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

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 picturebooks 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

 

Things To Know About Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

1. CHEKHOV DID NOT OVERWRITE

You’ll hear Chekhovian advice in every writing group ever.

In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,–because–I don’t know why.

One would like […] descriptions to be more compact and concise, just two or three lines or so.

Take out adjectives and adverbs whenever you can.

— Chekhov

 

2. OFTEN THE HERO DOES NOT CHANGE

There’s this basic rule of storytelling that the main character has to undergo a character arc, but that does not apply to short stories.

The connection between hero and world extends from the hero’s slavery throughout his character arc. In most stories, because the hero and the world are expressions of each other, the world and the hero develop together. Or if the hero doesn’t change, as in much of Chekhov, the world doesn’t change either.”

Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change. This is more true to life than other forms of storytelling, for example any movie coming out of Hollywood today — audiences are there to see a character change.

Even when the characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.

3. CHEKHOV WAS HUGELY INFLUENTIAL

Chekhovian is now a word. Examples of Chekhovian writers:

  • Henry Green (English) — who likes to ‘gag commentary’ (give even fewer reasons) than Chekhov even did.
  • Katherine Mansfield (New Zealander) — early in her life she admired Ivan Turgenev but after discovering Anton Chekhov she cast Turgenev aside. Sure enough, her best work was written after her discovery of Chekhov. The Garden Party, for instance, has a distinctively Chekhovian ending.
  • Raymond Carver (American) — influenced by Chekhov and Hemingway, who was himself influenced by Chekhov
  • Beth Henley — modern American playwright
  • James Joyce (Irish)
  • George Orwell (American)
  • Strunk & White — who wrote the grammar guide emphasising simplicity
  • Matthew Weiner — because his characters in Mad Men fail to change and that’s the whole point, unlike most other novelistic TV series. “1960 Sterling Cooper is the manor house in “The Cherry Orchard,” a besieged institution about to be swept away by the new order.” — John K.

 

4. CHEKHOV CHANGED THE NATURE OF ENDINGS

And knew exactly what he was doing when he said, “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself […] Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”

Chekhovian endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.

When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.

One story even states: “And after that life went on as before.” While this feels like a ‘non-ending’, what it is, is a truncated ‘New Equilibrium’ stage.

They are subversive endings, designed to undercut our expectations.

These endings force readers to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

The novel, and perhaps even more so, the short story does not provide philosophical answers, and Chekhov was fine with this state of affairs, saying that stories only need to ask the right questions.

Chekhov, and his descendants, may have together influenced children’s literature, including picture books:

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

5. CHEKHOV’S GUN

This storytelling term came from a piece of writing advice he issued once:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

6. CHEKHOV’S SIX PRINCIPLES OF A GOOD STORY

According to Chekhov:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

 

7. CHEKHOV DID NOT REQUIRE A CLIMAX

As well as truncating the ‘New Equilibrium’ part of a traditional narrative, Chekhov often omits a Self-revelation phase.

If he does this, he does so in order to make the reader have the epiphany his protagonist fails to have.

He did this more in his later work.

He did this because an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

Unreliable narrators are particularly useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader.

 

The Problem With The ‘One Big Lie Per Story’ Advice

There’s a rule of writing fantasy which all professional writers are familiar with. (No, I’m not talking about the dangling preposition.)

Fantasy writers are allowed one big lie per story.

As Michael Hauge writes at his Story Mastery website:

The quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Credibility (Part 1)

Robert McKee advises the same thing in his well-known screenwriting book Story:

[O]f all the genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabilities and no coincidence–the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example.

– from Story, page 70, in a chapter about setting

Susan Cooper writing quote

I believe the writing advice ‘One Lie Per Story’ is generally sound. What I worry about, however, is that writing teams may be using this axiom as an excuse to avoid examination of their own biases.

Ratatouille Characters

Take a film like Ratatouille. That’s a story starring a talking rat. Yet when feminists point out the dearth of female characters, apologists rebut with the fact that ‘in real life, professional kitchens are staffed mainly by men.’ But Ratatouille is a story about a talking rat. The writers could have written that story any which way they liked. Except the one ‘lie’ is the talking rat. Everything else, in their justification, would have to ‘ring true’ in order for audiences to accept that talking rat, including the typical gender breakdown of a professional kitchen.

But McKee also has this to say about verisimilitude, as he describes a common feature of failed screenplays:

The “personal story” [one kind of failed screenplay] is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t’. Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.

