Concept books exist partly to teach young children basic concepts: ABCs, numbers, colours, opposites, time, size, and in this book, prepositions.
Concept books are most often unmemorable. I can tell you at various times our bookshelf has housed cardboard books with the name of a colour on each page, but I got rid of those. Where’s Spot on the other hand is memorable, and one of my 9-year-old daughter’s favourites. That’s not just because she loves dogs — Where’s Spot is a concept book with a complete narrative.
G.K. Chesterton pointed out that where a six-year-old is excited if someone opens a door in a story and finds a dragon on the other side, a two-year-old is excited enough if someone opens a door.
— The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford
When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys [children] like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic.
— G.K. Chesterton
If you’re thinking of buying one of the Spot books for a young person in your life, make sure you pick one of the editions which actually has lift-the-flaps in it. There are more cheaply produced versions that don’t have this rather more expensive feature, and I don’t think that’s how these books were meant to be experienced. It makes me sad to think someone thought it was a good idea to produce non-flappy editions. (Likewise, stay away from the bound anthology of Beatrix Potter stories — those stories were designed to be read in miniature, and part of their charm is lost if the child can’t hold the book themselves.)
A no-flaps edition
STORY STRUCTURE OF WHERE’S SPOT
Spot, who is not at all like a real dog, hasn’t eaten his dinner. The mother Sally has eaten her dinner, but Spot has left his and walked off. “Naughty Spot.”
The sentence, “Where can he be?” elicits desire in the reader, to look for Spot.
Sally goes on a mythical journey and on the way comes across all sorts of creatures: a bear with a jar of honey, a snake, a hippo, a lion, a monkey, a croc. Three birds.
Sally looks everywhere Spot could be hiding.
The animals Sally encounters are all pretty fearsome, though not ordered in order of ascending scariness. However, when we get to the birds there are three of them, whereas there was only one bear.
When the narrator says, “There’s Spot! He’s under the rug” we find out he is not, and the stakes are raised; will we ever find Spot?
We see Sally running to the basket, rather than standing at the possible hiding place. This is Sally at the climax, in crisis, fretting.
Spot is hiding in the basket. (The narrator tells us that’s where he is.)
Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991) 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 picture book 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 OF BLACK DOG
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.
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.
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.
Here’s an example of a book that took a long time to find a publisher.
Kotzwinkle and Murray conceived the idea for the first book in 1990, inspired by a real-life dog named Walter, whose owner fed him doughnuts and beer and who was prone to foul-smelling flatulence. With assistance from Kotzwinkle’s wife, Elizabeth Gundy, they devised a story about a dog who overcomes two burglars with his smelly farts. Eleven years passed before they found a willing publisher, North Atlantic Books, and the right illustrator, Audrey Colman.
My theory on what happened there: The culture needed time to catch up. This is a book given to my daughter by my parents, who would never have stocked their own children’s bookshelves with this kind of material, but who have given their granddaughter a range of poo and fart themed stories, including this one and I Need A New Bum, and Christmas decorations which are a model of Santa’s bare backside farting ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ etc etc. Unbelievably, as kids of the 80s we weren’t allowed to say ‘fart’ — we had to say ‘blow off’, which is actually more hilarious, if only for its much wider application as a verb. No one can use that perfectly fine compound verb now without me associating it with farts. We weren’t allowed to say ‘bum’, either, by the way. We were required to say ‘bottom’, which is far more wide-reaching in its impact upon perfectly non-scatological conversations.
They say the great thing about being a grandparent is you can give the child back. Addendum: You can also give your grandchildren slightly annoying toys… and books, and you, yourself, won’t have to read said book more than once or twice. As for me, the mother, I’ve read this book quite a number of times because, let’s face it, it’s a hit. Though the other night when it was requested I did turn it down, because actually… I confess… it’s not the farting plot line that gets to me. It’s the super creepy artwork. For some reason I don’t find the artwork of Wolves In The Walls creepy, but I do find these ones to be so. Yet they are both of a similar style — a mixture of collage and photorealistic faces, morphed slightly, as if looking into a distortion mirror at a travelling circus. The colour palette of Walter The Farting Dog is a grimy rainbow in which every scene looks like a fart. It’s really quite an achievement on the part of the illustrator that when I look at these pictures I have an almost synesthesic olfactory reaction. *looks around for the dog*
Walter is smelly. He needs to stop assaulting other people’s noses with his farts.
