The Chicken Book by Garth Williams

The Chicken Book cover

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.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

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.)

BIG BATTLE

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.

with an odd little shrug

The Chicken Book with an odd little shrug

 

 

Birds In Children’s Literature

 

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

evil fairytale bird
The hooked beak of this bird is undoubtedly evil.

BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

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

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

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

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

CATS AND BIRDS

Continue reading “Birds In Children’s Literature”

Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror

Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).

I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie logline sounds okay on paper: “After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”, but tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.

chicken little little golden book

Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?

STORY STRUCTURE OF CHICKEN LITTLE

This is a cumulative tale — you know, the kind you get sick of reading to your kid unless the wordplay is excellent. The ending is tragic, depending on how kind you feel towards foxes. In any cases, we’re not really encouraged to empathise with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them. I’m sure the characterisation of this tale has something to do with the fact that humans have a long history of eating birds but not foxes. Continue reading “Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror”

Storytelling Notes On A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017)

Unfortunate Events Netflix

Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) to the Netflix adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The author’s 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).
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

Movie Study: Serena (2014)

Serena is an example of a film in which the production values and acting talent far exceed the final product. Serena’s obvious symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue make for a film that’s narratively sub-par, but for students of storytelling  it’s an interesting case study.

serena-poster

  • The name ‘Serena’ is meaningful — although the character comports herself serenely in public and in front of her own husband (at least until the novelty of the relationship has worn off) she has a dark underside which we just know is going to come out sooner or later. We’ve heard about her from the gossipy woman at the hunting meet.
  • Who is the (tragic) hero of this story? The question is always: Who changes the most over the course of the story? In which case, the answer is both George and Serena. Their relationship is the main character. George becomes Serena and vice versa, symbolised very obviously during the blood transfusion scene in which George is giving his blood to Serena after her haemorrhage. (Hollywood politics are such — and the gender pay gap is such — that Jennifer Lawrence famously got second billing in this film. Bradley Cooper has since come out and said he will share his contract details with female costars in future to help with them bargain better with movie bosses who don’t believe in equality.)
  • In 1920s America the character of Serena is a very unusual woman. She expects her husband’s right-hand man to shake her hand (something even modern men don’t even know whether to do or not with women). She doesn’t seem like an enlightened feminist of the first wave, though, either. She pits herself in direct opposition to the Hillary Swank type woman (Rachel) who, at the story’s beginning, George has already gotten pregnant.
  • Serena and Rachel are Betty and Veronica types. Casting usually ends up with contrasting hair colours for women. Men can all have the exact same hair colour and skin tone (white) and we’re expected to look at their personalities, but female actors playing in opposition to each other are expected to change the colour of their hair. We do, however, have a red-headed man in this who plays a part in George and Serena’s downfall by taking the incriminating ledger books from the safe.
  • Serena knows from her father’s logging business in Colorado that eagles are useful. They kill snakes, which protects the men. Serena makes a name for herself by becoming the eagle lady, importing a trained eagle (trained by a woman, she specifies) to carry out this exact job. What is the symbolism of the eagle? Could it be that the writer wants us to think of Serena as a harpy — a half eagle, half woman chimera, who swoops in seemingly ‘on the wind’ (though actually on a train). Harpies steal food from their victims while they are eating and carry evildoers (especially those who have killed their family) to the Erinyes (a.k.a. The Furies). Their name means “snatchers”.
  • We know early on that fire is symbolic. There is much fiddling around with cigarettes and lighters and sitting in front of fires, gazing into them. So it’s no surprise really when it is revealed that Serena bears a scar — an outward manifestation of her psychic wound — on her back. George washes her lovingly in the bath. She tells him, and us of course, the event which wounded her — as a child her house burned down. As she ran away she heard the screaming of all her younger siblings, all of whom burned to death in the fire.
