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Short Story Study: The Mud Below by Annie Proulx

The cowboy is so central to Wyoming identity that a bucking bronco features on its licence plate.

It was the super popular S-Town podcast that made me return to this collection. I read this collection about 10 years ago and had forgotten all but the most brutal scenes. But I was moved to revisit after learning our real-life tragic hero of S-Town, John McLemore, calls this collection “the grief manual” and was in the habit of reading the entire collection over and over.

As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. The stories are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.

Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.

“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.

STORYWORLD

Continue reading

Storytelling Tips From I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)

PREMISE

When a depressed woman is burgled, she finds a new sense of purpose by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour. But they soon find themselves dangerously out of their depth against a pack of degenerate criminals.

CHARACTER LINE: a depressed woman finds a new sense of purpose

ACTION LINE: by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour

SOME SENSE OF THE OUTCOME: They are either going to win or lose their battle against the pack of degenerate criminals. It may well be a pyrrhic victory since Ruth is well out of her depth. Continue reading

Storytelling Tips From Kings Of Summer (2013)

Sometimes when you find out a story used to be called something different right up until the marketing team stepped in, the original name can offer extra insight. Kings of Summer was originally called “Toy’s House”. The main character is called Joe Toy, and I did spend a bit of time wondering if this is a symbolic name. The boys build themselves a house in the woods and set about pretending that they’re living off the grid. And it really is a pretence, because all the while they’re using a sum of stolen money to buy roast chickens from a nearby fast food restaurant. After learning the original name I realised this is basically a Doll’s House Story, in which characters play out a scenario in a form of play that becomes quite serious.

GENRE BLEND

comedy, drama >> coming-of-age, adventure story

I will call this ‘quirky comedy’. Continue reading

Storytelling Notes On A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017)

The 2017 TV adaptation is a newly darkened version, similar to how Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was darkened with the 2005 film. Count Olaf is the Willy Wonka, of course, surrounded by quirky unpleasant characters plus the odd angelic child and sweet helper adults.

Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) and his voice and politics come through loud and clear. Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.

In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.

This is the fist scene in which Lemony Snicket tells us to look away. We are put in mind of film noir (which is not a genre by the way, more a stylistic descriptor invented by critics).

The storyteller addresses the camera directly while, quite often, funny things happen in the background. While the characters cannot see him, sort of like a ghost, he is also in mortal danger, narrowly escaping death for instance.

Storyteller as ghostly lifeguard

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.

The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)

Two point perspective as a train rolls past a static camera

The reflection of the old mansion allows the viewer to see both the children’s expressions as well as what they are saying goodbye to.

I’m guessing the clouds have been digitally manufactured in this distinctively storybook scene.

The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.

The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.

This storyworld is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.

“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.

“It’s only scary because of the mist.”

A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale storyworld and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.

Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.

We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.

Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.

 

“I know he’s very eager to meet you and he’s employed as an actor so you know his excitement is genuine.”

This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the storyworld and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.

“Chop chop, Baudelaires. Now that I’ve found you a suitable guardian I’m going to take you to your new home before banking hours begin.”

Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.

Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”

The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.

When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.

A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.

Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.

The parents are not actually dead. We are reassured of this at the end of the first episode.

Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?

The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.

This is all we see of the Baudelaire children’s house before it is razed to the ground — a wonderful, warm library (and no parents in sight).

When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.

Blue bird, and blue sky on the sunny side of the street.

Raven swoops in front of Count Olaf’s mansion

Count Olaf himself is birdlike, watching the children from his bird’s eye view in the belfry.

Count Olaf ‘welcomes’ the children to his home.

It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.

meeting Justice Strauss

RELATED

Performative Metafiction: Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler and The End of A Series of Unfortunate Events

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr Seuss

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was Ted Geisel’s first book. Well, he’d written an abecedary but failed to interest publishers in it. It took a while to find a publisher for this one, too, but compared to what author/illustrators are up against today, I’m guessing 20 rejections is actually pretty good.

mulberry street cover

Dr Seuss may never have moved into picture book world if Geisel had not ran into an old college classmate, who had just become juvenile editor at Vanguard Press. When I hear stories like this I wonder how many other wonderful writers and illustrators never see widespread success due to plain old lack of luck, and I feel the self-publishing movement is therefore a great thing.

