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Tag: carnivalesque (page 1 of 2)

Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

Then romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA  boyfriends?

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victimy’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

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Little Muriel Courage The Cowardly Dog

Often in stories with a very small character there is some metaphorical/thematic reason for it, but in this case Muriel’s regression to the body and mind of a 3 and a half year old is pure fun. In other words, this is a carnivalesque story.


The first thing we see about this storyworld is that it is very windy. The sky is an ominous shade of purple, the windmill spins quickly and Muriel’s washing is flapping on the line.

We see the metaphor of a cliff in this story, as Muriel and Courage (and Eustace) come close to death. For more on that see The Symbolism Of Altitude.



In his attempt to be helpful and kind Courage sometimes screws up. He has accidentally glued Muriel to her rocking chair thinking it was quick drying paint. And a storm is coming.

The story requires for Muriel to be stuck to the chair, but also for the chair to be stuck to the floor. She needs to be trapped. They get around this by showing Eustace in the basement fixing the basement ceiling — a long nail pokes right through and nails the chair to the living room floor.

The writers also get rid of Eustace by having him knock himself out cold.


He wants to save Muriel from the hurricane.


Although it’s perfectly possible to make a story with only a natural opponent (hurricanes, tsunamis), the most successful stories (what others have called ‘3D stories’) require human opponents.

The natural opponent is introduced early on and is of course the hurricane.

The human opponent will be revealed later — in this story it is Muriel as a bratty three and a half year old.


Courage ties a piece of string between a rock and a tree and ‘trips’ the hurricane up. The hurricane throws Muriel onto the top of a high, pointy rock.

After returning home with little Muriel the computer tells him that the only way to bring Muriel back is to drop her into the eye of a hurricane going in the opposite direction, which can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a reference to the Coriolis effect (not actually observable in sinks and toilets as many believe).


I don’t get the feeling the writers really know children. Muriel as a three and a half year old has one tooth. This is an age when children (temporarily) have a full set of teeth.

I also don’t buy that Muriel would have been such a bratty three and a half year old, but that is not the point. (Show me the child at three and I’ll show you the woman.) The point is to have fun. I can believe the hurricane results in some kind of personality change.

It’s interesting what I find believable and unbelievable, because this show is full of unbelievable things. We accept that Courage magically finds a tricycle and a kite as he’s chasing after Muriel. It’s funny that he can ‘trip’ up a hurricane. If the writers wanted to, they could have had the house magically rebuilt when Courage returns. We often see the house decimated at the end of an episode, only to see it just the same as it ever was at the beginning of the next. But no — that’s the thing about the rules of story — the writers must wait until the end of this episode before rebuilding the house.

The carnivalesque antics must therefore take place in a house with no roof.

And this is the main battle — pleasing Muriel who demands very specific food and then refuses to eat it and keeping her safe.

When Muriel makes a nuisance of herself on the plane to the Southern Hemisphere even the pilot jumps out with a parachute, unable to stand it anymore. He wishes Courage good luck and hands him a plane flying manual.

The classic transfer of the hat (crown).



When Muriel walks out her own self we know Courage has saved the day.

The TV announcer lets us know that the hurricane warning is over. (Darkly humorous given the house is in total disrepair.) Now there will be a tsunami.


In this circular shaped story, we last see the Bagge family riding away on a massive wave.


I am adding another step to John Truby’s story structure, which I’ve been making much use of so far.

We extrapolate that Courage will save them somehow because he knows ‘how to ride the waves’.

The Hunchback Of Nowhere Courage The Cowardly Dog

The  Hunchback of Nowhere is from the first season of Courage The Cowardly Dog. As ever, this modern re-visioning takes inspiration from a wide history of storytelling, including from The Bible.


Any adult viewer will know immediately that this is inspired at least partly by The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though the writers can’t expect a young audience to know this. Instead, they have to come up with a story which is complete in its own right while also nodding to the earlier story. A lot of viewers may have seen the 1996 film, however, which was only a few years old when this episode of Courage came out in 1999. (The Hunchback was having another moment.)


Taking a break from the hero’s journey and Robinsonnade structures of previous episodes, this is a carnivalesque story as seen in many picture books. There is no battle sequence in a carnivalesque story. Instead we have a whole lot of fun, though it can look precarious in parts. There is no real opponent in this story either, apart from Eustace who we already know to be his own worst enemy.