  • Anyone who has read We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson may wonder if it was Serena who set the original fire in the first place. Apparently it is strongly implied in the Serena novel that she set the fire in order to end up sole heir. I suspect this story owes quite a bit to Jackson.
  • The characters are all archetypes rather than rounded. If Serena is a mysterious beautiful woman who flies into town — a modern harpy with an obvious wound which has somehow made her sociopathic. George is a ruthless business man who — I think — we’re still supposed to side with, because he tells us at the town hall that he cares for the jobs of his men. Rachel is a poor country girl whose only way out of abject poverty is to hang around George until he feels guilty enough to hand her money. Buchanan is possibly a closeted and frustrated gay man who is betrayed by his love interest’s getting married. The characters get more archetypal as we move further out from George. A character straight out of a horror film is of course Galloway, whose mother told him as a child that a woman would save his life. When Serena sort of saves him after his hand gets axed he is convinced not only that it’s her, but actually knocks on her front door to tell her husband that he is indebted to her and is in her service forever. It just so happens that he’s been in prison for murder. “He had it coming.”
  • “He had it coming” is exactly the sort of uninspiring snippets of dialogue found throughout the film. “I have your child inside me,” Serena says to George, upping the stakes when their ‘future’ is at risk. Dialogue exists almost solely to tell the audience what should already be clear: “It’s so obvious now. My friend was never my friend,” says George after Serena and all of the entire audience has already worked that out. After describing the lethal fire of her childhood Serena finishes up with, “After that day I swore that I would never love anyone ever again. I can’t lose you.” Likewise, when Rachel Hermann asks for her job back we are told “If she don’t get a job her and that boy will starve.” With the most rudimentary of historical contexts we already know what a dire predicament Rachel is in, with no social welfare and no husband to support her.
  • At the end there is a chase scene, as the horror-figure of Galloway is determined to carry out the murder of Rachel and Jacob on Serena’s behalf. Miraculously, George finds Rachel and Jacob hiding at the exact same time Galloway does. He is able to fight him to the death right then and there in the climactic battle scene. Another coincidence of timing happens when George is killed by the panther, who might as well be fighting on a stage — all of the men out looking for him arrive just at that exact moment. These coincidences lend a very Old West air to the story. In Westerns symbolism is everything and we don’t question it.
  • The photo album allows the audience to see into George’s head. We can see him extend allegiance from Serena to Rachel. Did we really need such obvious visuals? The photo album I can stomach. When George actually places the loose photograph of his son on top of his own childhood photo, that’s when I groaned.
serena-imdb
copy entered into IMDb
  • Advertising copy for this film usually says something like George’s trouble began when he married Serena. I would encourage people not to take this at face value. It’s often the case that advertising material for a film is more misogynistic than the story itself, which has the benefit of depth and layers. It is certainly not the case that Serena was the cause of George’s problems. He had already abandoned a woman he impregnated in favour of a more sophisticated one with the potential to add expertise to his precarious fortune. He killed his right-hand man without any help from Serena. This is in fact the story of two disturbed individuals whose union made each of them worse.
  • This is not necessarily easy for women to watch, even though it has been dismissed as a mere ‘chick flick’ by amateur reviewers on IMDb. The women do not talk to each other — in fact one of them is decidedly laconic, in a way that George finds strangely appealing. Both women are motived singularly by their relationship to a man and even the woman at the beginning is a gossipy stereotype who, in Pride and Prejudice fashion, ends up throwing Serena and George together while meaning to do the exact opposite. Serena absolutely falls apart when she discovers she cannot procreate, despite being invested in and motivated by the logging business. A more nuanced story might see her eventually throw her energies into that as a way of moving forward. That’s not what this is, of course. This was always meant to be a tragedy and I have no criticism for that. Instead I’m sick of the same old female tropes, and dismiss it therefore as a film for and about women.

The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling episode of Courage reminds me of a type of picture book in which a cute character (often an annoying younger brother or sister) gets away with doing mean things behind the parents’ back. This must be a common family dynamic because I remember my own younger brother hamming up the cuteness in a way the adults didn’t seem to notice!

The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

 

I’m reminded in particular of a picture book from the 1980s which I cannot find — perhaps it’s out of print. It’s about a girl called Caroline who does all sorts of naughty things. But was it really Caroline? “No, not Caroline, adorable sweet Caroline!” It stands out vividly to me because there was a girl called Caroline in my Standard 1 class who giggled and giggled whenever the teacher read it to the class. I remember wishing there was a picture book starring me, but I have yet to find a single children’s book with a character named Lynley.

Still bitter.