RHYTHM AND PICTURES IN “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”

Legend has it that Geisel came up with this story on a ship. To ward off sea sickness he concocted a story. The rhythm is inspired by the ship’s engine. Of course, Geisel continued to write his picture books in that signature rhythm — a rhythm many writers have subsequently tried to pull off — perhaps more young rhymsters should take a cruise on a clunky old-timey steam ship??

(Why did we not see a movement of poetry inspired by a dial-up modem in the late 90s? Haha.)

Perry Nodelman has this to say about the rhythm and ‘curious reversal’ of Mulberry Street:

The regular rhythms […] have the strong beats and obvious patterns we usually expect of pictures in sequence; and as usual in a Dr. Seuss book, the action-filled cartooning does much to break up the regular rhythms inevitable in a pictorial sequence. But as the boy, Marco, adds details to his complex story of what he saw on Mulberry Street, the pictures become more and more complex, more and more filled with detail — but always in terms of the same basic compositional patterns: the elephant is always in the same place on each spread, and so on. So the pictures both build in intensity and maintain their narrative connection with each other, as the words in a story usually do; in each picture we look for new information to add to old, rather than having to start from scratch about what we are seeing each time, as usually happens in picture books. At the same time, the segments of text get shorter and tend to be interrupted by more periods. The result is a curious reversal, in which the text adds the strong regular beat and the pictures provide a surprisingly inter-connected narrative intensity. Indeed, many fine picture books create the rich tensions of successful narrative in pictures that strain toward the narrative qualities of text and in texts that strain toward the narrative qualities of pictures: they have repetitive rhythmic texts, and pictures with accelerating intensity.

Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman

The details in this story plant it firmly in the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature.

Modern stories of the imagination don’t tend to include Rajahs riding elephants and ‘Chinamen’.

seuss-mulberry-street-image

STORY STRUCTURE OF “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”

A boy imagines a series of incredible sights on his way home from school so that he will have an interesting report to give his father.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Marco is fanciful. He’ll lie about something in order to make his life more interesting. Some may see this as a weakness; the weaknesses of picturebook characters often have very benign psychological weaknesses — a big imagination is more properly considered a strength.

DESIRE

He wants to impress his father.

Throughout his work, Geisel seemed more at home writing about the typically male experience and it’s true here, too, with an understanding of how sons naturally want to impress their dads.

This book, of the Tall Tale type, is an historically masculine form.

OPPONENT

The father is a kind of opponent in that he has no time for Marco’s fanciful stories.

PLAN

He plans to make up a story that’s far more interesting than reality.

BATTLE

In a cumulative, imaginative, carnivalesque story such as this, there may not be any big battle between the child and the other characters. Instead, the ‘battle scene’ will be ‘the moment of extreme chaos’.

This is the illustration with everything in it.

 

SELF-REVELATION

In a chaotic, carnivalesque plot, ideally there will be a ‘breather’. Here, the self-revelation comes with the image of the crossroad.

mulberry-and-bliss

Note all the white space — the picturebook equivalent of a musical sequence with no dialogue in film.

Humans have been fascinated by crossroads since crossroads existed. In each case there is a spiritual significance. Something about crossroads has made earlier cultures superstitious:

  • Ghosts/apparitions appear at crossroads
  • Crossroads mark hallowed ground
  • Witches secretly meet at crossroads to conduct their nasty witchy stuff
  • Zeus hung out at crossroads
  • etc

None of this is going on here, exactly. In modern stories (like this) crossroads have lost their spiritual meaning but remain a psychological metaphor. Marco must make a decision very soon: Will he lie to his father or tell him the truth? In other words, crossroads in modern stories mean choice.

The self-revelation is that Marco has the power to make his own choice.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

In order to keep his father happy, the boy makes the decision to keep these fanciful imaginings to himself. He tells his father what he really saw.

Extrapolating somewhat, this boy seems embarrassed about his imagination running away on him, so I expect he’ll hit adolescence soon and leave his imagination behind.