This story opens with a shot of the rain pelting down.


We’ve had thunder storms a plenty in Nowhere but we haven’t seen much rain. Once again the story opens at night time, with a cute but ugly character going from door to door hoping for some shelter.

Rain is often used in comedy (and in genre fiction) as pathetic fallacy, in which rain equals sadness, sunshine equals happiness, and so on.

As Elizabeth Lyon says in her book Manuscript Makeover, readers are like ducklings; we fall in love with the first character we ‘see’. The same is true for the screen. (It’s clear the writers of Courage know this really well — a later episode features a duckling falling madly in love with the otherwise unloveable Eustace.)

The writers of Courage have opened with an opponent before, for example with the fox who wants to make Cajun Granny Stew, and this makes the opponent less scary for a young audience. Here we need genuine affection for the Hunchback in order for the rest of the story to work. So we see him as an outsider. He is recast as a modern hobo.

A square of light from inside emphasises the darkness without -- squares of light are also used to 'imprison' characters on the screen.

A square of light from inside emphasises the darkness without — squares of light are also used to ‘imprison’ characters on the screen.

Here we see the Hunchback on the other side of a door.

Here we see the Hunchback on the other side of a door.

And here we have a high angle view, making the Hunchback look small and powerless.

And here we have a high angle view, making the Hunchback look small and powerless.

The next thing done to help the audience identify with the Hunchback is to have him look in the window. Like the audience, he is observing the Bagges going about their routine. He is the audience as much as we are.

The next thing done to help the audience identify with the Hunchback is to have him look in the window. Like the audience, he is observing the Bagges going about their routine. He is the audience as much as we are.


Eustace wants Courage to fetch his raincoat from the barn.

Courage wants Eustace to let the Hunchback stay. He says to the camera (because Eustace can’t understand him speaking English), “Why can’t he stay in the attic at least?”

The Hunchback wants to avoid getting wet.


Eustace. Had Muriel opened the door to the Hunchback there would have been no story. Muriel is accommodating by nature.


The Hunchback takes refuge in the Bagges’ barn.

Courage has found a friend so he intends for the Hunchback to stay until it’s no longer raining, keeping him safe from the grumpy, uncharitable Eustace.

Eustace plans to annoy the Hunchback and insult him until he leaves.


Instead of a battle sequence there is a play sequence in the barn. The barn is the Nowhere equivalent of the Notre Dame Cathedral because it allows for great contrast between high and low places — the highest point of the barn is really quite high, and we are reminded of this fact numerous times via high angle and low angle contrasting shots.



We find lots of high-low juxtaposition in stories about social inequality, which is very much what we have in the Hunchback story.

In this carnivalesque story we have scenes right out of an actual carnival/circus, with Courage and his new friend swinging like circus performers and playing tunes with the set of bells the Hunchback has brought with him.

The play scene includes plenty of tension because of the risk of falling from the high swing and also because Eustace comes into the barn demanding to know why Courage still hasn’t retrieved his raincoat as he was asked.


There is a comical game of shadow puppetry using a torch, in which Courage and the Hunchback make all sorts of improbable shapes using only their hands (even funnier because Courage has three stubby fingers.)



The play scene isn’t quite enough to make a complete story, however, and the writers know this. There is a battle of wits at the breakfast table the next morning after Muriel invites the Hunchback for a pancake breakfast. “Any friend of Courage is a friend of mine.”


Eustace doesn’t want this and insults the Hunchback. Pleased to have a ‘voice’ at last, Courage writes notes to the Hunchback, who gets at Eustace’s most self-conscious feature — his baldness. Eustace stamps out in a huff.

The third part of the battle happens on the barn roof, in which the roof is a domestic stand-in for a cliff in the natural world. Courage and the Hunchback are up there playing a concert to the appreciative Muriel, who is perfectly happy to listen to them under the cover of her umbrella below.






Eustace has a self-revelation (which won’t last, naturally) when the Hunchback pranks him. Eustace has been pranking Courage all along with his scary tricks, especially throughout this episode. Noticing this, the Hunchback gives Eustace a taste of his own medicine. Anyone watching realises immediately that Eustace can give it but he can’t take it.

In stories, revelations often happen in high natural places. Hey, it even happens in the Bible.




