The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

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 The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.

Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.

In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO

For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The mouse.

What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.

But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a stand-in for the child.

Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.

Gruffalo and Mouse

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.

In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by  having Gruffalo walk behind.

Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.

BIG BATTLE

In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one battle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo behind, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.

So what’s the Big Battle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.

Mouse has won.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.

At a lower level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any battle.

At an even lower level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, that thing really will seem true after a while. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

The final page shows Mouse eating nuts, and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before, though I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now.

 

STORYWORLD OF THE GRUFFALO

Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.

Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.

Story Structure: The Battle

All complete narratives feature a battle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal battle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun battles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.

I often feel the battle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a female myth structure should more naturally be shorter.

WHAT IS THE BATTLE SEQUENCE?

Not everyone calls it the battle sequence. In fact, that is specifically John Truby’s term. More traditionally it’s known as the climax.

When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realization. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.

Mythcreants

I’ve also seen it called The Dark Moment.

I’ve seen it called a Black Moment:

Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.

Naomi Edits

I’ve heard it called ‘The Big Doom‘.

  • Throughout the middle of the story the main character and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal.
  • The battle is the final conflict between main character and opponent and determines which of the two characters wins the goal.
  • A battle can be violent or it can be of words. In an action thriller it will probably be violent. In a rom-com it will probably be verbal.
  • The battle is an intense and painful experience for the hero. The hero has to come close to death, even if only metaphorically.

The battle sequence looks quite different in the female myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.

THE BATTLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Continue reading “Story Structure: The Battle”

Jack And The Flumflum Tree by Julia Donaldson and David Roberts

jack-and-the-flumflum-tree-cover

The title suggests this may be a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk but it’s not really — it’s an original tale based on mythic structure with elements of Little Red Riding Hood (the sick grandma) and pirate adventures (the big seas, the small boat). Like any good fairytale, this story makes use of the rule of threes.

This is also a carnivalesque story, in which the opponents are friendly, easily distracted, and very happy to join the children in their hi-jinks.

jack-flum-flum-tree-sharks

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

This picturebook has the usual problems found right throughout the kidlit world. This is another story about a white boy. He has two sidekicks. One of the sidekicks is a girl dressed in pink. The other is a black boy. Two boys and one girl consistently comes back in educational research as the ratio at which boys feel comfortable — 1:1 boy-girl teacher attention in the classroom will give boys the impression that girls are dominating. So it is in children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Monster House.

Is this in the illustrator’s wheelhouse? If so, a call to illustrators — why not make Jack the black kid for a change, with a white boy as his sidekick? And to writers: Why not write some more trios of two girls and one boy?

Well, we know why.

How does everyone feel about the phrase ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist?’ which is repeated as a refrain throughout the story?

In this book both the boy and the girl are assumed to be wearing ‘knickers’, but in my dialect of English — and I assume most modern dialects — knickers refer specifically to female underpants. The assumption is therefore that getting (unnecessarily) shitty about something is a specifically feminine trait, and when the instruction is dished out to a male character the effect is to feminise him and strip him of his power. The phrase has always grated with me.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Jack needs to go on a long journey without adult supervision in order to mature.

DESIRE

He wants to save his granny from her purple spots disease by finding her fruit that grows on the rare and distant Flumflum tree.

OPPONENT

Nature is against them — the ocean, mainly, and everything in it: namely sharks, leaks and man overboard.

jack-and-the-flumflum-tree-boat

But nature isn’t a very satisfying opponent. A ‘humanesque’ opponent appears once they get to the island in the form of a mischievous monkey who steals the precious Flumflum fruit.

PLAN

At each of the three calamities at sea Jack works out a use for each of the items granny provided in the patchwork sack.

BATTLE

Jack turns into a trickster with the monkey, giving him or her some wooden spoons. The monkey can’t resist playing the drums with them on the tom-tom drum, so the children are able to retrieve the stolen Flumflum.

SELF-REVELATION

Each of the items in the bag had a use. That’s what the young reader will learn at the end of the story.

As for Jack, he has learned that he is quite capable of saving the day.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Granny is better and Jack is the hero.

 

See also a Goodreads list of picturebook featuring trees

A Squash And A Squeeze by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

There have been various editions of A Squash And A Squeeze in its 20+ year history of reprints.

a squash and a squeeze light blue cover

Here is a slightly more ominous sky:

a squash and a squeeze dark sky

CHARACTER

Note that Donaldson is working with tropes here, as she almost always does. Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype, and a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!)

STORY STRUCTURE OF A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The old woman feels her little house is too small for her. The four walls make her feel ‘squashed and squeezed’.

DESIRE

She wants a bigger house, we guess.

OPPONENT

The Wise Old Man is a secret-ally opponent. He at first seems to be making her situation worse, but there’s method in his madness.

PLAN

She asks the local Wise Old Man what to do.

The word 'plan' is even used in the text. A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE
The word ‘plan’ is even used in the text.

BATTLE

The battle scenes are slap stick set pieces as the Wise Old Man tells her to bring her farm animals into the house. He starts her off on the smallest farm animals and ends with the cow.

SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE BATTLE

SELF-REVELATION

Compared to having a house full of farm animals, a cottage with just her in it no longer seems so small.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.