STORY SPECS OF “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”

811 words

Between 30 and 40 pages long, depending on the edition

It’s interesting to see that the front cover has been published in varying shades of blue:

And_to_Think_That_I_Saw_It_on_Mulberry_Streetbook_andtothinkisawitonmulberrystreetand-to-think

And then it came out in yellow, and the recognisable red and white spine, along with the rest of the Dr Seuss collection:

and-to-think-that-i-saw-it-on-mulberry-street

 

The Dr Seuss collection is available as a series of apps on the App Store. These are sold as early literacy apps, with the interactivity limited mainly to words popping out above the objects shown in the illustrations.

Mulberry App Icon

COMPARE “AND TO THINK I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET” WITH

Marco appears again, ten years later, in McElligot’s Pool.

 

Picturebook Study: The Story About Ping

the-story-about-ping-cover

 

 

The author of this story is American, born on Long Island, in fact.

I’m reminded of the work of Margaret Wise Brown in that both Wise Brown and Flack had the uncanny knack of including the most unlikely details, which they somehow knew would appeal to young children. While Brown is writing a story about saying goodnight to all of the things in and outside a bedroom, Flack just knows to put eyes on the boat.

Basically, this is an adventure story with mythic structure.

First published in 1933, it belongs to the first golden age of children’s literature. This applies in both year of publication as well as in morals: Children in this first golden age were expected to take ill treatment on the chin and face up to their infractions of rules set by (supposedly caring) adults in authority.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

The illustrator, however, did live in China for six years as a young man. (Kurt Wiese is German.) He lived in a variety of different countries. It’s interesting, therefore, to look at his choice of colour palette, which is quite unusual. For him, China is cast in a yellow hue.

about-ping-yellow-cast

Asian Dust (also yellow dust, yellow sand, yellow wind or China dust storms) is a meteorological phenomenon which affects much of East Asia year round but especially during the spring months. The dust originates in the deserts of Mongolia, northern China and Kazakhstan where high-speed surface winds and intense dust storms kick up dense clouds of fine, dry soil particles.

Asian Dust, Wikipedia

yellow-dusts-beijing-2010

 

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Ping’s weakness is that he doesn’t pay attention to home time. And when he realises he’s late to get back onto his boat he ‘chickens out’ of going home at all — he is too scared to face the whipping he’ll get for being the last.

DESIRE

But after a night in the reeds he is lonely and wants to find his way back to his family.

Here the reader looks over Ping's shoulders. This encourages us to identify with Ping.

Here the reader looks over Ping’s shoulders. This encourages us to identify with Ping.

OPPONENT

A boy falls overboard and finds him. The mother is the main opponent; she wants to cook Ping up for dinner.

PLAN

The boy is the one with the plan. (In a picturebook this often happens — the ‘hero’ of the story is shared by an animal character and a human character. Hence, the story steps switch to the human character at some point. The boy plans to release the duck before his mother can cook him. He comes very close to death, because dusk is falling outside the basket, inside which he is trapped.

BATTLE

Ping walks the gang plank back onto his boat but he suffers a whip.

SELF-REVELATION

He realises that even if he’s late, being whipped is better than being without his family.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Back with all his family…

Home again on the wise-eyed boat on the Yangtze river.

 

THE POPULARITY OF PING

I didn’t grow up with this story. In New Zealand we were listening to Badjelly The Witch every Sunday Morning on Radio New Zealand with Constable Keith and his Alsatian, Sniff. (The dog was actually a stiff puppet.) We also had plenty of The Little Engine That Could, and a story I wish I could find now about some slugs who loved the ‘nice juicy lettuces’ (read in a beautifully deep voice), though shows that focused on reading weren’t part of 1980s broadcasting, unfortunately. The closest we had were the picturebooks shared on Playschool.

Meanwhile, in a different part of the world:

Ping has appeared on television since the 1950s. Actor Sterling Holloway or possibly Captain Kangaroo (or his friend Mr. Greenjeans) read Ping once a week on his show for seventeen years, while displaying its colorful illustrations in stark black and white on the screen. Only Stone Soup, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and The Little Engine That Could had longer runs on the show.

What’s not said is that this refers to ‘American’ television. (We can assume an American bias in most Wikipedia articles, I suppose.)

Picturebook Study: The Biggest Sandwich Ever

The Biggest Sandwich Ever Cover

This is a book from 1980. It was my first “Lucky Book Club” purchase, and I loved it. (I don’t agree with my husband either, who says there should also be an “Unlucky Book Club”.)