Eustace falls from grace and literally falls from the roof. But he’s all right. He is able to get up again slowly.

When the Hunchback says goodbye he pulls out a huge bell. Why does he do this, apart from the laugh? Throughout this story the Hunchback has been a more powerful version of Courage due to his being able to talk and also outwit Eustace by scaring him with his very own face. The Hunchback is saying he has won on behalf of Courage, with his identical but much smaller bell. (The bell = voice.)



The Hunchback says he hopes to find other kind people on his travels.


A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer

A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer

The story of Helen Palmer is — from the outside, certainly — a sad one.

Helen is ‘the woman behind the man’ in the Dr Seuss duo. It was Helen who encouraged her husband Theo to start writing picture books.

When the marriage ended and Theo embarked upon a second relationship, Helen suicided. It would be nice to think that her separation from Theo had nothing to do with it, because had been dealing with cancer for a long time. But the truth is, she left a note. So we know that had almost everything to do with the timing of it.

Helen was a much better editor than she was a writer, which I’d like to emphasise is no small skill in itself. (Roald Dahl’s editors, for example, had a MUCH bigger hand in making him look great than most people realise.)

The book A Fish Out Of Water is a story that Theo cast aside. He didn’t think it worked. Helen disagreed and made sure it was seen by the world. It’s still reasonably easy to get a hold of. I somehow ended up with two secondhand copies on my bookshelf, for instance. This is possibly a sign that it’s a picture book people decide not to keep.

If this had Dr Seuss’s name on the cover I would certainly agree that this is not him at his finest. I agree with him that it doesn’t work. Let’s take a closer look to try and find out precisely why it doesn’t work, and why Helen thought it still had merit.

Theo and Helen at home

Theo and Helen at home

The illustrations, by P.D. Eastman are as attractive as those done by Theo himself, if without the distinctive colour palette, so it must have something to do with the text or the plot. First, the plot:



A boy needs something to nurture and he is the sort of kid who does what he’s told not to do.

He needs to learn to be obedient.


A boy wants a goldfish. Not only that, he wants to nurture the fish.

So far so good. This is all established on the first couple of pages.


This is a carnivalesque story, so the opponents are the circumstances themselves. The fish getting huge.

Again, so far, so good. It’s common and usually very successful to write a children’s book about something either very big or very small. The young reader enjoys seeing this fish getting bigger and bigger, and can probably predict that it will end up in the swimming pool, or perhaps the ocean.


Unfortunately this is where the plot starts to unravel. The boy can’t solve this on his own — first he calls the police. This is kind of comical in itself because the police are depicted as being right on the end of the phone waiting for his call, and it is clear that they deal with the overfeeding of giant fish on a regular basis.

The problem with putting the fish into the pool is that the swimmers don’t like it, so the boy’s plan changes and he is forced to call the man who sold him the fish.

It’s never ideal to have adults step in and save the day. Not in a children’s book. Even if an adult technically saves the day, the child hero must show more initiative.


The ‘battle’ in a carnivalesque book is a sequence of increasingly dire situations, and these keep going until the writer’s imagination is at a limit. Preferably, in the most successful stories of this type, the writer is able to go one or two steps further than the reader’s imagination. A great example of this is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more could happen, it does. This is where the surprise comes in, and carnivalesque stories in particular are all about fun and surprise.

There is no surprise here. All of us could imagine a giant fish being taken to the town swimming pool, and in fact I expected the fish to end up in the ocean.

The battle sequence does not surprise us enough.


This is where the book really fails.

The writer cheats. We see the fish seller dive into the pool and do something to the fish. The fish becomes small again. The boy (and reader) is told to not ask what was done.

This is the wrong way of using magic in stories. The audience must know the basic rules of the magic even though magic, by its very nature, is mysterious. 



The boy takes the fish back home and will never feed it too much again.

In the end, this is a moralistic tale about the common childhood tendency to overfeed fish in bowls.



The scansion and rhyme of this story is not up to the same standard as Theo’s other books. This is clear from the very first page:

“This little fish,”

I said to Mr Carp,

“I want him.

I like him.

And he likes me.

I will call him Otto.”

Reading that, you get the feeling it should rhyme but doesn’t quite. Overleaf, we do have some rhyme:

“When you feed a fish,

never feed him a lot.

So much and no more!

Never more than a spot!

