan, it’s called a Shaggy Dog story. These stories are pretty good and hold your attention. They’re designed to disappoint.
  • A Shaggy Dog story is also known as the Feghoot. A feghoot is described as a short-short story (300 words on average, although 500-word examples exist), ending in a pun or a punchline that is pretty obviously the only reason for the story’s existence. The telling detail in a Feghoot is the groan emitted by the reader/listener when he hits the punchline. A Shaggy Dog tale is more likely to be known as a Feghoot if it’s in written form.
  • Related to the Shaggy Dog story is the Shaggy Frog story. Unlike the Shaggy Dog story, the Shaggy Frog story goes absolutely nowhere.

The Really Ugly Duckling is too short to be a Shaggy Dog story, and there’s no expectation of a big battle, so it’s none of those exactly. Instead it simply has No Ending. If there’s a subcategory, it’s Aborted Arc. In other words, there’s no character arc. We expect one, of course, but it has been abandoned.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE REALLY UGLY DUCKLING

Continue reading

We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Yesterday I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. Today’s picture book is We Found A Hat, which is similar to Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. In both stories, a dream sequence flings the two characters into space, bringing the story to an end.

We Found A Hat is the third of Jon Klassen’s Hat Trilogy of picture books — each has a different cast of characters, but all feature a hat in some way. In all of these books, the hat is a highly desirable object. The desirability of the hat is taken to an absurd degree, and I wonder if it’s because owning a hat makes these talking animals feel more sophisticated (more human).

In We Found A Hat, Klassen makes full use of classic ‘Three Act Structure’, dividing his very short book into three parts. Dividing a picture book into parts is funny in itself, because the partitions originally existed so the audience could take a break. These days, writers often make use of three act structure when plotting a story. (I prefer the 7-part structure, as you’ll see below.)

The others in the hat series are This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back. All are equally great, though We Found A Hat is more about friendship and less violent.

In each book, the picture-text dynamic implies that the hat’s rightful owner does violence to the thief at the end. This tale is both more ambiguous and less action-oriented.

Kirkus review

STORY STRUCTURE OF WE FOUND A HAT

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Like Sam and Dave, the two tortoises* in We Found A Hat are pretty much the same. Klassen goes further: they are in fact identical, which is part of the gag. (If the hat looks good on one of them, it’ll look good on the other.)

*I have no idea if they’re turtles or tortoises. But they live in the desert. I’m calling them tortoises.

What is wrong with the tortoises?

In this minimalist, unchanging environment, the appearance of a dropped cowboy hat is a big deal. A bigger deal than it should be. They’ve both going to have to get over this hat. Klassen withholds this information until later, but it will be revealed that one tortoise has more trouble than the other suppressing his desires.

This Rogue Tortoise becomes The Main Character.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

We Found A Hat is a great example of a story in which two opponents want the same thing, when only one of them can have it. (Because there is only one to be had.)

Klassen puts an ironic distance between the pictures and the text. To us, the tortoises do not look good in the hat.

Klassen’s artwork, spare and sly, tells a different story. The hat does not look good. It looks silly, as if the turtle’s head were stuck in a plastic bucket.

Publishers Weekly review

This endears me to the tortoises. It’s super cute that they think they look good in the hat.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Since both tortoises want the one hat, they are each other’s enemy.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

At first the tortoises do the right thing. They leave the hat where they found it, because if one of them takes it, the other will be jealous. This will lead to a breakdown of their relationship.

Next, they try to not to think about the hat. They admire the sunset. (They presumably do this every evening, because there’s not much in the landscape. They probably have the same conversation, too.)

we are watching the sunset

Eventually, in Part Two, one tortoise Breaks Bad and we see him making plans to retrieve the hat while the other is asleep. In true comedic style, although the other tortoise is ‘asleep’, s/he is still able to talk coherently, about being asleep. This is an example of irony.

BIG BATTLE

what are you dreaming about

The Rogue Tortoise’s big battle is an entirely psychological one. In Jon Klassen picture books it’s vital to read the eyes. The eyes carry most of the information about character. When Rogue Tortoise reaches the hat, s/he feels guilty. The other tortoise has said that in her dream they are both wearing the hat. This makes Rogue Tortoise feel super guilty and he changes his mind about taking it for himself.

Many of the readers of We Found A Hat will have already read the earlier hat books. I feel like Jon Klassen deliberately subverts expectations by providing us with a gentle ending. (You expected violence, didn’t you?)

Readers who think they know what’s coming will be wrong: the conclusion doesn’t involve sharing, peacemaking, or violence. Instead, Klassen considers the instant at which a decision to act can break either way, depending on who’s tempted and whether anyone else is watching. In contrast to the first two books, which relied on a certain conspiratorial menace, this one ends with a moment of grace and a sky full of stars.

Publishers weekly review

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Rogue Tortoise learns that he can overcome strong desires if he really wants to.

This change of heart is symbolised by the dream he has, which matches his friend’s dream — they are both dreaming of a scenario in which they each have their own identical hat. They fly into the starry, desert sky, newly free of pesky desires.

All three stories are about justice. It’s just that justice doesn’t always mean the same thing.

Publishers weekly review

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

It won’t.

Which is the point.

At least, the circumstances are the same as ever. No one has a fancy new hat.

BUT! Rogue Tortoise has wrestled internally with a strong desire and overcome that desire in favour of maintaining a good relationship. So I guess that relationship is slightly stronger than before.

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