This post concerns the sorts of picture books with a storyline, as opposed to the increasingly popular ‘concept’ picture books (e.g. Press Here) or look-books (e.g. the work of Richard Scarry, Where’s Wally).
It’s clear that in a successful, award-winning book for middle grade readers and above, the main character of the story requires both a surface desire, and a need, which can in turn be broken down into ‘psychological need’ and ‘moral need’. (See John Truby’s book Anatomy of Story for more on that.)
Now for some picture book case studies.
THE TALE OF TWO BAD MICE BY BEATRIX POTTER
One might think that the star of this story is the doll’s-house itself, because the reader is introduced first to the doll’s-house and only to the mice after three double spreads. This is a little unusual, but has been done with purpose: The young reader is encouraged to look lasciviously at this doll’s-house. We wish we could go in and play with it. We’re told how beautiful it is, and about all the wonderful things inside it.
So naturally, when we meet Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, we absolutely identify with their desire to go inside and play. We’re not told in the text that this is what they want to do — we feel it for ourselves.
This is a carnivalesque tale in which the childlike main characters act against the established order.
This doll’s-house does not belong to the mice, so we feel they are not really supposed to be there. At the same time, we absolutely empathise with the poor creatures when their hopes are dashed. This is not a real feast at all, but a fake one! A psychological need of these mice is that they have been fooled.
The moral need of the mice is that they have no control of their enthusiasms. In a frenzied effort to find the real feast and a real, liveable mansion for themselves, they steal parts of the doll’s house and cause destruction of a beautiful object which belongs to a little girl, and by proxy to two inanimate dolls.
The story has two endings — the first part of the story ends when the nurse exclaims that she will set a mouse trap. But the story can only end properly after the mice are shown to have had a character arc, in order words they must have learnt to treat others with respect. (Naturally, a story as old as this is heavily gendered.)
SPOT GOES TO THE FARM BY ERIC HILL
What about in a story for much younger readers? The surface desire of Spot is apparent from the very first image, yet it’s surprisingly complex, and is the desire of many main characters in books for adults. This is a boy who wants to prove himself a capable man to his father. In this case, he wants to prove his worth by finding the farm animals himself. I’m going to argue that this is both Spot’s surface-desire and his psychological need, rolled into one.
On the final double spread we see the words:
Did Dad show you the piglets, Spot?
Yes, and then I found some kittens to show Dad!
The story ends because Spot has achieved his desire to impress his father.
Does a simple character such as Spot have a moral need? In other words, does Spot need to learn to treat others better in order to lead a better life? In this story, Spot is told to ‘hurry up’ because he’s busy looking for lambs even as he stands on the backs of a flock of sheep. He is told to get out of the pond, and presumably frightens a duck who says, ‘Quack quack!’ Spot’s main moral need is that–like any toddler character–he is too intent on making fun and achieving the goal at hand to see that around him others aren’t quite so enthusiastic. This can be seen throughout the Spot series. For example, when he ‘helps’ his mother to bake a cake for Dad’s birthday, the reader can see (though Spot himself cannot) that he is causing more nuisance than ‘helping’.
But in a picture book such as this, does the character come face to face with his own moral need? The answer is no, and part of the reason is because this is a series. Even in books which are not technically part of a series, they should be treated as part of a wider literature, in which characters like Spot (and Charlie and Lola, and Clifford, and Peppa Pig) are characters in a sit-com, never growing old, sometimes learning minor lessons along the way, but never really doing anyone else any harm.
IT’S THE BEAR! BY JEZ ALBOROUGH
Eddy’s desire and main psychological need is established at the outset:
Eddy doesn’t want to come
and picnic in the woods with Mum.
“I’m scared,” he said, “about the bear,
the great big bear that lives in there.”
Here we have a story about what the main character doesn’t want to do. Presumably, he desires to be anywhere but here, eating his picnic in safety.
In the real world, this psychological need is a real impediment, and fear of impossible things is something the target audience is likely to be struggling with: monsters under the bed, ghosts in the wardrobe… This is the stuff of childhood, and also the stuff of picture books, where we find many a main character whose main job is to avoid whatever scary things reside in his/her head.
Does Eddy have a moral need? Well, the mother most certainly has a moral need. She needs to learn to listen to her son, because apparently he is right about massive bears found lurking in woods. So is this an ensemble story, with two main characters? No, the main character is most definitely Eddy.
Look a little closer and you’ll see that Eddy does indeed have a moral need: He needs to stop judging large bears by their size. Eddy assumes that because the bear is huge then it is also dangerous. But the reader sees from the bear’s humorous delight in the tiny (to him) blueberry pie, that this bear is nothing to be afraid of. Eddy should not judge a book by its cover.
Likewise, there are many picture books in which the scary thing turns out to be real, but it turns out to be nothing to fear.
Poor Choice of Your Character’s Goal Is Killing Your Story from K.M. Weiland