STORY STRUCTURE OF The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is kind, and this comes back to bite him in The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling. He rescues an egg which has been abandoned. We watch the flock fly across the sky. Initially our empathy for this left-behind egg are aroused. We’re half expecting an Ugly Duckling tale a la Hans Christian Andersen.

DESIRE

Courage wants to save a life.

OPPONENT: The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

At first the opponent is Eustace, who thinks the egg is for his breakfast.

But when he cracks the egg into the pan and a chicken plops out, the chick immediately falls in love with Eustace. This is making use of the well-known phenomenon in which a duckling falls in love with whoever nurtures it. Taken to an extreme, this duckling falls madly in love at first sight, to the exclusion of all else. Muriel and Courage are immediate enemies.

This reminds me of writing advice from Elizabeth Lyons who in her book Manuscript Makeover says that readers are like ducklings — we fall in love with the first character we see. That very much works in this episode — Courage is the first character we see and we are definitely on his side.

PLAN

The duckling takes great care of Eustace, putting on his slippers, fanning him while he sleeps, smashing Muriel’s cup of tea and replacing it with a more lavish tray.

Courage is soon given a broken leg by this cute little duckling but plans to talk to him about being naughty around the house. Courage gives the duckling a lecture about not throwing cups of tea onto the rug. (We don’t hear the words, just a mumbly sound.)

The duckling doubles down.

BATTLE

The battle sequence is a real Tom and Jerry escapade which takes place inside the house. This is a truly evil duckling who wants to murder Muriel and disable Courage. Courage must save Muriel, who has no idea that the duckling has another side to him.

When the duckling saws off the legs of Muriel’s chair I’m reminded of Roald Dahl’s The Twits

The duckling tips cement into Muriel’s bath

It all culminates in the basement, where the duckling has built a rocket in order to send Muriel into space. He gets his own wing stuck in the door. Courage manages to save Muriel by gnawing away at the rope tying her to the outside.

SELF-REVELATION

Muriel’s revelation is that the duckling is bad after all.

The bad characters in this are duly punished, so the message to the reader is that badly behaved characters end badly.

(I would say that this is the most satisfying way to end episodes of a comedy like this, but is not reflective of real life.)

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Instead of Muriel, Eustace and the Duckling end up on the moon together. The duckling is very happy about this. It’s what he’s wanted all along.

 

Duck Cakes For Sale by Janet Lunn and Kim LaFave

STORY STRUCTURE OF DUCK CAKES FOR SALE

Duck Cakes For Sale cover

Duck Cakes For Sale from 1989 is an example of the circular story, in which the picture book ends, but we suspect exactly the same thing is going to happen again, because the main character hasn’t had a self-revelation. Like a Chekhovian short story, picture books often elicit the revelation from the young reader; the character remains unchanged, much like a sit-come character. Continue reading “Duck Cakes For Sale by Janet Lunn and Kim LaFave”

Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Könnecke

Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Könnecke is a great book for parents who would like to teach their kids The Magic of Reality (as expressed by Richard Dawkins and others).

Anton Can Do Magic cover

 

Written and illustrated by a German picturebook maker, this was translated by New Zealand’s Gecko Press.

Anton Can Do Magic is part of a trilogy (The Anton Saga):

  1. Anton and the Girls (2004)
  2. Anton Can Do Magic (2006)
  3. Anton’s Secret (2007)

As far as I know, only this one has been translated into English by Gecko.

bird is in a tree

STORY STRUCTURE OF ANTON CAN DO MAGIC

WEAKNESS/NEED

Anton’s weakness becomes clear only as the story progresses and we see he is easily duped and overconfident.

DESIRE

Anton wishes to impress his friends by performing a real magic trick. This desire is made clear even before the story begins, on the interior title page, where we see Anton gazing up at a poster of a famous (we assume) magician.

The reader is addressed as one such friend, and from the first page we are told, ‘Here comes Anton. Anton has a magic hat. A real one.’ We are invited to believe it. On the following page:

Anton wants to do some magic. He wants to make something disappear.

OPPONENT

This little bird with a mind of its own may ruin Anton’s magic trick and the stakes are upped when ‘the girls’ come along, since boys are especially keen on impressing girls.

But the bird turns out to be a false-enemy ally, or we might consider the bird to have no motivations whatsoever. The bird simply flits around. This is a ‘real’ bird rather than a storybook bird who wears clothes.