This is why, when writing a picture book, decide whether you want it to rhyme or not and then stick with your decision.


In conclusion, Theodor Geisel put this book aside for good reason. But I’m glad it exists, as a lesson in what doesn’t work, and also to know that even the masters like Dr Seuss didn’t write a winner every single time.

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.


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’.



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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.



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


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.


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.


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



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


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


Madeline And The Gypsies by Ludwig Bemelmans

Madeline and the Gypsies is one of the sequels to Madeline.


Ludwig Bemelmans named his fictional little girl after his real-life wife. Although if you know any Madelines, you may find her name is spelt (more traditionally) with an extra ‘e’, as was Madeleine Bemelmans’ name. This series itself has probably contributed to the more modern, simplified spelling. Although Madeline was named after Bemelmans’ wife, the character was inspired by the activities of his only daughter, Barbara.

Ludwig died quite young of cancer of the pancreas aged 64 back in 1962, but one of his grandsons is also a children’s book writer/illustrator and has contributed some extras to the series.

Ludwig’s first language was French and his second German. That explains the fetching but unusual grammatical constructions of the English.


  • ink and watercolour
  • probably dry brush in places
  • bold, quick markings
  • impressionistic tendencies
  • a mixture of coloured and monotone plates
  • dark colour scheme, not bright and cheerful like some people think children’s illustrations should be

Notice the use of complementary colours, with the dominant purple and the primary yellow spot of colour in the foreground. This allows the reader to focus on the characters.


First published (in its full length) in 1959, this is a children’s book from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature. Accordingly, improvements in colour printing technology made it possible to produce cheaper multicoloured plates, and the Madeline books are not quite full colour. (I guess the yellow and black pages were to keep printing costs down rather than adding any symbolic meaning to the story.)

You can probably tell from the style of the illustrations that there is nothing specifically childlike about this work. It looks quite at home in The New Yorker and in an art gallery, which is where a lot of Bemelmans’ work spent time. This guy wasn’t “just” a children’s book writer and illustrator — a lot of his work was produced for adults.

However, Bemelmans wasn’t formally trained to a high level. He took art classes now and then and his father was a painter but his style is self-taught. (I suppose all great artists are, in the end, self taught.)

Bemelmans said that he felt he had no imagination and was only able to draw from real life inspiration. I’m not sure any illustrator is able to draw entirely ‘from imagination’ — even the very best concept artists are drawing from the real world; the difference may be that concept artists are good at placing unexpected realworld elements together. Other artists have a great memory for detail and don’t need to look at their source material in order to reproduce it.


Like other books from this era, the (quasi) opponents turn up in the form of gypsies, though I do like this particular story in that the gypsy mama turns out to be a goodie, as does the nun who runs the orphanage. Generally in children’s literature these two positions make the women default baddies.


But this story is carnivalesque. In fact, there is no better example of carnivalesque kidlit — it literally takes place at a carnival. There is no real baddie in a carnivalesque story for young readers.

Each book in the series opens with the information that Madeline is the smallest of all the girls. This is a fairytale technique, in which the smallest character is designed specifically to be the character who engenders sympathy — a proxy for the youngest child of three.

Interestingly, Madeline is different from all the others because of her red hair. By the time this book was published there was no longer the view — as there had been in L. M. Montgomery’s time — that red-headed girls were akin to witches and inherently dangerous.



Madeline is an orphan and gets stuck, rather metaphorically, at the top of a ferris wheel during a thunder storm.



At first Madeline just wants to get off the ferris wheel, but after the rescue (by the gypsy mama and Pepito, her boy companion) that it would be much more fun to follow the circus than to go back to the orphanage.



The opponent is the orphanage, personified by Miss Clavel, the nun. Miss Clavel is not an evil person at all — she has been worrying herself sick about Madeline, but when she receives a postcard she stops worrying about Madeline and, rather comically, worries that she’s forgotten how to spell. The real enemy here is formal education which stunts creativity and curbs adventure.


The Gypsy Mama has a rather unusual plan — when she sees (in her conveniently accurate crystal ball) that Miss Clavel is coming to get Madeline back, she dresses Madeline and Pepito as a scary lion so that Miss Clavel will be scared away.


Madeline and Pepito come close to death when, disguised as a realistic lion, they meet a man with a gun, who might just as well have shot them as run away in fright.