– Story, by Robert McKee

A truly masterful storyteller is indeed able to tell a story which casts females in traditionally male roles, yet it still feels believable.

Some storytellers are even able to write futuristic worlds in which women have equality, and they still manage to tell a truth; not only truth, but Truth. That’s because they are masterful storytellers.

Storytelling Is A Metaphor For Life

McKee continues:

[F]acts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include something in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we *think about* what happens.

– Story, Robert McKee

From a master storyteller himself: Everything happens. Sexism happens. And there is absolutely no excuse at all for the reproduction of outdated, anti-female and outright nasty portrayals of girls or white people in any work of fiction, especially for children.

Consider also the following concepts of storytelling:

‘THE WORLD OF THE WORK’

In talking about what Paul Ricoeur calls “the world of the work”, we assume, of course, that the work offers up a world of its own. Literary works summon such a world through their arrangement and adherence to formal rules; through their use of tradition and genre; through their intent and use of language. We might say that it is through style that literary works become more than the sum of their sentences. Literary works create new worlds by replacing the world itself and it is the metaphorical statement that reveals this operation. “Metaphor’s power of reorganizing our perception of things,’ Ricoeur writes, “develops from transposition of an entire ‘realm'”. Ricoeur calls this realm a “new referential design”, which I specify as the work’s metaphorical design.

– from Goth: Undead Subculture

In other words, a writer can invent any kind of world they want to. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Imagining only worlds full of white boys with a token girl and a token black child is simply a failure of imagination on the part of the storyteller.

THE ‘REAL-FICTIONAL DICHOTOMY’

…literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy.  According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.” … we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”

Believable FictionsOn the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters  by Howard Sklar

Sklar argues that: ‘We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.’ This argument makes it all the more important that we’re exposing children to a diverse range of characters, if children are indeed reacting to fictional characters in the same way they would react to a person in real life.

CARNIVALIZATION

I came across the term carnivalesque when reading Maria Nikolajeva*, who finds this concept very relevant to children’s literature.

  • Children’s book are often criticised for being not true to life.
  • In fact, verisimilitude (the appearance of being real) should not be confused with reality.
  • ‘Carnivalization’ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.
  • An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but  say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)
  • An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books.
  • The Wikipedia entry on the genre of Carnivalesque
*who quotes Bahktin, initially describing the work of Dostoyevsky and Gogol

IN SUM

There is no possible narrative excuse for failing to include more female characters and characters of colour in children’s films.

Storytellers must do away with the idea that in a work of fantasy (e.g. one with talking planes), that no other deviation from reality is possible. Verisimilitude is a robust beast.

‘truth’ is not ‘Truth’, and the slavish duplication of human reality in film indicates a failure to make use of story as metaphor for life.

An audience is able to cope with ‘unreal’ situations in fiction because we understand intuitively the ‘real-fictional dichotomy’. Audiences understand that ‘the world of the work’ is different from ‘the real world’. We get it. We can cope.

The reason these concepts are ‘intuitive’ to an audience is due to a long history of storytelling which makes use of devices such as carnivalization (and metaphor and other figures of speech…)

There is no reason, other than unchallenged sexism/racism, why established storytelling techniques cannot be utilised in big-budget children’s films to reimagine an inequal world.

Credibility

INTERESTING LINKS ON VERISIMILITUDE IN STORYTELLING

Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies Oxford University Press blog points out that ‘our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real.’  In other words, we expect different things from a story that is based on reality, even though such stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Scientists have measured things like palm sweat and found that viewers are even more affected by, say, a disaster movie, when they know the story is based on true events. The Coen Brothers utilise this when they tell viewers at the beginning of the film Fargo that the story is based on true events (even though it is completely fabricated).

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels from Nathan Bransford advises writers not to expect their story to be more sellable because their story aligns with what’s happening in the news.

Only fiction can be about the trivial without being trivial and more quotes along this line from Explore

The Beautiful Creatures authors give us the rules for creating a believable fantasy from io9. Beautiful Creatures is a fantasy romance based on a book. It’s a story set in a small town and includes witches and devils. Margaret Stohl explains that the co-authors were able to come up with a believable universe because they ‘came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you’ll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect.’

What is meant by a ‘complex’ character in fiction?

Primarily it means that these characters have moral contradictions. And that means they…have a highly compartmentalized moral code.

