“In the Pit” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Heart Songs collection. “In the Pit” is a good example of a story with no Self-revelation for the main character. If anyone has a revelation, it’s the reader. Character arcs are not compulsory. In real life as in fiction, sometimes people simply don’t learn and they don’t change. They go their whole lives with little understanding of themselves and others. A TV series with an unchanging main character is Mad Men. Don Draper, also with the ghost of a problematic childhood, is unable to move past his backstory. Season after season he doesn’t change while around him the world changes a lot. This juxtaposition is the point of interest. Blue is a kind of Don Draper character, but from rural New England.
“The Unclouded Day” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1985, included in the Heart Songs collection. Rich and poor, city and rural bump up against each other. This story is an excellent example of two narrative techniques in particular:
- Santee has both an outside opponent and one from within his own group. (Earl most obviously, but also his wife.)
- The revelation comes early for Santee, but the story has to conclude with Earl’s ‘fake’ self-revelation before we’re done. If you’d like to write a trickster story, “The Unclouded Day” provides a successful template.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”
American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, is the granddaughter of Thelma and Louise — a road journey with classic mythic structure which follows the coming-of-age (or not) of an 18-year-old named Star. Star comes from a tough background — the classic orphaned underdog, with a mother who has overdosed, and an auntie(?) who requires Star to look after her young kids rather than looking after Star, who definitely needs protection, from the abusive guy she’s got hanging around.
Star has an allegorical name — an ironic name, because this kid will never be a starlet. Refreshingly, she doesn’t even want that. Star explains to Jake that her mother chose it because we’re all made of ‘Death Stars’. Now it’s not ironic. This is an example of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — Star has already had this character arc. She’s lost her mother to meth. She’s faced death before. By this point in her 18-year-old life she’s learning to live with the fact that we’re all headed for the grave. This explains her hedonism. When Star explains her name to Jake, this is more of a revelation to the audience than to Star herself. Star has not fully come to terms with death — that takes some decades. She mulls it over on several occasions — when she realises the trucker she hitched with has been carrying a load of cattle, and when she accidentally steps in blood (or what looks like blood) in a ditch.
It’s inevitable that a disenfranchised kid like Star will fall into bad company, because most any company is better than what she’s starting out with. Bad company rolls into town as a band of magazine hawking troubadours in the guise of magazine salespeople, with a subculture reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. They’re headed to Kansas — synonymous to most outside Kansas with The Wizard of Oz — another mythical journey starring a girl. Arnold encourages the connection with a cut to a pair of sparkly red shoes which belong to Star’s little cousin. But this is no dreamland. This crew are outlaws with their own set of rules. They punish each other physically for coming last in their sales ranking system. This is headed by a matriarch rather than a patriarch, and reminds me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. The matriarch as villain is an interesting device in a feminist film, and at this cultural moment almost a necessary one, to avoid the hackneyed old ideas of women as one hundred percent victims of the patriarchy, or the dreaded Female Maturity Formula, in which girls have already been through their character arcs, existing only as models for boys to have theirs. We need more female villains. Krystal is wonderfully complex. We get just enough to wonder about her backstory.
Other reviewers have doubted the entire premise of this road trip — who buys magazines anymore? Andrea Arnold lampshades this by having Star ask it up front. What’s never clear is if there are any magazines. If there were, they wouldn’t make money. My interpretation is that there are no magazines. People are paying for a scam. The magazines exist only to justify the begging. Why else do they need to travel so far to get away from each town?
Freshly free of childcare responsibilities, Star’s road trip kicks off. Road trips are hard to write well. They tend to feel splintered — one damn encounter after another. The road trip is by nature a linear plot shape — a masculine plot shape. But when road trips star girls and women, they tend to look a little different. Star’s trip is circular, as they move through areas completely foreign (wealthy and built-up) back to a poor area which reminds Star of her own home. Female journeys are more likely than male journeys to be circular in this way.
We now get to see the childlike side of Star, who isn’t ready for the world of work. She plays the fool, gets high, and doesn’t know a violent man when she sees one. If Jake promises her ‘a present’, she’s putty in his hands. She’s come from nothing, so a present equals love. This movie is basically a love story — or can we call it that? It’s not a love tragedy, either. Like Arnold’s Fish Tank, this is the arc of an emotionally neglected teenage girl falling in with a bad older man, then finally making her escape, or not.