He wants to stay with this new family because otherwise he goes back to the pound.
At first glance the opponents are the burglars who break in, but no — the opponent who makes this story work is the father. It’s the father who threatens to send Walter back to the pound unless he can stop farting.
The children take Walter to the vet, but that doesn’t help. They try all sorts of different diets, but still nothing works.
The battle comes one night when two burglars break in. Walter has just eaten a big bag of food and is able to release a poisonous gas which renders the burglars weak and drives them out of the house with nothing. Outside, the burglars just happen to be apprehended by a police officer.
The whole family, plus Walter, learn that his farts come in useful after all. His annoying difference is accepted. We’re given big clues about the message of this book right at the beginning when we see this dedication:
Walter stays with the family. We see them all sitting on the couch in a Simpsons shot. Walter is a permanent part of this picture now.
These are not your typical picturebook burglars. Usually, children get two men dressed as if they’ve just escaped from prison, in unambiguous black and white jumpsuits, wearing eye masks and perhaps carrying a torch and a sack. Here we have some of those aspects of the archetype: Two men, one short and stocky, the other taller and thinner, and they are indeed carrying a sack and they are indeed stealing the very things that fetch nothing on eBay — lamps and whatnot — they’re not taking things of true value, like favourite teddy bears. But they also look like real individuals. One of them is definitely a junkie.
We’re yet to see female burglars in picture books, unless someone can show me that it’s already been done. Two women breaking into a house would be the story in its own right. The archetypal burglar is still very much the male duo. They are older than the typical house thief, too, who in real life tend to be in their teens.
THE WALTER SERIES
Walter the Farting Dog has been a huge commercial success and more have been produced. What next for Walter? It is a requirement of storytelling that Walter leaves the house to go on a home-away-home adventure.
Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale came next in 2004. I prefer the UK title: Walter the Farting Dog Farts Again. Interestingly, it was published as Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Garage Sale here in Australia. It’s true, we don’t have ‘yard sales’ here.
I’m reminded of listening to You’re So Vain by Carly Simon as a preschooler (the first song I remember listening to) thinking (for many years) that she was singing, “You walked into the party like you were walking into a yard.” That was just a pronunciation difference. Obviously I knew already what a ‘yard’ was.
I don’t believe the sequels have been as successful as the original, which tells me I’m not the only parent who will put up with a bit of farting in picture books, but how many versions do you really need, when kids are perfectly happy to read the same story over and over… and over.
As in every children’s book series, you know at one point Walter will take to the air.
Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t is my favourite Lauren Child picture book. I can see it being used in the classroom to teach the concept of the leitmotif, among other things.
This is a picture book written and illustrated by British kid-lit master, Lauren Child of Charlie and Lola fame.
The story might be used in the older classroom or with a child reader to discuss sound devices and alliteration, for starters.
In particular, Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t is a wonderful example of the leitmotif, in which sound devices are used to tell us more about a character.
This story — like many picture books — is a wonderful example of how character names can say a lot in fiction. Why is Mademoiselle Verity Brulée named as such? In the Anglo world, what connotations are associated with the French? Since crème brûlée is a kind of sweet dessert, what might we surmise about this character?
Crème brûlée…is a dessert consisting of a rich custard base topped with a contrasting layer of hard caramel.
Perhaps Verity has both soft and hard edges to her personality. Perhaps the contrast of textures in this particular dish is symbolic of how two characters living together as one family can have such different temperaments that they are like chalk and cheese. However, it is precisely the contrast in textures of the crème brûlée that make it work so well as a dessert. If only Trixie and Verity can learn to live with each other they’ll make a great team.
Ideology Of Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t
“Dogs should be left to be dogs, not treated as toys to be groomed and molly-coddled.”
Since, in children’s stories, animals are stand-ins for children, the ideology is therefore also that children should be allowed to be children, free to run around parks and get themselves dirty.