John Truby

 

Making Use Of Juxtaposition In Writing

Juxtaposition Of Scenes John Truby

John Truby points out that TV dramas make excellent case studies for working out how to achieve narrative juxtaposition, and offers a case study of ER. I would suggest also Six Feet Under, in which the narrative juxtaposition running throughout the series is, of course, a metaphor for life and death.

Each scene in a juxtaposed TV drama will be variations on a single problem. Each strand/plotline will have an underlying unity.

The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction

The-Storyteller-Mike-Shaheen-1024x604

Advantages of a storyteller:

  • A storyteller can radically change the way you sequence a plot. The storyteller has just as much effect on your depiction of character as the plot itself.
  • The vast majority of popular stories (movies/novels/plays) don’t use a recognizable storyteller but an omniscient narrator. The audience doesn’t see who is telling the story, and we don’t care.
  • A storyteller is someone who recounts a character’s actions, either in the first person or third. If your storyteller is recognizable you are afforded greater complexity and subtlety: You can present both the actions of the MC and commentary on those actions.
  • If you identify the storyteller the audience will ask why they are telling it. And why does this story need a teller. A storyteller calls attention to herself and can distance the audience from the story. That gives the writer the benefit of detachment.
  • This storyteller may not be telling the entire truth. The storyteller blurs/destroys the line between reality and illusion.
  • If the storyteller is identified the audience knows that this is someone’s memory — cue feelings of loss, sadness and ‘might-have’been-ness’. We know that the storyteller will be retelling the story with a touch more wisdom, since a measure of time has elapsed since the ending of the story and the retelling of it.
  • A storyteller can heighten the issue of truth. When a storyteller speaks personally to an audience the storyteller in effect is saying ‘I was there so you can trust me on this’. This is a tacit invitation to the audience not to trust this storyteller, and to explore the issue of truth as the story unfolds.
  • Who’s The Greatest Unreliable Narrator? (From Publishers Weekly)
  • Helps the writer establish an intimate connection between character and audience.
  • Makes characterization more subtle and helps writers distinguish one character from another.
  • Signals a shift from a hero who acts — usually a fighter — to a hero who creates — an artist. The act of storytelling now becomes the main focus, so the path to ‘immortality’ shifts from a hero taking glorious action to a storyteller who tells it.
  • You can leave chronology behind because the actions of the plot are framed by someone’s memories. You can now sequence the action in whatever way makes the most structural sense.
  • This helps string together events and actions that occur over great stretches of time. A storyteller affords greater unity and huge gaps between story events seem to disappear.

DONT’S FOR USING A STORYTELLER

  • Don’t use a storyteller as a simple frame. “I’d like to begin by telling you a story… That’s what happened. It was an amazing story.” This calls attention to the storyteller for no reason and fails to take advantage of the strengths of including a storyteller.
  • The storyteller should not be all-knowing at the beginning. An all-knowing storyteller has no dramatic interest in the present.
  • Don’t end the storytelling frame at the end of the story, but rather about three-quarters of the way in. If you put it right at the end the act of remembering and telling the story can have no dramatic or structural impact on the present. You need to leave some room in the story for the act of recounting the change to the storyteller herself.
  • Don’t promote the fallacy that a character’s death allows the full and true story to be told. It’s overdone for a storyteller to state that the character’s death finally made it possible to tell the truth about her. The deathbed scene and final words often provide ‘the truth’. This is never true in real life and not true in stories either — rather, it’s acting as if you’ll die that creates meaning by motivating you to make choices now. Finding meaning is an ongoing process of living. (A character’s death may give the appearance that the full story can now be told, but the true meaning comes in looking back on events.) A storyteller knows ‘a meaning’ but never ‘the meaning’ of a story.
  • Be wary of too many storytellers. One cost of a storyteller is that she can drain some emotion from a story. The more storytellers you have, the more this will happen. The audience will end up looking at the story from a cold and clinical position.

DO’S FOR USING A STORYTELLER

  • Realize your storyteller is probably your true main character.
  • Introduce the storyteller in a dramatic situation.
  • Find a good trigger to cause her to tell the story.
  • The storyteller should have a great weakness that will be solved by telling the story.
  • Try to find a unique structure for telling the tale instead of simple chronology. (Otherwise the storyteller is just a frame and you don’t need it.)
  • The act of telling the story should lead the storyteller to a self-revelation.
  • Consider having the storyteller explore how the act of telling the story can be immoral or destructive, to herself or others.
  • The act of telling the story should cause a final dramatic event.
  • The deeper theme should be concerned with the truth and beauty of creativity, not heroic action. The storytelling itself is the greatest accomplishment, not the action which has been recounted.

