On 15 June 2013 the husband and wife team of Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham were interviewed by Kim Hill on Saturday Morning RNZ, for the ‘Playing Favourites’ segment. The songs themselves can’t become podcasts for copyright reasons, but if you’re interested in how a picturebook originates from two co-writers which is then illustrated by someone else, the interview is an interesting listen, in part because writing partnerships are quite uncommon in picturebooks.

I decided to buy my own copy of two of Peet and Graham’s picturebooks partly because, as with all high quality picturebooks, I have this fear that they’re going to fall out of print. I hope that’s not the case for these ones, but you never never know. There aren’t enough big children’s literature awards around to keep all the good ones in print. Oh, and also because I trust Kate De Goldi’s endorsement on the same radio show. I have written notes to that radio show here.

 Cloud Tea Monkeys

CLOSE READING QUESTIONS

1. What can the reader learn about this picturebook from the front cover?

The illustration of the little girl shows that this is the character the readers will be invited to identify with. This is a story about a little girl.

The tone of the illustration is quite dark. Many picturebooks for preschoolers invite the reader in with bright palettes, particularly primary colours (and, increasingly, pastels and pinks for girls), but this picturebook is likely to be for a slightly older audience. Sure enough, the amount of text on the inside, and the complexity of the story itself, reveal this picturebook to be a story for middle primary school readers.

Older readers may remember the illustrated picturebooks of our childhood (published prior to the 1980s) in which fairytales were most often depicted in this magic realist style, with realistic detail. The characters look like a particular person rather than a stylised version of the everychild. This style of illustration, along with the classic font, indicate that this story will be retro in other ways.

The steam from the tea spirals up into the night sky — itself an indication of fear and darkness of theme — and morphs into monkeys. Tea is real, monkeys are real — steam monkeys are the stuff of imagination. This tells the reader that this story fits somewhere between what is possible and what is fantasy. Sure enough, everything that happens in this story could happen — almost. Would monkeys really bond so closely with a little girl? Can monkeys save a life like that? Even the author’s note at the end leads us to believe that these things might just be possible.

2. Kate De Goldi describes this 2011 book as ‘retro’ (imitative of a style or fashion from the recent past). There are a number of ways in which a modern picturebook can seem older than it is. How do the creators of Cloud Tea Monkeys work together to create a retro feel?

First, this story makes use of a classic fairytale structure. This is a story about disempowered people (peasants, slave workers, people at the mercy of others) who face adversity, but who through their own kindness (in this case via the main character’s relationship with wild monkeys) manage to achieve ‘fortune’. This is a rags to riches tale along the lines of Puss In Boots, Cinderella, Aladdin and various others.

Related: Rags To Riches In Fairytales from The Guardian

At a more micro level, the language itself is reminiscent of the more flowery prose of yesteryear. Older stories for children tend to spend more time setting the scene, possibly because modern readers don’t need as much detail, having access to images on television and ready access to full-colour pictures. Notice the semi-colons on the first page. Even the punctuation is reminiscent of an earlier era. Modern writing is less likely to make use of semi-colons, instead substituting for commas or for shorter sentences.

The colour scheme has a yellow cast, printed on cream paper which looks somewhat aged compared to white.

The layout of the book has the words on one side of the page (verso) with the colour illustration on a ‘plate’ on the opposite (recto). When printing was at earlier stage in its evolution, this was how illustrated books were made. Now, in the digital age, modern-style picturebooks are able to seamlessly integrate words with pictures in any way imaginable, and often do, so by laying out a picturebook in this fashion we end up with a retro feel. Another design feature which aids this feel is that the illustrations on the verso pages look like woodcuts or line drawings. These are depicted in black and white. Back in the days when colour printing was expensive, a mixture of coloured and black and white illustrations was an economic necessity. Now that the economic cost between black and white printing and colour is minimal, this design decision has been made not because of economic reasons but simply to lend a 20th century feel.