Notes On The Illustration Of Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t
This book is illustrated in a similar style to the Charlie and Lola series, though Charlie and Lola books make quite heavy use of collage, in which photographs appear to have been cut out and stuck on. This book retains the feel of collage but doesn’t employ that exact technique. Instead, I’m reminded more of the Japanese kimono, with its distinctive admixture of highly detailed patterns. I’m sure this is intended, since Verity is seen at one point wearing a kimono inspired dressing gown. (I believe they’re just called ‘kimonos’ in the West.)
The setting might be in Paris or in England or America — the era feels a bit 1920s, but we do see a retro style TV, which places it more squarely in the 1950s — before the Aristocracy had died, in any case.
The scribbly/collage illustration style of Lauren Child, in which the rules of perspective are thrown out the window, lends a childlike, playful feel to everything she writes, and encourages us to poke fun at the characters and to look for humour which we may have to dig just a little deeper for. These characters are ‘off-kilter’ and ‘quirky’, like the illustration itself. The childlike nature of the story is evident even in the punctuation (or lack thereof) on the cover: The title is a run on sentence and lauren child does not capitalise her name on book covers.
The text in this book requires advanced decoding skills, which is an interesting development in picturebooks since ‘type text to path’ became so easy in Photoshop. Illustrators and book designers can now design pages with any sort of shape to their words. In this book we have the text fully integrated with the pictures, and the reader is challenged at times to find the book text among the intratext, to slide down the page then defy the rules of reading and read up the page and even to read in circles. Coupled with the advanced language in this book, I’d say it’s a picture book designed to be read to children by an experienced older reader (rather than as an independent scaffolded exercise).
Who is the main character in this story — Verity Brulée or her miniature poodle Trixie Twinkle Toes Trot-a-lot Delight? The answer to that question is always: Which character changes the most? In which case, the dog and the woman are one and the same character. Trixie Twinkle Toes is a canine manifestation of the part of Verity who feels the social pressure to be ‘perfect’: ladylike and manicured and everything ‘just so’.
Verity Brulée is inflexible and has perfectionist tendencies, preferencing image over practicality. Her dog Twinkle Toes is a dog, and therefore needs to do doglike things in order to be happy. These two characters are trapped together in the same place, which is a requirement for any kind of significant narrative conflict.
Trixie Twinkle Toes does not like her name or any of the rituals that go with being an upper-class dog.
Verity wants to own a dog who is pretty and well-behaved while looking rich and well-groomed. She wants to perfume, powder and pom-pom her poodle and dress her in pink ribbons. She wants to keep her little dog happy and healthy — constantly wrapping Trixie up at the first sign of a cold — but she misunderstands her pet due to communication difficulties. (The dog can’t speak English.)
Trixie wants to step in puddles. She wants a different name. She wants to brave and adventurous. She wants to do something rather than seem something.
Trixie’s dissatisfaction comes to a head at the point in the story which switches from ‘iterative’ to ‘singular’. The first part of the book is about how things always are, and describes how they (often) go to the park and how Verity (often) dresses Trixie up. Now:
One night Trixie Twinkle Toes was lying in her room listening to the real dogs howling at the moon.
This is the event that instigates Trixie’s self-revelation: “I hate being a poooooodle”.
Verity and Trixie are each others’ opponents, symbolising the internal conflict between being free and being self-restrained. So when Trixie complains that she hates being a poodle, Verity completely misunderstands why she is crying and takes her to the vet, where very cleverly, the vet finds nothing but a sore throat. This is masterful because the young reader is left to fill in a gap: That Trixie’s sore throat is due not to having a cold but to howling.
This story is a good example of a pair of fictional opponents who have each other’s best interests in mind but end up standing in each other’s way due to communication difficulties, separate agendas and poor empathy. We often see this dynamic in husband/wife stories, or between parent and child in young adult fiction. Opponents are often members of one’s own family.
At the dog salon Trixie sees a before and after picture of a scruffy to well-groomed dog and realises that it can work both ways. Her plan is to become a scruffy dog. She plans to (and does) catch some fleas after chasing a cat and chew Mr Chomley’s newspaper.