Arnold makes sure we empathise with Star by giving her numerous Save The Cat moments — twice she rescues an insect. Eventually she uses her sex work cash to buy groceries for neglected kids. Star has a strong moral code, in opposition to Jake’s. She has no time for lying and bullshit. Her reaction alone tells us a lot about her backstory — she’s had nothing but lies and bullshit her entire life. She’s also empathetic because she doesn’t want for much, and we see that as an endearing thing. She meets a trucker and tells him she wants lots of kids and her very own trailer. It never crosses Star’s mind that she could maybe have an actual house. The truck driver himself comes across as extremely empathetic — unlike the truck driver in Thelma and Louise, he’s not turned into the villain — he’s big into boats but despite driving miles for his job, he admits he’s never been to the ocean. He’s not young. We know he maybe never will. This could be Star in three decades’ time — it’s quite possible Star will live her life dreaming. And is dreaming enough? That’s where the symbolism of the magazines come in. If anyone wonders why people would still buy them, the trucker gives us the answer — the magazines are dreams — dreams that even poor people can hold in their hands. The trucker buys two subscriptions, and for him, that will have to satisfy his love for actual boats.
The film employs only a couple of professional actors — the rest are amateurs recruited from carnivals and suchlike. This feels like cinema verite. Each of them looks interesting and distinct. It feels like the actors were left to ad lib. You really feel like you’re in the bus with these young people, for better or for worse. If you’ve ever been on a bus trip, to summer camp, stayed in a hostel, flatted, or partied, you’ll get this.
There’s commentary about rich and poor in America as the bus travels from mega wealthy to poverty stricken areas, where the problems look different. When Star gets to the house of neglected children we’re given closeups of photos pasted without frames to the wall, a near empty fridge, Mountain Dew. This is how we’re shown, tis could be Star’s own house. She’s missing her little cousins and now she’s back in Texas, where she grew up with her meth-addicted mother, she’s come full circle. This is the beginning of her epiphany, though we never get to see what that epiphany is. Maybe she realises this is her entire lot in life, which is why she buys food for these strangers with her sex work money. Or maybe she realises she can use situations like these as a negative example, and start planning to get out of it. The overall message is egalitarian — echoed in the film credits, which list only names, with no distinction between actors and film crew. Krystal explains that poor people will buy magazines because they feel sorry for you, but rich people will buy them because they feel guilty for being rich. Krystal’s take on life may or may not be accurate, but this is how Arnold encourages to view the rich and poor as basically the same, only with different angles on the same societal problem of late stage capitalism.
There’s commentary about homophobia — it’s subtle, but one of the gay characters doubts he can go door to door in redneck country. Subtext reading: he’s not safe here. There’s little commentary on race — this is not Andrea Arnold’s story to write. Our main girl is a woman of colour, but this is a story about white America. It’s clear these white kids identify with Black culture — they have a love for rap and call each other the n-word. It’s left up to us to decide why these kids align themselves with a culture that’s not entirely their own.
The ending is left open for the viewer to extrapolate. Jake gives Star the turtle and she sets the turtle free. Then she joins the turtle in the water. One interpretation: Star is now free like the turtle, having experienced a revelation. Meanwhile, the others dance over a fire to Raury’s tribalistic anthem ‘God’s Whisper’. If that’s not religious imagery of rebirth, I don’t know what is. Then again, Star has given away Jake’s (stolen ring) present before — is this the part where Star finally sees this violent, coercively controlling man for what he is? Maybe. But if she doesn’t see it now, she never will. Take a close look at the lyrics to God’s Whisper, though — you may need to look them up because the song feels morphed and warped in the film — and it’s clear Star has realised who Jake really is:
I won’t live a life
On my knees
You think I am nothing
I am nothing
You’ve got something coming
Something coming because
Calling my name
It’s in the wind
I am the savior
(Sing it again!)
(I can’t hear you! What?)
The outro music is “I Hate Hate” by Razzy Bailey — an ironically breezy tune with children backing up in the chorus, but with a troubling message about how everyone hates each other, and there’s no clear resolution, either.
That’s why I’m singing now
I hate hate, everybody sing it with me
I hate hate, let’s all get together now
I hate hate, the good Lord above
Don’t you know I love love
Oh, you got to have love
I interpret this choice of song as Star’s acknowledging to herself that she hates this man, but this experience isn’t going to stop her from living life to the full. It’s okay to acknowledge the bad stuff, and that’s how we move on. Mind you, the irony could have a darker side. She could acknowledge this guy’s terrible and yet choose to stay with him.
For us, Star’s journey ends here. Does she use this newfound hatred to escape? For all we know, this young woman could keep traveling these American highways forever, trapped in a hot bus with a bad man and a stifling, drug-addled rag-tag crew who don’t seem to see abuse when it’s right in front of them. This is the water they swim in, and this is how abuse works. Streetwise matriarch Krystal does see it, but she’s toxic and ignores it. She may even revel in watching it play out, accepting the abuser back when she promised his victim he was gone.