Anton and the bird

A better opponent is Luke, the boy who doesn’t believe that Anton can do magic. There’s more at stake when the opponent is human, because there’s a chance Anton will be humiliated. The reader does not want him to be humiliated, no matter how silly he is.

PLAN

Often in stories the initial plan does not work and needs to be modified.

Anton stares at the tree.

Then he does some magic.

When this doesn’t work he changes his plan slightly. He’ll try something smaller. The bird.

BATTLE

The battle scene is the bit where three children are waiting for Anton to produce the missing bird.

Anton produces the bird from under the hat and wins the battle, as well as the respect of the three children.

SELF-REVELATION

This is a Chekhovian story in that the main character is not the one who undergoes the revelation — Anton walks off the page at the end of the story and as far as he knows, he has made a bird appear. But the reader knows differently. We learn that although sometimes something appears to be magic, but it is really just coincidence and circumstance.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The final image shows us that Greta is happy to have her bird back, Luke is trying to do his own magic with the flower in his little pot, and Anton is satisfied.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST ANTON CAN DO MAGIC

When the child is a few years older, it’s time for this book. (Yes, much could be said about Richard Dawkins and all the junk that comes out of his Twitter feed, but I have to say it, this book is excellent.)

The Magic of Reality cover

Loveykins by Quentin Blake Picture Book

 

The ideology behind Loveykins: Wild creatures, while sometimes requiring some human nurturing if abandoned by their mother as babies, must eventually be returned to the wild.

There is also a message against ‘over-mothering’ in this story. Let wild creatures be wild creatures is a close cousin to ‘let kids be kids’. Another picture book with the same ideology is Lauren Child’s Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t.

You’ll find flying kids and creatures right throughout children’s literature. In this story flight symbolises the most basic of its metaphorical meanings: Freedom. For other symbolic uses for flight, see The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF LOVEYKINS

WEAKNESS/NEED

‘My goodness,’ said Angela. ‘It’s a baby bird blown out of his nest. He needs someone to look after him.’

Anglea Bowling seems to be on the look out for someone to look after. When this happens in a picture book, we tend to assume the weakness in the main character is loneliness. (In real life, there’s no correlation between ‘caring for others’ and a deep seated loneliness.)

DESIRE

Angela Bowning is just out for a walk, but desire kicks in when she comes across the bird fallen from its nest.

When we see how Angela looks after the bird, we see that she has no idea what birds really need. She treats the bird like a pretty ornament rather than like a wild creature.

OPPONENT

Angela is the bird’s opponent as well as his carer. We can tell from the look on his face that he does not want to be wrapped up in a cardy and placed in a basket.

Misery Kathy Bates bbq indoors

PLAN

She feeds the bird delicious food, names him Augustus (which reminds me a lot of Roald Dahl’s over-mothered Augustus Gloop),  puts him in a pram and generally treats him as a toddler. She obviously plans to keep this bird as a child stand-in for herself.

This story has a basic mythic structure — Angela leaves the house and encounters a variety of different characters. They end up back home for the battle…

BATTLE

…which arrives in the form of a storm. Another storm, in fact, reminiscent of the earlier one which happened just before the story opened, the one that initially knocked the bird out of his nest. This storm blows the garden shed to bits and has the unintended consequence of setting the bird free.

Loveykins storm

SELF-REVELATION

Angela faints ‘clean away’ when she sees the shed has been flattened. The bird takes this opportunity to fly off. So the self-revelation is had by the bird.

Loveykins flies away_700x939

Angela comes to eventually and has we see she has realised cacti make more reliable ‘pets’. Angela has filled a new shed with these.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The bird lives like a bird should in the wild and occasionally brings Angela presents in the form of dead mice or beetles. “She never eats them.”

In other words, Angela gave the bird what he needed, but when it was grown he flew off, into the wild, to live as a wild creature should.


COMPARE AND CONTRAST

THE TOYMAKER AND THE BIRD BY PAMELA ALLEN (2009)

The Toymaker And The Bird

In a little house in a dark forest, a toymaker lives all alone.

The Toymaker learns that although he and the little brown bird make enchanting music together, he must let her follow her natural migration patterns and leave him.