3. What clues do we get that Tashi’s mother is gravely ill?

The first clue happens ominously at the bottom of the first page, which has a page-turner effect, making the reader want to know more: “Inside the house her mother coughed, twice.” The word ‘twice’ is important. A single cough is just a cough, but after a comma and a ‘twice’, this signals to the reader that the cough is important. The mother is not just clearing her throat.

On the following page, ‘Each woman carried a great wicker basket, bigger than Tashi. They called her name, their voices wobbly in the cold air.’ This is an example of a ‘transferred epithet’. ‘Wobbly’ describes the women’s voices, but actually describes other things: Perhaps the epithet ‘wobbly’ describes Tashi’s mental state, her actual tenuous position in life, being too little to fend for herself and about to lose her mother; it may also describe the mother’s physical condition. It works so well because voices themselves often do sound ‘wobbly’ (a beautifully childlike word) after passing through air.

In the same paragraph, ‘Her mother came out of the house, her back bent under the burden of her tea basket’. The illustration of the tea basket makes it look reasonably light, but for a sick person it would be a ‘burden’ to carry. In this way, the mother’s sickness is shown rather than told, until even the youngest reader can be left in no doubt with an illustration of Tashi hugging her sick mother in bed.

 

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CLOSE READING QUESTIONS

1. The first page of the story has an exciting atmosphere. What tricks of language  has the author employed to achieved this?

The very first sentence reads ‘There were five riders but six camels, travelling fast.’ This suggests that the sixth camel may have once carried another rider, and that something happened to the rider. A few sentences later it is explained that this camel is used to carry ‘the most precious baggage’ (which we later find out is a baby). So the author is using the technique of ambiguity and the withholding of information for suspenseful effect.

The pace of the story is fast. We know this partly because it is spelt out clearly: ‘fast’, ‘desperately fast’ (for emphasis). The pace is also reflected in the length of the sentences, which are generally short: ‘They were being chased, hunted.’ Some of the sentences are fragments: ‘A danger far greater than the men following them.’ This piece of information could technically have been included in the previous sentence, but by splitting a sentence up in this way, the pace and franticness is emphasised. Likewise, the final sentence on this page is ‘A desert storm’, which is placed in its own paragraph. These techniques can be overused, but are utilised here to good effect.

Figurative language adds to the excitement: The evening sky is a ‘boiling wall of sand’ and the dust is ‘like a tidal wave’ — both images are larger than life.

2. Overleaf, the tone of the writing changes after the scene break (indicated by the three symbols). Describe the new tone of that first paragraph after the break and how it has been achieved.

The pace is slower, more languorous. Instead of the words ‘fast’ we have ‘slowly’, ‘floated’.

The content of these sentences is of description rather than action, with a description of a sunrise, itself a meditative scene. ‘Issa’s old eyes had watched thousands of dawns’ emphasises routine, which is itself comforting.

3. ‘They came from the north…their caravans laden with salt’. Why salt?

Salt is an essential food for humans, who evolved partly by the sea. Therefore, agriculturalists who live inland, who eat cereals and vegetables must traditionally go to great lengths to find it. Salt is also important for preserving food, especially meat, and also brings out flavour.. Salt was therefore traditionally prized as highly as the precious metals. Today, much of the salt we eat is industrial salt which is minus the micronutrients and most people eat too much of that because it is a cheap way for large food companies to add taste to otherwise substandard foods. Our governments therefore recommend that we all cut our salt intake. This story is set in a time before the age of industrial salt and excess salt intake.

4. Issa is a religious man who lives his life by his beliefs. Give some examples of how the reader knows this.

When he sees the camel he says, ‘Salaam’.

When he finds the baby girl he doesn’t think first that he must try to find her parents but that his god must have sent the baby to him as a gift. Once Mariama has grown he tells her ‘it was a sort of miracle’.

5. Are these religious beliefs challenged or supported in the story?

Sure enough, Mariama rises to the challenge of guiding Issa and others through the desert, earning an income for both of them. This indeed may be interpreted by both the characters and young readers as miraculous and divinely inspired.