The Biggest Sandwich Ever is such a simple story and that’s why it works. My own daughter loves it as much as I did.

What makes it great? It’s not especially original, but it does follow a successful formula. Although the plot feels quite Dr Seuss-ish, Rita Golden Gelman didn’t fall into the trap of trying to rhyme like only Theodor Geisel can. Instead, she sticks to simple rhyme. There are no special tricks in the rhyming scheme but it is easy to read aloud.

A descendent of this kind of picturebook is the bear series by Jez Alborough, also featuring simple rhyme, playing with scale (a massive teddy bear) and a circular ending.

Why are stories of excess and outsize so memorable? I don’t know, they just are. In fact, people who specialise in training others to have good memories recommend making use of this trick of the brain. We’re more likely to remember to buy lemons at the supermarket if we imagine a massive lemon beforehand, squirting juice painfully into the eye.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Although it’s a rule for main characters to have a psychological and moral weakness, the rule doesn’t necessarily apply to stories for children. More specifically, it doesn’t seem to apply to carnivalesque children’s stories.

Instead, the story begins:

We were having

a picnic.

Just Tammy and I.

In other words, these kids were just fine as they were. Like a Cat In The Hat plot template, a character arrives unbidden and the purpose of that character is simply to liven up the day.

The general rules of story are quite different in a carnivalesque tale. This becomes apparent when I take a closer look, comparing this picturebook to John Truby’s universal plot template:

DESIRE

In any carnivalesque story the children crave a fun time.

Ostensibly, however, they don’t seem to want anything at all. Adventure seems to find them.

OPPONENT ALLY

The man with the pot

PLAN FUN

Watching an enormous sandwich being built in the countryside

BATTLE

The eating of the sandwich

SELF-REVELATION

Self revelation is perhaps replaced by an achievement: the finishing of the sandwich.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

This is a circular story. The reader predicts the same story will happen over again, but this time with a pie. In other words, this was a moment of fun, and there will be many more such moments for these children.

OTHER TALES OF ABUNDANCE

Many, if not most, children’s picturebooks include an element of fantastic excess.

Some of those stories are veritable tall tales, in which the excess is so exaggerated that the excess is the story.

Thirty Thousand Watermelons

30,000 Watermelons by Aki Bingo

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

avocado-baby-cover

Avocado Baby by John Burningham

 

vintage-ladybird-book-the-magic-porridge-pot-well-loved-tales-606d-gloss-hardback-1989-6030-p

The Magic Porridge Pot — a classic fairytale

enormous-turnip-scene_1000x747

The Enormous Turnip from a Ladybird edition

FURTHER READING

The inverse of a tale of excess is the miniature — memorable, again, for its playing with scale.

Thumbelina, Tom Thumb and Other Miniature Tales

TV Study: Freaks and Geeks

Freaks and Geeks promo poster

Genre Blend

Freaks and Geeks is a

  • coming-of-age
  • comedy
  • drama

This category of story is about the eternal adolescent quest to find out which version of yourself is the “true” one.

How This Show Is Different From Other High School Dramas

It doesn’t fall into the category of ‘cringe comedy’ even though teenagehood inevitably includes embarrassing scenes.

Lindsay's sceptical look

Lindsay’s teenage sceptical look

The creators were determined not to end each show with a typical “happy ending”. One notable exception is the pilot episode, which the creators purposely wrote as a self-contained story, in case the show was never picked up for production. This is also why you see a fully fleshed story in the pilot episode and why I’ve chosen to break it down as a story unto itself.

There is plenty of crossover between quite vastly different social arenas, with a main character weaving between all of them. (Though all the families are white.) Most high school dramas have set-in-stone cliques before the audience meets the characters, and the main character is usually an underdog, or a newcomer trying to work out which group to fit into (e.g. Mean Girls). Lindsay is more interesting than that, because although she’s not new to the school but she’s trying to actively switch groups.