Verity foils this plan to become scruffy by telephoning her pet psychic. When the psychic sees nothing in Verity’s cup but ‘two lonely tea leaves’ this provides for obvious and humorous symbolism, showing the young reader that although Verity and Trixie live together, they are each lonely.
The battle between Verity and Trixie is a constant swing between Trixie getting herself messed up and Verity putting it ‘right’ with visits to the pet salon and extra grooming sessions and eventually a pooch psychologist. This part of the battle conforms to the law of threes in storytelling:
The poodle parlour
The pooch psychiatrist
Notice, too, all of that wonderful alliteration with the plosive ‘p’ — basically a ‘b’ sound which is bursting to escape. (Psychiatrist is technically a sibilant, but we’ll go with what’s on the page.)
All this to-ing and fro-ing aside, in a memorable story we need some sort of climactic battle. In a novel we might get a lot of time spent on the psychological turmoil of the main character and not need a set piece, but picturebooks are more like films in this regard. The set piece (big budget scene arranged to maximum effect) in this story is the part where Trixie gets the chance to save another little dog by diving into a puddle. Again with the ‘p’ (puddle).
Even more masterfully, the alliteration during the puddle scene changes to ‘d’: ‘dazzling’, ‘daring’ and ‘dangerous’. The careful reader will notice (or at least sense) that Trixie is less ‘poodle’, more ‘d’ for ‘dog’! The transformation in the puddle has happened. In case we missed the way the alliteration is related to the story we have it reinforced on the following spread:
Verity Brulée looked at Trixie Twinkle Toes and saw not a little pompommed toy poodle but instead a DAZZLINGLY DANGEROUS DARING dog.
The thing about picturebooks is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and authors are free to signpost their plot points with phrases such as ‘From that day on…’ which is where we find the bit with the mandatory new equilibrium. (All stories require a new-equilibrium — it’s just usually more subtle in stories for adults.)
From that day on, Mademoiselle Verity Brulée and Trixie Twinkle Toes eagerly read the weather pages — and if it was raining … they went out … with all the other dogs.
In an earlier age, children’s stories were often tied up a bit too nicely, resulting in a twee conclusion. Modern readers have less tolerance for this, perhaps because we can no longer buy anyone’s version of a ‘perfect world’, so we are told on the final page that Twinkle Toes and Verity are still not fully eye-to-eye — after all, Verity still calls Trixie’s very embarrassing full name at the public park.
A boy’s best dog friend dies while he is at school. Harry comes to terms with Hopper’s absence gradually, first by trying to distract himself and not think about Hopper at all, then by imagining his reappearance, and finally by imagining saying goodbye in person.
Dogs commonly feature in pet-death stories. Probably because goldfish are bastards.
I almost always hate when pets are described in books. Unless they’re like Vincent from Lost & integral to plot, I prefer to ignore them. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up w/ pets, but I mean – everyone likes their pet & they’re all the same, so why bother pointing them out? It’s like “flowers are pretty” or “babies love their mother.” It can go w/out saying. Pets are either annoying or cute. Not a lot going on. People who had pets: I know you disagree w/ me. Stop yelling 🙂 Like I said, I didn’t have them. Pets = background furniture to me. Whatevs!
I look into the dog’s eyes. She is as stupid as a barrel of toes. Galaxies of nothing are going on in her eyes. I get up. ‘I’m going to talk to Mum,’ I explain. The dog remains under my bed, as always, deeply nervous about being a dog.
– Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman
Hey, dog people, of all the possible verbs you could have chosen, why do you “express” anal glands?
A funny, poignant tale about a 17-year-old girl and her relationship with sexual desire. When Sandra turns into a dog, a world of extremes opens to her. The excited fascination with sex that had led her into conflict with adults when she was a human (although it was legal) is now expected behaviour. The message is that sex can be fun but that compulsive promiscuity is not a wise lifestyle choice and even dogs might not be allowed to enjoy it for long. Thoughtful readers will enjoy the canine debate on what it means to be human, and note that Sandra is becoming “sensible” without adults’ intervention before her dog life even starts.