Why do girls fall for these guys? Many outsiders have wondered that about women who stay with bad men. Star’s journey in American Honey affords us a view of destructive attraction from the inside, because Shia Labeouf makes an excellent job of him. He’s been well-written, too. We should now be left with a little insight for how these relationships happen, and empathy for the girls involved.
Although American Honey is comparable to Thelma and Louise, I make the comparison mainly because there are so few road trips starring women. Arnold avoids the problematic, overdone trope which concludes Thelma and Louise — that in order to achieve perfect freedom, a female character must pay the ultimate sacrifice: her life. (In stories about men, it’s more often the male best friend who pays with his life.) I am left hoping for the very best for Star. I think she might be okay now that she’s a little more worldly. More importantly, the real-life audience might be a bit more okay, too. Watch this with your young adult daughters and discuss with your sons.
Animal Kingdom is an Australian movie based on a Melbourne family who wreaked a lot of havoc in the 1980s. This movie was the inspiration for the American TV spin-off set in San Diego. Below I make the case that Animal Kingdom is a modern fairytale.
Breaking Bad is also a modern fairytale blended with crime and heist plot elements. I believe the Animal Kingdom writers modelled this show on Breaking Bad. But I prefer the female characters in Animal Kingdom. Breaking Bad feels like a story made for and about men. Animal Kingdom includes women. The male actors are oftentimes subjected to the female gaze; a sure sign that women as audience have been considered this time.
ANIMAL KINGDOM: THE TITLE
The word ‘Kingdom’ is very fairytale. Here we have a family who consider themselves head honchos of their local area. The world around them is their kingdom, and the spoils are there for their taking. This harks back to the medieval social structure of aristocrats versus serfs, in which aristocrats had everything and serfs owned nothing. They maintained this hierarchy by switching off empathy for others and bald brutality.
FAIRY TALE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES
- Joshua is the poor boy with no mother and no father. Our initial viewpoint character loses his mother to potions (drugs). Many children’s stories in particular use this plot device. A character without a mother is a sympathetic character.
- In English fairy tales, the sympathetic character is often called ‘Jack’ or ‘John’. Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the most famous. In this story, Joshua is shortened to J. This guy is one of the J crew who often stars in fairy tales.
- Smurf is the wicked grandmother — the archetypal witch. Smurf uses what looks like magic, but which is really street smarts and wits, in a complex system of crime few would get away with in reality. The audience must suspend disbelief. Like a wicked witch, Smurf can grant great riches but take them away just as easily. Like a fairy tale witch, she often seems to be doing the prince a favour: In a fairy tale the witch turns a prince into a tree, but perhaps to assuage her own guilt, she grants him the body of a dove for two hours per day. Likewise, Smurf does all the kind, motherly things for her sons, but maintains complete control.
- Smurf lives in a ‘house made of candy’ in the middle of a suburban forest — an opulent gated mansion which attracts hangers-on from all around.
- There’s something eerie about Smurf, as played by Ellen Barkin. She is glamorous in the original, magical sense of the world. In fairytales, as in medieval times, the elderly were treated with great suspicion. Smurf is in transition when it comes to her relationship with her boys; she’s in danger of clicking over from ‘wise and respected’ old person to a nuisance. This comes to the fore in season four. See: Sacrificing One’s Grandmother. This has been foreshadowed with J’s abandonment of the elderly woman with dementia.
- Cody is a Gaelic name, but I believe if there’s any symbolism to Janine Cody’s last name, it’s down to American frontiersman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917).
- In fairy tales — witches and godmothers excepted — girls and women do not have agency. Men rule the world. While the female characters in this show do have some basic agency — Nicky chooses to move in with J. Ordinary women will never be a part of this world. They need some kind of superpower. Smurf the Witch is of course the exception, conforming to the age old rule that in order to have true agency in a story, a female character must be magical. Smurf could take other women under her wing, but instead sees other women as threats rather than allies. If she takes them in, it’s because she’s keeping her enemies closer.
- Ellen Barkin’s character is not entirely fairytale — her character is a more modern take on the witch. Witches in the Grimm era and previously were sexually repulsive, but Smurf uses her sexuality to get what she wants. This power is waning, but only because of her age. Smurf is an intriguing admixture of the sexualised and the grotesque aspects of a witch, who even uses her sexuality to influence her own sons. (This was set up in the pilot, but perhaps it was a bridge too far, because little has been done with this incestuous plot line, yet.)
- The three brothers are the archetypal three brothers from a fairytale.
- One brother, Pope, has been on a big journey (prison) and returns at the beginning of the tale. Though Pope is the eldest of Smurf’s sons, he doesn’t play the role of eldest son and heir to the throne. He has been usurped by Baz, the orphan rescued from drowning in the river.
