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Tag: Aesop

Birds In Children’s Literature

 

Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.

evil fairytale bird

The hooked beak of this bird is undoubtedly evil.

BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.

I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!

There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.

The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.

CATS AND BIRDS

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A Taxonomy Of Humour In Children’s Stories

There are thought to be 3 main theories of humour.

  1. Superiority Theory — Hobbes — about the “sudden glory we feel when we see an eminence in ourselves compared to an inferiority in someone else.” This is the guy slipping on a banana peel. But of course misfortune does not lead to humour, otherwise we’d laugh at homeless refugees.
  2. Relief Theory — Freud, of course — we’re a cauldron of desires/sexuality/aggression. We suppress the aggression to express the sexuality and so on. By this theory, humour acts as a means of releasing excess emotion or arousal. Freud’s theory was that jokes are a way of overcoming the censorship of certain taboo thoughts. Humour is the release of the repressed energies they caused.
  3. Incongruity Theory — Something that doesn’t fit is made to fit.

But none of these theories on its own is helpful if you want to go about writing humour yourself. The fact is, humour is the most technical of all writing styles. Treat it like learning magic tricks. Dissect it, emulate the humour you love, get into the zone. Comedy writing is a skill that takes a lifetime to learn.

Founding editor of The Onion wants to help with the job of learning the write comedy. Stephen Johnson argues that every joke falls into one of 11 categories. At first glance this sounds like the ‘Seven Basic Plots’ idea, which is a pretty unhelpful way of looking at story if you’re harbouring hopes of telling one — forget whether there’s some elemental truth to it or not. That said, I am a fan of The Onion — they get humour right the vast majority of the time — so I decided to take these 11 categories and apply them to some popular humorous children’s books. Is Scott Dikkers right? Are there really only 11 categories of humour.

Also, can we apply these same categories to humour written for children?

“There are no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor.”

–Robert Benchley

1. IRONY

First, a refresher: What even is irony exactly? The Onion’s definition: Intended meaning is opposite of literal meaning. Honestly, I’m sure from the outset — if a joke doesn’t fall into any of the other categories, the definition of ‘irony’ is so broad that I predict it can be shoved into this one.

Humour often lies in the gap between what is said and what is meant. […] In relaxed, friendly talk, speakers collaborate in talking about one thing while meaning something else, thus maintaining a play frame.

Jennifer Coates

I’ve heard it said that we can’t rely on children to pick up irony until the age of about 8, give or take according to individuals. The thing about children’s books is, we never know the exact developmental stage of each individual reader, so there’s always a chance irony will be taken literally. On the surface this doesn’t matter. If the kid doesn’t get the joke they don’t get the joke, right? But what if ‘not getting the irony’ means seeing straight up sexism/meanness/racism or something like that? We need to be careful here, especially when it comes to ‘hipster irony’ -ie. being mean, but not really being mean, because everyone knows we’re not mean people, right?

This irony thing is important because a lot of children’s stories (especially films) are written with the ‘dual audience’ in mind, especially in film and in picture books, where the adult is sitting alongside the child.

  • Rosie’s Walk is the classic example of a picture book demonstrating an ironic distance between picture and text. The words say something completely different from the text. Today there are many more examples of ironic distance in picture books.
  • In A Long Way From Chicago, the grandmother is a comical character but the humour is often understated irony which involves nothing more than our narrator pointing it out: ‘She said she never slept but she had to wake herself up to go to bed.’ 
  • Dramatic irony is describes a gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows. Sometimes the audience knows more than the character. This kind of dramatic irony is called ‘reader superior position’. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig, Pig sees a funny looking farmer at the fair. From the illustrations, the reader understands immediately that this is no farmer. She looks like an archetypal villain. But Pig simply says, “She is the most ugly farmer I’ve ever seen” and describes an archetypal villain without putting two and two together himself. Then there’s reader inferior dramatic irony. This is less useful in comedy, but is especially common in certain genres such as heist, where the audience is constantly two steps behind the characters and their plans.
  • Another excellent example of dramatic irony can be seen in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. The reader sees the red hat long before the main character does. The younger the reader, the more you should make use of reader superior irony. Young kids are still working out the world and they need to feel smart. I can’t think of an example of reader inferior irony in humorous picture books.
  • In a story with no pictures, dramatic irony can come from an unreliable narrator, who is not telling the reader the full story. This might be because they don’t understand what’s going on. (But the reader does.) Unreliable narrators are useful for many reasons, and sometimes, in the hands of an expert storyteller, can lead to humour.
spongebob squarepants ironic distance

Here we see an ironic distance between what is illustrated and what the characters are saying. Funnier because both characters are duped, perhaps by each other. Perhaps because they can’t count that high.