Storyworld

Detroit

  • Fictional William McKinley High School during the 1980–1981 school year in the town of Chippewa, Michigan, a fictional suburb of Detroit
  • A middle-class suburban home near the school
  • The surrounding neighbourhood, including some rougher parts of town
  • The bleachers are a good place to hide under, to do things teachers can’t see.
  • The corridors can be either a walk of shame or a place to parade down. Lockers lining corridors also provide opportunity for characters who hate each other to get together, since lockers are assigned from above.
  • The guidance counsellor’s room is a place for moral questions to be posed and discussed.
  • Upper middle class (Neal) middle class (Lindsay and Sam) meets working class (Bill) meets military class (Nick) meets houseos (Kim).
  • The high school is a miniature battle field, where the mottos are about conquer or lose and men must be men. The school cafeteria is a good venue for enemies to be thrown together by force, as everyone has to eat lunch. Classrooms are good venues for characters to be bullied and victimised in front of a small audience.
  • The suburbs are cosy at first glance, with their manicured lawns and a 1980s apparent utopia, but dangers lurk around the corner, where you could meet your high school adversary at any time.
dining room table

This cosy scene feels stifling to Lindsay.

Freaks and geeks sam cafeteria

Cafeterias and corridors are particularly hazardous.

a walk down the school corridor is like running the gauntlet

a walk down the school corridor is like running the gauntlet

Lindsay is being asked to make big decisions about her life and has no clue. In 1980 there was a strong professional/working class divide.

Lindsay is being asked to make big decisions about her life and has no clue. In 1980 there was a strong professional/working class divide.

Continue reading

Picturebook Study: The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker (1982)

The Do Something Day by Joe Lasker_700x579

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The Do Something Day staircase_700x579

This is one of those didactic stories in which the parental figures are too busy working to play with their precious little children. In such stories, the child usually goes out and has their own adventure, or an elderly neighbour/grandparent steps in to fill the psychological need, which is loneliness/boredom. And that’s what happens here.

DESIRE

Bernie wants to make the most of the great weather outside.

OPPONENT

His family are too busy to spend time with him, absorbed in their own work and play.

PLAN

Bernie got mad. “No one needs me. I’ll run away!”

He left the house and went down the street.

The plot relies on mythic structure as Bernie leaves home and encounters a variety of people along the way. This is a very Sesame Street sort of neighbourhood — the old-fashioned view of a capitalist utopia in fact, with a friendly neighbourhood mechanic, a Mr Dimple who runs the delicatessen, Bertha who owns a bakery and so on. Each of these friendly adults with endless patience and time on their hands lets Bernie ‘help’ them with their work. Bertie collects talismans on the way (a map, a salami, a sour pickle, warm rye bread. This lends the story a distinctly fairy tale feel. Eventually he meets a horse and cart, which puts me in mind of a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk.

The Do Something Day horse and cart_700x595

The running away scene is already the start of other famous tales such as The Three Little Pigs (who are pushed out of home due to economic constraints rather than leaving of their own volition, but still).

BATTLE

The battle in this story is entirely psychological. At each stop we hear Bernie’s sob story about how everyone is too busy for him. The gifts he receives culminate until eventually he is given a dog.

Don’t you love it how white boys in storybooks so easily acquire dogs… a pet which takes a lot of work, a lot of money and a suitable home with consenting adults? How many kids think they can bring home strays just because they’ve seen that so many times in picture books? And how many adults? (Quite a few, according to my mother who worked for some years at the SPCA.)

SELF-REVELATION

The Do Something Day street scene_700x624

Bernie has his self-revelation when he sits down to rest.

They all needed me and wanted my help, thought Bernie with satisfaction. He looked at his things and had an idea. He got up and started walking home.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Obviously, the family have been worried about him, having undergone their own self-revelations about the importance of attending to the needs of the youngest member of the family:

His mother, father, and brother were on the porch waiting for him. Slowly he walked up the steps and said, “I ran away.”

Bernie gives the talismans to each member of the family. The map goes to the father, of course (since women can’t read maps). The food goes to the  mother (because women are in charge of the day-to-day feeding of the family).

His mother smiled. “We need help from one another, Bernie. But we really need you to love.” And she gave him a great big hug.

Ticking Clocks in Picturebooks

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clock cuckoo clock

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

The_Cat_in_the_Hat_Comes_Back_Dr_Seuss_Cover

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

As you can see, this is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setupHome by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

 

 

 

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