Notes from John Truby, the Anatomy of Story

 

ADDITIONAL TERMINOLOGY

Autodiegetic — An autodiegetic character is also the character in his/her own story, telling the story from ‘within the story universe’.

Heterodiegetic — A heterodiegetic narrator does not take part in the story.

Homodiegetic — A homodiegetic narrator takes part in the story.

Extradiegetic –An extradiegetic narrator is one who narrates a story from outside the fictional universe of a particular text.  This narrator communicates the primary narrative to an audience equally removed from the storyworld; this audience, then, is the extradiegetic narratee.  Extradiegetic narrators may be characters in their narratives, but at the moment of narration they are operating from without its storyworld.   This may happen when a character-narrator tells the story some years after the event, from another fictional level. (After some insight has been gained.) Think of this term as: ‘Out-of-universe’.

As true for adult literature as it is for children’s literature…

Don't be Obvious and Preachy

Middle Grade Writing Advice

WHAT IS MIDDLE GRADE LITERATURE?

  • Middle grade fiction is not written for middle school kids despite sounding like it ought to be. Middle grade is actually aimed at eight- to twelve-year olds, which sometimes bleeds over into seven to thirteen.
  • Your protagonist can’t be older than your readers.
  • You can include romance, but only a little.
  • Provide smaller solvable problems and solve them. Fun to include personal dilemmas and little mysteries, confidence builders.
  • Middle grade word count ranges from 20,000 to 55,000 words, with more allowance given to fantasy novels that require world building. Some publishers specify 20,000 to 40,000. A debut MG author should aim for 35k.
  • No swearing or graphic violence
  • If the story is dark is will still have a happy ending

– From selected sources.

THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE GRADE LITERATURE

Previous generations of works that have targeted this age range tended merely to be a continuation of the early reader genre – somewhat bland, Disneyfied works that reinforced the ideas of children as lesser beings, needing protection from scary thoughts and ideas and, by extension, who are considered unable or incapable of delving deeper into their text.

— Thomas Byrne

THE FUNCTIONS OF MIDDLE GRADE LITERATURE

  • Explore complex situations and characters from the inside
  • Talking and writing about personal and other familiar experiences
  • Raises questions about the imaginary world and its people
  • Discovering new connections between the imaginary and real world, and discussing what human experience is like

RELATED LINKS

writing for a middle grade audience isn’t all that different from writing for adults. Minus the sex and taboo language, obv.

– from Peter Lerangis

 

 

 

The Dream House Made Into A Picturebook

floor plan of Midnight Feast

floor plan of Midnight Feast

Do you have a dream house that exists only inside your head? Perhaps it’s somewhere you hope to build one day, or a mixture of great spaces you’ve been to in your lifetime. If you were asked questions about this dream house, I wonder how specific you could get?

  • How many bedrooms does it have?
  • How does one get from one bedroom to another?
  • Where do the inhabitants keep their clothes?
  • Their shoes?
  • What would I find in the larder?
  • Which direction does it face?
  • If I flew into the air above your dream house, what does the surrounding area look like?

As Gaston Bachelard says, quoting Rilke in The Poetics of Space, those of us who keep dreamt-up houses in our heads haven’t worked out the details. Details such as: How does one get from one room to another without a connected corridor?

[The imagined dream house] is not a building, but is quite dissolved and distributed inside me: here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor which, however, does not connect the two rooms, but is conserved in me in fragmentary form. Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me, the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness, others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, quoted in The Poetics Of Space

I realised that the house I had imagined inside my head wouldn’t necessarily work. And the architecture of the house is essential to the plot, which is certainly not true of many other picture books.

I wonder if it’s common for picturebook illustrators to draw a floor plan when illustrations are set largely inside a house. It really helped me out a lot, to spend half an hour visualising the entirety of Roya’s world within the story, down to the wallpaper.

Once I’d sketched a layout of the apartment, illustrations progressed at a faster pace*. I didn’t have to consider the interior decor, of her non-imaginary world, at least. I’ve heard art advice to the effect that you need to understand the entirety of a subject even if you’re only going to be depicting a single facet. I was imagining a banana when I heard that advice, but it certainly applies to houses and floorplans. Otherwise you’re liable to draw a house without any doors.

(By the way, I decided the toilet and bathroom are communal, downstairs.)

*This particular piece of paper also has the honour of helping a super poisonous Australian spider into a glass for deposition at CSIRO, so it’s come in handy indeed.

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