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The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake

For fans of Into The Woods by John Yorke, The Enormous Crocodile is an example of a story which mirrors itself perfectly.

The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl Quentin Blake

THE PAIRING OF QUENTIN BLAKE AND ROALD DAHL

For those of us who grew up reading Roald Dahl in the 1980s, it’s impossible to separate the author from his enduring illustrator, Quentin Blake. It’s easy to forget that at first Dahl was paired with a few different illustrators before Quentin Blake. (Rosemary Fawcett is one illustrator whose career may have been ruined by Dahl’s dislike of her macabre illustrations, which is a bit rich.) Continue reading

Storytelling Tips from Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

Northern Lights is a YA story with broad appeal for adults. It follows mythic structure.

The story has been adapted into a film (2007) and also into an action/adventure puzzle game (by Sega). While in some cases films can be just as enjoyable — or even more enjoyable — than the books upon which they are based, that is nowhere near true in this case. There are many reasons for this which resulted from too many cooks spoiling the broth. Not least: Continue reading

The Amazing Bone by William Steig

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

The Amazing Bone William Steig book cover

 

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE AMAZING BONE

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Anthropomorphism vs. Personification

stinky-cheese

Doctor Le Quack from Courage The Cowardly Dog

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PERSONIFICATION AND ANTHROPOMORPHISM?

anthrop = human

morph = shape

— from The Cognatarium – a search engine which allows you to search for the meanings of English words by morpheme (the smallest unit of meaning. (It seems this website is no longer accessible to the public.)

In pop culture the two terms seem to be used interchangeably. See, for instance, 10 Movies That Will Traumatise Your Child With Anthropomorphism from io9.

But some people like to maintain a distinction, despite the overlapping usage. I like this explanation:

Both personification and anthropomorphization assert intangible human characteristics — such as consciousness and thought — onto an inanimate object, entity or animal. The difference is that anthropomorphization imposes physical or tangible human characteristics onto the subject to suggest an embodiment of the human form.

– from the wordreference.com forum

To put it another way, with examples:

Personification pretends (for literary effect) to ascribe one or two human attributes (especially thoughts, feelings, intentions) to non-human things.

Anthropomorphism turns non-humans into humans completely — such as Bugs Bunny, the animals of Aesop’s fables, the three bears who chased Goldilocks, or the Uncle Remus characters.

Another way of looking at anthropomorphism is that it is actually talking about humans — but pretends that they are shaped like animals.

This is a popular device in children’s literature, fairy tales, and comic strips. One benefit is that the characters don’t have any race or gender, so all children everywhere can identify with them. [For more on that see Why So Many Animals In Picturebooks?]

– from someone at Yahoo answers.

Doctor De Soto by William Steig (1982)

doctor-de-soto-cover

LITERARY INFLUENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

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

THE NAME DE SOTO

I wondered if ‘De Soto’ had any significance.

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

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

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

Wikipedia

STORYWORLD OF DOCTOR DE SOTO

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor De Soto, William Steig

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

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

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

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

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

dr-de-soto-fox-bends-down

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

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

DESIRE

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

OPPONENT

The fox, whose natural inclination is to eat mice.

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

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

dr-de-soto-fang-dentures

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

PLAN

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

BATTLE

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

SELF READER-REVELATION

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

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

dr-de-soto-fox-is-pleased

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

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

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

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

dr-de-soto-descends-stairs

Rats In Children’s Literature

rat-attacks-cat

That’s a gif from Reddit.

I’m reminded of modern children’s literature, in which an underdog, much maligned character has his/her own back.

It’s pretty funny until you read the top commenter, pointing out that the rat probably has toxoplasmosis, a disorder of the brain. On the other hand, mice and rats alike aren’t timid at all when you consider how small and vulnerable they are compared to us, and how they hang around humans anyway.

Compared to mice, rats are relatively uncommon in children’s literature.

There are a number of reasons for this:

First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.

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

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

Second, there’s a long history of tropes depicting rats as baddies, and the antihero isn’t very well explored (yet) in literature for young children.

See also: A list of rodent tropes at TV Tropes

Third, there’s no Aesopian precedent for personified rats. Aesop has a much bigger influence on modern children’s literature than we might think. Take a look at the following word cloud, from a site which catalogue’s Aesop’s fables and you’ll notice that rats are entirely absent. Even mice aren’t all that common.

aesops-characters

 

Rats As Cockney Rag And Bone Types

The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney, are underworld petty criminal scavenger types and are used to deliver funny one-liners.

rats chicken run

If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.