The self-revelation comes when Madeline sees Miss Clavel and the other little girls in the front row of the circus. She realises how much she’s missed them. Back at home, “Here is a freshly laundered shirty. It’s better to be clean than to be dirty”. Home has its advantages just as the wilderness has its advantages. There is no hierarchy anymore.


Miss Clavel will now be extra careful about counting all the girls to make sure none goes missing!

Madeline In London by Ludwig Bemelmans

Madeline In London is another carnivalesque story from Ludwig Bemelmans, who may or may not have shot a waiter and been forced to emigrate to America. This probably doesn’t have much to do with anything, except I can’t look at the tea and crumpets scene in this story without wondering about that.

Bemelmans’ Madeline series is considered ‘doggerel’. What’s that?

Doggerel = comic verse composed in irregular rhythm.

However, the word also describes verse which is simply badly written.

What, exactly, is the difference between ‘classic doggerel’ and ‘bad writing’? What makes a publisher say, “This is hard to read aloud but it’s a great example of doggerel”, versus “This author has absolutely no idea about rhyme schemes and scansion and I’m not going to take a second look at it”?

Who knows.

madeline-in-london by ludwig bemelmans



Although from the title you’d expect the star of this story to be Madeline, I don’t think it is. The star is Pepito, who changes the most over the course of the story.


Pepito has been taken away from his best friends next door, to an embassy in London where he is so lonely he is starving himself to death.


He wants to see his old friends, especially Madeline.


The ‘opponent’ in a carnivalesque children’s story is often nothing to do with the character arc, but a character who causes joyful chaos and mimics the battle scene found in more serious works. In this case, it’s the horse — a wonderful choice, because a horse is a ridiculous choice of gift for a boy who lives in a London embassy.


Pepito and his family plan to show Madeline and the girls a good time looking at the tourist attractions


But the horse causes mayhem due to the fact he is a retired palace horse who doesn’t realise he’s been put out to pasture, almost made into glue.

The final straw (haha) is when the horse eats all of the flowers in the gardener’s garden — flowers which the gardener gets up to enjoy every morning. This results in everyone crying.


Madeline and Pepito’s mother share the revelation that the horse can’t possibly stay in London so he’ll go home with Madeline to Paris.

Notice that the revelation is shared. This is a children’s book, and part of the responsibilities do lie with the adult characters.


The horse now sits at the table and is looked after by the little girls.

Clifford The Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell

Clifford The Big Red Dog is a picture book series by Norman Bridwell. This is an enormous franchise of children’s books which covers every generic, American childhood event you could imagine: Clifford’s First Christmas, The Big Sleepover, Clifford’s First School Day and so on. Bridwell died fairly recently, in 2014 at the age of 86.

“It’s hard having kids because it’s boring”, begins Louis C.K. (something explored in detail by Naomi Wolf in her book on birth and parenting, Mythconceptions).

“They all tell the exact same story. Look how big this dog is. … Here’s how big he is at the firehouse. Here’s how big he is at Thanksgiving. Who gives a shit? You just DREW him big! You on purpose drew him bigger than people. It should be ‘look how big I drew the dog in this book. Isn’t that a mistake.’ There’s no story! You maybe drew him closer to the page — I don’t even know if you did it honestly. Tell a STORY about Clifford! Make something happen, like maybe he steps on a policeman and shatters his spine and it’s devastating to the community. He hangs on for two months and then dies. And there’s a funeral with bagpipes and everybody’s crying and Clifford gets the death penalty. He found Jesus but everyone said it was bullshit. The cops wife was like, ‘I want that dog dead!’. Then he goes to the chair and they shave all his red fur off and now he’s Clifford The Big Pink Dog.”


When Louis C.K. says that the books have ‘no story’ he is of course making a joke about how the quiet, domestic nature of children’s stories seem like nothing in comparison to the kind of adult genre novel he later suggests as a Clifford the Dog plot — something from genre fiction, involving crime, murder, courthouse drama, with gritty, adult themes about retribution. Of course the Clifford books do conform to the rules of complete story structure. That’s why they’re so popular.

We have a few Clifford books on our bookshelf because my daughter is a fan.