6. Describe the setting of this story. What clues are we given?

When Mariama grows up and Issa loses his sight, some fearsome travellers would like to be shown the way to a place called ‘Ahara’, which may be a made-up name inspired by ‘Ahar‘ (at the top of Iran) and perhaps ‘Sahara’. An explanation at the end of the story tells us that this is indeed a fictitious place, inspired by the author’s imaginings of Timbuktu.

The name Issa is a common male name for Muslims and Arabs and means ‘Salvation’ or ‘Protection’, and may be allegorical as well as being culturally specific. Mariama is a West African name meaning ‘Gift of God’ which is certainly meaningful in the context of this story. Although this setting is fictional, we can still narrow it down to a certain place and time on this earth.

We know a lot about the setting from the illustrations, which depict harsh desert, and a challenge for humans to navigate. The medium of watercolour allows for clear delineation of aerial perspective; this refers to the foreground being more clear and brighter than the background, which is obscured to the viewer by something in the atmosphere, in this case we can assume dust.

Regarding the time, this story would have most likely occurred sometime between the start of agriculture and the industrial revolution, which is a fairly long period in which little changed (compared to our last few centuries of history). Agriculture began between 10k and 3k years ago depending on the region. The industrial revolution started in the mid 1700s, but didn’t affect many parts of the world until quite a bit later than that. This story happened when gold, salt and pearls were still used as currency, as in the times of the Arabian Nights. It also takes place in a culture in which girls have no value of their own, requiring a dowry in order to persuade a man to take them off their fathers’ hands. This is at the back of Issa’s mind when he accepts the bag of pearls.

7. For readers, this landscape is dangerous, as suggested on the first page. How is the landscape made to seem less menacing for Mariama?

The features of the landscape are personified:

‘A valley lay ahead of them. Its walls were of great brown rock piled up like books that might belong to a giant. In their shadows, big-bellied baobab trees lifted their thick branches and fingery leaves into the air like a line of fat old ladies dancing’.

This makes Mariama feel less alone. Because of her creationist philosophies, it seems as if the landscape has been ‘carved into fantastic shapes’ in a deliberate sort of way, ‘cut from purple paper and glued to the sky’. This way of viewing the world can make it seem as if you are more welcome in it. Mariama finds the landscape beautiful and ‘magical’, in part because her scientific knowledge of it is limited (and so things feel like magic, and magic can ‘protect’).

8. Some of the illustrations fill the whole page whereas others are surrounded by a border. Why is a border sometimes used?

The landscapes fill entire pages and double spreads whereas the illustrations inside frames are of medium close-ups of the characters, reminiscent of much later generations using photographs to frame pictures of people. Of course, this story predates photography, but this is a convention familiar to modern readers. The frames are ornamental and make use of squares, braids and rectangles, such as can be found on a Persian carpet, or other traditional art from around that area. Desert dwelling peoples around the world tend to use geometric, brightly coloured patterns in their art, and this is probably because it contrasts so well with the landscape. Peoples living in cities often have naturalistic paintings of landscapes hanging on their walls. The borders around illustrations are a skeuomorphic decision to give the look of an earlier story in which printing technology allowed not for full-page colour but for the odd ‘plate’. These were expensive to produce.

9. Describe the colours used in the illustrations.

A desert is lacking in colour variation, at least to the human eye, so a palette of browns is heavily utilised. But there is another colour which is used to depict ‘beauty’. We first see it when Mariama cuddles close to Issa. She is wearing a blue headdress, describing the rising sun to Issa. “Is it beautiful, child?’ he asks, thereby linking the colour blue to beauty. This colour is used to great effect later, after Mariama has ‘never seen anything so beautiful, so magical’. We turn the page after two full pages of unadorned text and see the magnificent blues of a mountain landscape, with the dark silhouette of Mariama standing alone on a rock. Blue is an interesting choice for a warm climate when the sun is rising, but in this case there is ominous smoke rising in the distance, and blue is associated with smoke. ‘…the sun had a cloudy grey belly when it rose above the mountains.’

Since the same blue of the landscape is the blue of Mariama’s dress, Mariama is linked emotionally to this landscape. This is her land.