Only Fools and Horses

from Only Fools and Horses

Rats = Masculine, Mice = Feminine

The characters in Froggy Went A-Courtin (here we have the 1955 illustrations) are a good example of rodent gendering in children’s stories. The mice is infantalised in what today seems ridiculously old-fashioned, but which was no doubt representative of its time. No one knows exactly when the original song was first composed, but it was long before 1955.

Uncle Rat froggy went a courtin

Miss mouse will you marry me

That said, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to see pictures of women on men’s knees in popular culture, and it wasn’t always a loving dynamic such as this one.

Chase-Sanborn-Coffee

FAMOUS LITERARY RATS

Here are some of the better-known works.

mrsfrisbyandthe_ratsofnimhcover_huge_500x762

naked-mole-rat-gets-dressed_500x340

walter-the-story-of-a-rat_500x633

the_roly-poly_pudding_first_edition_cover_500x636

the-wind-in-the-willows_500x632

a-rats-tale-cover_500x670

hooway_500x500

i-was-a-rat-pullman_500x704

 

The Useless Donkeys by Lydia Pender and Judith Cowell (1979)

the-useless-donkeys-cover_800x853

At first I thought The Useless Donkeys was going to be a more realistic, earlier version of Walter The Farting Dog in which an adult threatens to get rid of a family pet, but over the course of the story the pet(s) prove their true worth and end up staying with the children.

I was a little off in my prediction. Instead, these donkeys are donkeys in the realistic sense. There’s nothing anthropomorphised about them at all. So they just wander around being donkeys, without ever proving their worth. Instead, the oldest daughter in this story happens upon what’s nowadays known as ‘The Benjamin Franklin Effect‘, in which the more you do for someone the better you like them.

The front matter tells us the illustrator, Judith Cowell, is a perfectionist and spent two years working studiously on the watercolours of this book. As you’d expect, they’re worthy of framing.

useless-donkeys-rain-house_800x800

Perhaps this is why Cowell seems to have produced only two books in her lifetime. I suspect you can find more of her artwork here.

STORY WORLD OF THE USELESS DONKEYS

useless-donkeys-page-one_800x812

This storybook world is something between English and Australian. I couldn’t decide whether the author was Australian or English, in fact, so wasn’t surprised to look her up and find she was English born but spent most of her life in Australia.

Lydia Pender was the daughter of George Herbert and Ethel Podger. She came to Australia with her parents and four brothers in 1920. They lived in Sydney and she went to St. Albans Church of England School, Hunters Hill, completing the Leaving Certificate. Pender won a scholarship to do a bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney but did not complete it.

There is something quite English about the diction, and the way the full names of the children are used. Then there’s that heavy rain, of course, which is often absent from Australian picturebooks set on farms. (See for example Two Summers.)

This is a cosy homestead, a small farm with a big, bustling family. The house provides safety, and the children are healthily excited about the rising river.

stormy-night-inside

We have a newspaper reading father and a mother dressed as a 1940s housewife, tending to the family.

useless-donkeys-cosy-house

DONKEYS

Donkeys are one of the main animals in Aesop’s fables. (They’re often referred to as an ‘ass’, which has fallen out of favour for some weird reason.)

Asses, no surprise, are often depicted as hapless victim types, with no brains. They fall into traps easily, and they are drawn towards fun with no thought to consequences.

Donkeys in real life have been important to us since the age of agriculture, but only if they can be put to work. Unlike horses and ponies, donkeys in children’s literature are primarily for working rather than for companionship. Donkeys don’t save the day very often. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the donkeys in this story are actual donkeys, not people in the form of donkeys.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE USELESS DONKEYS

WEAKNESS/NEED

A pair of donkeys are useless and a bit annoying.

useless-donkeys-at-the-window

DESIRE

The mother and children want to keep the donkeys.

OPPONENT

father-with-donkeys_800x800

The father. This guy is a farmer type who values animals only for their utility.

PLAN

The two eldest children row to the ‘island’ and spend the night keeping the donkeys company.

BATTLE

useless-donkeys-rainy-night_800x800

The storm sequence.

A storm can symbolize the turmoil in the character’s psyche.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva

The reason for that watery watercolour technique, with those large splashes to add texture, becomes clear when it starts raining in the story and the river rises.

SELF-REVELATION

The more you do for somebody, the more you like them. It applies to babies and it applies to animals.

useless-donkeys-last-page

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The donkeys will be allowed to stay. We know this because the father gave the final say to the more sympathetic mother.