- The youngest brother, Deren, is gay, which marks him out as not fitting into this macho world. He wants out of the world of magic. He wants to become a woodworker (own a simple pub) and live in the pious world. The problem is, he’s been brought up on crime and has no idea how to live in the law-abiding world, paying taxes and dismissing staff fairly and so on. He can never put aside the fact that he grew up in a house of magic. He doesn’t belong there.
- Another brother, Craig, is the lazy one, interested in getting high and parties and sleeping with women. This is his main fault, and it will be his downfall.
- A fourth ‘brother’, Baz, is Smurf’s favourite, in a way. This brother is not related by blood. Perhaps this means he’s not imbued by the same magic. He soon loses his life. This conforms to a very primitive and conservative idea which runs throughout storytelling — that blood family is your true family. Any outsiders will be punished eventually.
- The new brother (the nephew) eventually becomes the replacement for Baz, the favourite ‘brother’ — favourite because he is more wily than Smurf’s actual sons. J is the ultimate trickster. The complex system of crime Smurf has set up requires a smart person to take over.
- Smurf’s own sons have clearly delineated flaws and each their own demons which make it impossible for them to take on Smurf’s role as she retires. Pope is volatile. Craig is lazy. Deren is conflicted and suspicious and not really invested in a life of crime anyway.
For more on fairy tale character archetypes, see this post.
FAIRY TALE PLOT ELEMENTS
- After his mother overdoses on heroin, J is taken in by his grandmother. He realises he has landed in a cottage in the forest and that his new, extended family is evil. So this is why his mother worked hard to keep him away from them. He immediately faces a moral dilemma: Do I separate myself from these people or do I learn their way of life? He must choose between light and dark, good and evil. This is a stark moral dilemma reminiscent of the black and white nature of fairy tales.
- Sometimes in fairy tales, witches have their powers taken away. This happens to Smurf when she is sent to prison.
- Nicky is the naive, pretty (but not dangerously beautiful) peasant girl who doesn’t fully understand the danger of the outside world. Nicky is abducted by Cody enemies partly because of her own naivety. Nicky plays the part of Little Red Riding Hood, warned of the dangers of other people, constantly refusing to listen. Eventually she finds her world so limited that the only safe place for her is within the walls of the Cody Mansion, and even then she’s vulnerable due to her own naivety.
- Snow White is basically the same character archetype as Little Red Riding Hood — kind and simple and sweet and vulnerable. Nicky finds herself in a Snow White tale, doing the washing and cleaning for the male ‘dwarfs’ around her, who go out to work each day and allow her to stay there out of their own good graces. There are plenty of fairy tales about young women who find themselves cooking and cleaning for large groups of men in the woods — it just so happens that Snow White is the most famous of the subgenre. In season three, when Mia Trujillo infiltrates the Cody Mansion, Snow White has basically been tricked by another kind of witch. (So has J — even more so.) Or, you could see Mia as a classic trickster character. All wicked witches are also tricksters, despite the powers available to them.
- In the “Prey” episode of season three, J and one of his uncles have a problem with a demented tenant. Knowing she’ll soon be questioned by police, J tests her (tests are also common in fairytales) and realises she can’t keep his story straight. So now he has to get rid of her. First the men discuss if they should kill her. No, that is too confronting for them. Instead, the writers borrow from fairy tale logic. They take her far away, dump her at a bus stop, tell her they’re going to bring her a milkshake then drive off, leaving her alone with her beloved cat. This subplot has the story structure of Hansel and Gretel. Gerontricide was a reality in earlier human eras, especially when we were still nomadic.
Animal Kingdom is basically a return to an earlier, more brutal time, and reminds us that our veneer of civility is just that; a veneer. We all have a price.
Content NoteContinue reading “The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier”
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.
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!
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.
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 Many Versions Of Frog Went A-Courtin from Mama Lisa
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.)
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:
- Very short works like picture books can break a few rules because they don’t have the problem of a saggy, boring middle.
- 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.
(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.
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.
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.
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 I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss.
Solla Sollew is plotted using classic mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, changes a little along the way, meets a variety of friends and foes (and some who are both), ends up in a big battle and then either returns home or finds a new one. Yesterday I looked closely at The Gruffalo, which is also mythic structure but less obviously so. The day before I looked closely at The Gingerbread Man, which is pretty classic mythic structure except Gingerbread Man never meets any helpers along the way (and spoiler alert, he doesn’t live to learn anything from his journey). I figure it’s time to present a solid, classical mythic structure picture book with all of the most basic elements.
STORY STRUCTURE OF I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW
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 The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories, even when those stories don’t have words.
(Frazee is pronounced FRAY-zee.) Continue reading “The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee”