Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: animals (page 1 of 3)

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

Storybook Farms

Farms in children’s literature are often a kind of utopia. Often these are animal utopias, and the reader is not supposed to even think of what the animals are really there for. Writing of the book Hepzibah Hen, a Children’s Hour favourite from 1926, is described by Margaret Blount as ‘the antithesis of Animal Farm‘, in which

there are a few hints of what a farm is really for, but they seem to relate to a kind of social code — one does not mention the word ‘Christmas’ to a turkey, or ‘Pluck’ to a hen.

Animal Land

HENS

Storybook farms require hens. Honestly, hens are the best kind of farm animal. They have the best personalities!

Hepizbah Hen cover Continue reading

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 Easy Acquisition Of Pets In Children’s Stories

A child who reads heavily may well be under the impression that the acquisition of pets requires about as much thought as a well-chosen piece of jewellery.

Yesterday I rewatched Bridge To Terabithia — a perennial favourite at our house. I can’t remember if this also happens in the book version, but at the end of the movie Leslie’s father says he was going to gift Leslie’s dog to Jesse but couldn’t quite part with it.

bridge-to-terabithia-dog

Today I read Madeline in London, in which the girls visit Pepito at his new home and decide to give him the gift of a retired horse.

"But in London there's a place to get a retired horse to keep as a pet."

“But in London there’s a place to get a retired horse to keep as a pet.”

Children’s literature is full of stories about boys who save up enough money to buy a dog. The real cost of dog ownership — the food, the registration, the annual vaccinations, the worming and flea treatments — are never factored into the cost.

where-the-red-fern-grows-cover

There’s a reason for this, of course.

Children’s books are not set in the real world. They exist on a continuum between utopia and real — and if it’s set in a realistic world (or, lately, a hyper-realistic one) it’s probably YA. As for middle grade novels and chapter books, these are largely privileged worlds in which there is always enough to eat, always a place to come home to and populated by adults who basically care for children.

These are also worlds in which any child who really wants an animal companion can have one. They will roam free and look after one another.

As long as the child saves enough money to buy the pet in the first place, subsequent costs are magically met, even in the poorest households.

I point out the obvious because a disappointing number of adults buy pets without factoring in the enormous cost of pets. My mother, who worked at the SPCA for some years, was constantly dealing with members of the public who approached the charity for help paying medical bills for sick pets, because they hadn’t planned ahead. These adults are still living in a kidlit utopia.

Perhaps we need a few more narratives about the realities of pet ownership.

One of the most honest kids’ books I’ve seen about wanting a pet real bad is by Mo Willems.

the-pigeon-wants-a-puppy

Chapter Book Study: Bertie’s Escapade (1949)

Bertie’s Escapade is a carnivalesque, adorable book which would be a great pre-reader if you’re wondering whether your child is ready for a Wind In The Willows read aloud. You’ll recognise the illustrator as the very same who depicted Winnie-the-Pooh.

That said, I can’t resist digging a little deeper into this story, because there is a character named Mr Grahame in here, and chances are that this refers to the author himself. The book was published posthumously, and I get the feeling it was a light story written for a couple of children in particular. My theory is bolstered by the fact that the children are referred to only by initials: Miss S and A.G.

It seems likely that A.G. refers to Grahame’s only son Alistair Grahame.

This light-hearted story becomes even more sobering once you learn that Alistair was found dead on some train tracks at the age of 20 in May of 1920, probably an act of suicide. In other words, this book was published not only after the author’s death, but also several decades after a real life human character had died.

Bertie's Escapade cover

The story becomes more disturbing when I realise Kenneth Grahame probably would have suffered from what we now call PTSD, due to a very strange incident in which he was held up at gunpoint in a bank robbery:

At around 11 o’clock on the morning of 24 November, 1903, a man called George Robinson, who in newspaper accounts of what followed would be referred to simply as ‘a Socialist Lunatic’, arrived at the Bank of England. There, Robinson asked to speak to the governor, Sir Augustus Prevost. Since Prevost had retired several years earlier, he was asked if he would like to see the bank secretary, Kenneth Grahame, instead.

When Grahame appeared, Robinson walked towards him, holding out a rolled up manuscript. It was tied at one end with a white ribbon and at the other, with a black one. He asked Grahame to choose which end to take. After some understandable hesitation, Grahame chose the end with the black ribbon, whereupon Robinson pulled out a gun and shot at him. He fired three shots; all of them missed.

Several bank employees managed to wrestle Robinson to the ground, aided by the Fire Brigade who turned a hose on him. Strapped into a straitjacket, he was bundled away and subsequently committed to Broadmoor.

The Telegraph

This affects my reading of the dream sequence, in which Mr Grahame (of the story) wakes up after a bad dream in which he is asked to speak in front of a large crowd but can’t think of a single thing to say. While these kinds of dreams are familiar to almost everybody, only the sufferer of PTSD knows the true magnitude of terror that can come of dream sequences.

Bertie's Escapade bad dream

 

Bertie's Escapade dream02_700x449

STORY WORLD

Bertie's Escapade opening

In old-style stories the storyworld is set up before we know much about the main character. This is a northern hemisphere Christmas story. The snowy landscape is a comforting blanket and Bertie is inexplicably drawn to it.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Bertie needs adventure.

The whole house was sunk in slumber. “This is very slow,” yawned Bertie. “Why shouldn’t I do something?”

Bertie was a pig of action. “Deeds, not grunts,” was his motto.

DESIRE

We soon find out that Bertie wants to have the trappings of luxury, just like a human.

OPPONENT

The humans, who don’t want the farm animals to eat all their food. After all, the farm animals are the food. (This inconvenient fact is skipped over.)

PLAN

Bertie collects two friends (threatening to bite one of them who has no intention of ‘fagging up a hill’). If you’re anything like me, you’ll be a little perplexed at this use of ‘fag’:

fag definition

Bertie takes them to Spring Lane via a magical underground elevator where they find themselves standing outside Mr Stone’s house. Bertie explains his plan to the friends, and to us at the same time:

“Now, we’ll go up to the house, and sing our bewitching carols under the drawing-room windows. And presently Mr Stone will come out, and praise us, and pat our heads, and say we’re dern clever animals, and ask us in. And that will mean supper in the dining-room, and champagne with it, and grand times!”

Obviously this doesn’t work, since the readers know animals can’t hold a tune!

Bertie's Escapade lift singing_700x422

BATTLE

The farmer sets the dogs onto them, at the wife’s suggestion.

Notice how the characters run backwards through the book during the battle scene. (In English language picture books characters generally move to the right, except when they come up against a hazard or road block… such as dogs.)

Bertie's Escapade dogs_700x440

MODIFIED PLAN

Bernie's Escapade smoking_700x441

If this were of picture book length the story wouldn’t include this next sequence, but a chapter book is a bit more complicated.

The second sequence of the story involves a sit down, a smoke and a change of plans. Now they will go to back to his sty and he will ransack Mr Grahame’s house for the choicest food.

“I know where Mr Grahame keeps his keys — very careless man, Mr Grahame. Put your trust in me, and you shall have cold chicken, tongue, pressed beef, jellies, trifle, and champagne — at least; perhaps more, but that’s the least you’ll have!”

Bertie's Escapade feast_700x450

PSYCHOLOGICAL NEED: Here we learn that Bertie doesn’t want to be shown up in front of his friends. He initially promised a feast and he’ll go to great lengths to pull it off.

SELF-REVELATION

It’s not Bertie who has the revelation. It is Mr Grahame, via the disturbing dream. Bertie is a comical character, and comical characters don’t often have self-revelations.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The lack of self-revelation is depicted on the final page. He is a ‘pig in muck’.

After this adventure, Bertie is content, we assume, for at least a while. (Until the next adventure.)

Bertie's Escapade last page_700x877

Picturebook Study: Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991)

This picturebook from Pamela Allen is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

This picturebook from Pamela Allen is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picturebook with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.

Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.

For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)

STORY STRUCTURE

If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?

After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.

WEAKNESS/NEED

The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.

Christina black dog happy_600x509

Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons01Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons02_600x620

Then we have a switch to the singular: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.

The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.

Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.

One cold day_600x553

DESIRE

It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.

So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.

See: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Food In Children’s Literature

Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.

Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of threes: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.

OPPONENT

Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.

You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).

Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.

Christina is her own worst enemy.

Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.

Blue bird dream_600x1062

PLAN

After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.

He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.

As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.

BATTLE

The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.

Black Dog flying_600x421

SELF-REVELATION

But it is Christina who has the revelation. We see her pick him up carefully, gently, and carry him inside and lay him on her bed. She cuddles him and tells him she loves him.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

We don’t see Christina’s emergence from depression, but we do see that she has now realised she must pay attention to her dog.

In other words, she must take care of herself during this dark time.

 

Picturebook Study: Olivia And The Missing Toy by Ian Falconer (2003)

Olivia and the Missing Toy scary

There are several versions of the book cover, and the dark one is the scarier of the two. (The other is mostly white space, in keeping with most of the Olivia series.) This book has a gothic episode in it — a definite spoof, with knowing use of the cliche “dark and stormy night”. Below, Margaret Blount explains one reason Olivia is a pig and not a little girl:

Even more suburbanised is Russell Hoban’s Frances where the child/animal substitution is so complete as to be unnoticeable. Frances the Badger is a small girl afraid of the dark, tucked up in bed but constantly annoying her parents by coming downstairs and interrupting the television. Why make her into an animal at all? The cosy delights of the Badger household — so like a human one — do remove the situation one or two degrees away from discomfort; some children are afraid of the dark, do dislike being alone.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

As for Olivia the pig, love her or hate her. Olivia is one popular kidlit character who pisses a lot of parents off, judging by reviews I have read online. While I don’t have a problem with some of the Olivia stories, this particular one annoys the hell out of me. That tends to happen when an adult reader sees a parenting style in a picturebook with which we disagree. Here we have a demanding brat, an acquiescent mother and a father who is quick to say ‘I’ll buy you a new one’ after Olivia’s own carelessness with a toy.

I don’t think this is one of Falconer’s best. And it doesn’t just apply to the indulgent parents and bratty child character; the story structure is also a little odd and I don’t think it works. Why not? Let’s take a closer look.

Continue reading

Diversity And Dogs In Children’s Literature

A lot of books start something like this:

Ben had a dog called Scrumpy_600x714Ben and Scrumpy did everything together_600x693

image above from Scrumpy, by Elizabeth Dale and Frederic Joos

11-year-old Marley Dias, a black girl from New Jersey recently made headlines for saying that she is sick of reading about white boys and dogs.

I have seen quite a bit of backlash about that comment.

Top voted comments on NBC News' Facebook page

Top voted comments on NBC News’ Facebook page

Apparently, some people (almost always white), think that because there exist some number of books about black kids, black kids shouldn’t be complaining about the ratio, and just go read those instead. Which completely misses the point. Continue reading

Pygmalion And Talking Toys In Children’s Literature

toys-wish-fulfilment-in-childrens-fantasy

Toys have a place in certain types of wish fulfilment stories: The wish to have a friend and also the wish to never die, especially when toys are mended, or when they can be re-wound, in the case of a wind-up toy. (I suppose the modern version would be having its batteries replaced, if this kind of story were more common today.)

THE INFLUENCE OF PYGMALION ON MODERN STORYTELLING

Continue reading

Chapter Book Study: Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo and Chris Van Dusen

MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE COVER

If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, this series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.

SETTING

1960s American suburbia.

Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.

The pink cadillac convertible seems to be a 1959 model. This is an iconic car that you would’ve seen in the movie Grease. And Elvis had one.  Continue reading

Older posts

© 2017 Slap Happy Larry

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