This part of the story is implied rather than shown.

 

That Is NOT A Good Idea by Mo Willems

that-is-not-a-good-idea-by-mo-willems

PICTUREBOOKS THAT BREAK DOWN ‘THE FOURTH WALL’

Some of my favourite picturebooks perform this trick of ‘a story within a story’. It’s a narrative technique. In novels for adults we often have an unseen narrator and we never really wonder who that narrator is, but in a picturebook you can give that narrator a personality, and you can even bring that personality into the story if it suits the plot.

We see it in Z Is For Moose, in which the animals are performing a stage play (for the reader).

Z Is For Moose Cover

It’s a postmodern technique, and postmodern picturebooks are famous for being metafictive. (In which the reader is constantly reminded that this is a story.)

Another book which knocks down ‘the fourth wall’ between reader and story is David Wiesner’s revisioning of The Three Little Pigs.

Many parent reviewers point out that the silent film technique in this Mo Willems picturebook goes over the heads of children and exists for adult co-readers. I think this is only half true. Child readers will still pick up that this is a story within a story even if they don’t recognise the exact medium of silent film. The drawings of the narrator (the bird’s babies) are not really difficult for kids to understand.

SILENT FILM TECHNIQUES

On the colophon page we have a ‘List of Players’. These days we might see ‘Cast’ or ‘Starring’. This terminology (as well as the font) is from the silent film era.

The silent film era lasted from 1894 to 1929. The buildings, fashion and interior decoration is also from that period, with the Fox dressed up as a Victorian gentleman and the goose wearing a headscarf. (Not only is there a gender and species difference here, but also a class one.)

White words on black background, like tech websites from the early 2000s, unrelatedly.

Exaggerated gestures — the fox lifts his hat very high while the duck shows very obvious signs of coyness. This feature is common between silent film and picturebooks, so doesn’t really stand out.

that-is-not-a-good-idea-coy

But Willems also borrows a Looney Tunes-esque technique: The dashed line to indicate line of vision:

that-is-not-a-good-idea-dashed-line

THE INFLUENCE OF AESOP ON POSTMODERN PICTURE BOOKS

Modern animal stories like these owe so much to Aesop. The narrative wouldn’t work if our culture hadn’t already taught us that foxes are cunning and ducks are vulnerable. (As my husband says of our chooks, “It’s their own damn fault for being so delicious.”)

As Perry Nodelman explains:

There are historical reasons for this concentration of animals who act like humans, among them the fact that some of the first stories considered suitable for children were the fables of Aesop, in which supposedly characteristic animal attributes are identified with human behaviour. These identifications still operate in picture books today. The image of a fox in The Amazing Bone immediately evokes the idea of craftiness, and in picture book after picture book, we are meant to understand immediately that the lions depicted are arrogant, the peacocks proud, the pigs gluttonous, the mice timid, the rats nasty. As Leonard Marcus says in “Picture Book Animals,” “animals as images in our everyday thought and expression are among the most association-rich classes of symbols. Just under the surface of picture book fantasies, cultural meanings may well be at work.”

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Nodelman also points out that traditional (Aesopian) ideas about which personalities belong to which animals can be turned upside down, used ironically. He gives the example of Pearl the pig in William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.

Here, too, Aesop’s animal personalities are turned upside down. Although foxes often meet a sticky end due to their overconfidence even in Aesop’s fables, the goose turns out to be the wiliest of all.

the-geese-and-the-cranes

Traditionally, due to their size, geese are ‘sitting ducks’ because they can’t fly away quickly enough.

Here is a list of Aesop’s fables starring geese.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA BY MO WILLEMS

A story with a twist in the end makes you revise the entire thing. (For this reason we shouldn’t go about recommending books and films by saying ‘There’s a great twist!’) Hopefully anyone on this blog has already read the story, though.

WEAKNESS/NEED

The fox thinks he’s smart but he’s not.

DESIRE

He wants to eat a goose for dinner.

(SECRET) OPPONENT

The goose.

PLAN

He plans to invite her home for dinner, pretending that she will be sharing the meal.

BATTLE

Standing around the big pot, who will push who into the stew?

that-is-not-a-good-idea-battle-scene

AUDIENCE SELF-REVELATION

The revelation happens for the audience, since the fox isn’t around to feel it. We see that the goose is not a weak little creature but is more wily than the fox.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The fox is dead. The goose and her chicks are well fed.

 

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

A reviewer on Goodreads compares this Mo Willems picturebook to a novel for adults: Under The Skin by Michel Faber. (It’s also a film starring Scarlett Johansson.)

 

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