CLIFFORD’S FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL is a flashback story. In some of the Clifford plots the dog’s size actually prevents him from doing things, so Bridwell created ‘Clifford as small puppy’ stories to allow him to, in this instance, go inside a classroom. He had a great time in the classroom, walking through paint and having a carnivalesque adventure, with the sane and calm teacher providing the counterpoint ‘straight guy’ humour, and also bringing an end to the story itself by telling Emily Elizabeth to take him home for some proper lunch. There is no self-revelation and the fun equals the battle. This makes it seem, at first glance, as if there is ‘no story’.

CLIFFORD’S FIRST CHRISTMAS is another flashback ‘Clifford’s first’ story. Clifford gets stuck at the top of the Christmas tree and has to be rescued by ‘daddy’ (because as in the Grimm versions of fairytales, characters are best rescued by men). Next he is knocked over by a bauble. This is basically mythic structure without leaving the house — Clifford is encountering a series of ‘opponents’ along the journey. Next he gets tangled in curling ribbon. Christmas Day itself turns into another carnivalesque adventure owing to Emily Elizabeth and Clifford playing with her toys.

THE BIG SLEEP OVER has an introduction by a woman with a Ph.D telling parents what the moral of the story is. (Hint: It’s about separation anxiety, but you knew that from the title, didn’t you?) This strange introduction is perhaps in response to parents, parodied by Louis C.K., who think that these Big Red Dog books have no story, boring incidents and are basically trash. This one was written after the series had already been acquired by PBS and was no longer written by Norman Bridwell himself. Now it’s by Larry Swerdlove, who wrote the TV script. It is immediately different, launching straight into dialogue, including a black boy, and (not very good) rhyming verse. This story keeps Clifford at his adult size, making use of that common children’s writers’ trick of oversize. In the world of children’s stories we have a lot of oversized food, we have oversized teddy bears, and other interesting tinkering with scale. While this story begins with a carnivalesque day, the night involves a howling Clifford whose loneliness must be problem-solved by the surrounding adults who can’t sleep. Charley’s father takes him for a ride in his pick-up truck, then the townspeople sleep next to him to keep him company. “Work together… That’s the message for kids in THE BIG SLEEP OVER!” it says on the back cover, though I imagine the message for kids is: If you can’t sleep, make noise until mum or dad lie down next to you, which is fine in co-sleeping cultures.

The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers (2007)

First published in 2007, The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers has a carnivalesque/tall tale plot but with the slow, reflective mood of Jeffers’ later work, for example The Heart And The Bottle.

the way back home cover




“Once there was a boy.”

This is a generic child and he doesn’t require a psychological/moral weakness. He’s a stand-in character for the reader.

He is perhaps a little too rash. (He should have checked the plane had petrol, at least!)


He wants to fly the aeroplane that he finds in his cupboard one day when putting things away.


Nature’s against him — this plane he found has run out of petrol and now he’s stuck on the moon.



When the alien happens to turn up they make a plan together.


The reader only sees them gesture to each other. We don’t know how they’re going to get off the moon.


A great example of sequential narrative art, in which the same characters are repeated performing sequential actions, without frames.


The boy’s main battle is with himself. Back on Earth, he gets waylaid by the TV. But eventually he realises what he’s supposed to be doing. The battle is symbolised by the very high mountain he has to climb in order to hoist himself back up to the moon.


After fixing the alien’s flying saucer and filling his own plane with petrol he learns that he can be self-sufficient.

But the other part of the plot is about the kindness of strangers. The boy learns that strangers in a pickle can help each other out.


He goes back home. The alien goes the opposite direction, also back home. A lot of picture books have a circular ending, especially carnivalesque ones, in which we get the idea this kind of thing is going to happen all over again, only with a minor modification. But Oliver Jeffers doesn’t tend to do that — his work has a melancholic finality to it. It’s bittersweet that this boy will never see the alien again, and Jeffers’ depiction of the boy saying goodbye is perfect — looking at the ground and drawing into the moondust with his toe.

the way back home ending


Picturebook Study: The Biggest Sandwich Ever

The Biggest Sandwich Ever Cover

The Biggest Sandwich Ever 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 picture book 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.



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:


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.


The man with the pot


Watching an enormous sandwich being built in the countryside


The eating of the sandwich


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


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.


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 by John Burningham



The Magic Porridge Pot — a classic fairytale


The Enormous Turnip from a Ladybird edition


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

Thumbelina, Tom Thumb and Other Miniature Tales

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