ANNIVERSARY EDITION

This book was first published in 1993 and the publishers released a red edition to make the 20 Years edition. I don’t know. The blood red sky makes it look a bit ominous, though it fits the brief of seeming quite different:

A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE 20 YEAR ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

In Stick Man, an anthropomorphised stick ends up far away from his family tree when he is fetched by a dog, thrown by a child, used as a snowman’s arm, and even put on a fire, but finally, Santa Claus steps in to make sure that Stick Man and his family have a joyous Christmas.

stick man cover

Julia Donaldson is expert in several distinct areas: This is a writer with an excellent feel for and broad knowledge of folk and fairytale, myth and lore. In common in J.K. Rowling, she knows how to take bits from one well-known tale and mix it up to make an entirely new, popular creation. With elements from The Gingerbread Man, The Night Before Christmas and the structure of a classic myth, we have here a secular Christmas story, hence the snowy cover and big Christmas sales numbers.

Donaldson is also an expert rhymester (and performer). New writers are advised to avoid changing the natural order of modern English in order to squeeze lines into a rhyming scheme, but Donaldson gets away with using old-fashioned poetry techniques because she is creating a story-quilt from timeless stories. So it works.

 

stick man opening spread
Stick Man lives in the family tree/With his Stick Lady love and their stick family three.

Along with many of Donaldson’s stories, this one is a bestseller which has been turned into a play and a short film.

STORY STRUCTURE OF STICK MAN

WEAKNESS/NEED

Stickman has been separated from his family.

DESIRE

Stickman wants to go home (for Christmas).

OPPONENT

The whole world is against Stickman. Every possible use for a stick is explored as Donaldson takes our Stickman on a perilous journey: opponents are dogs, children, a dad, and anyone else who can think of something to do with a stick.

stick man at the park

PLAN — omitted

Stickman is a reactionary character, flailing about from one perilous situation to the next even worse one, until finally he is thrown onto a fireplace as kindling. Later, when Santa struggles to come down the chimney, Stickman helps out. This isn’t so much to get himself out of strife, it’s because he is a helpful stick.

poo stick

BATTLE

When the Stickman is washed out to sea we think this is the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone who wants to go home to their tree, but when he ends up on a fire, that’s even worse! That’s the masterful thing about this sequence of events; Donaldson really puts her hero through the wringer and we really do feel for the guy.

stick man is floating

The passing of time is shown succinctly with a montage of seasonal stills:

Stick Man Julia Donaldson seasons_600x810

stick man on the fire

SELF-REVELATION

The self-revelation happens for the young reader, who receives a conservative and popular message: If you are nice to people even when you, yourself, are in the most dire of circumstances, people will be nice to you in kind.

santa stickman
This picture could (almost!) be an illustration from The Night Before Christmas

stick man helps santa

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Stickman is reunited with his family and we assume they spend an enjoyable Christmas together.

 

STORY SPECS OF STICK MAN

At 731 words, this is a slightly higher word count than your average modern picturebook. (I figure if Julia Donaldson can’t persuade publishers to allow more than 500 words for the K-3 audience, no one can.)

Published 2009

32pp

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH STICK MAN

Gingerbread Man Carol Jones

The Night Before Christmas

 

Dragons In Children’s Literature

from the graphic novel version of The Hobbit
from the graphic novel version of The Hobbit

Dragons In Folklore

Dragons have always evoked a mixture of fear and attraction.

They’re everywhere in The Bestiaries.

Folkloric dragons always talk.They are semi-human and have wily intelligence. Sometimes they’re regal, sometimes cowardly.

Dragons Around The World

Alexandra the Rock-eater: An Old Rumanian Tale retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom (1978)

Alexandra The Rock Eater cover Continue reading “Dragons In Children’s Literature”

Punishment In Children’s Literature

Poetic justice — or the punishment of characters who do wrong might be one solid difference between stories ‘for children’ versus ‘for adults’. This is not because children’s authors don’t want to create stories in which bad behaviour wins out, but because adult gatekeepers are squeamish about giving those stories to children, lest they side with the naughty characters and consider them role models.

If you enjoy spending  your one precious life reading one-star reviews of picturebooks on Goodreads, say, you may have noticed a few similarities in the types of books that get parents all riled up. One of those things:

The baddie does not get punished. He gets away scot free! This is a very bad example to children, who will learn from this story that doing bad things is okay.

Award winning modern picturebooks such as This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen get multiple reviews of this kind. An Australian example is Millie by John Marsden and Sally Rippin.

Parents only have a problem with unpunished heroes, however. If the young reader is asked to identify with a character and that character is basically an asshole, and nothing

So, given that the readers of picturebooks are very young, and that picturebooks are very often read right before bed, children’s authors do not have the extensive fallbacks of:

  • Community service
  • Fines
  • Incarceration
  • Bodily harm
  • Serious injury
  • Death
  • Torture followed by death

at their disposal.

But what if picture book authors would like to somehow punish their baddies, in this culture where retribution feels increasingly outdated? (Scandinavian prisons are not about retribution; they’re about care and reform, and we all know we should by running the world like the Scandinavians.)

If you’re a writer creating narrative for an adult audience you have the option of exploring the true nature of (in) justice — how it is not always poetic; bad behaviour is more often rewarded than punished, and how does that change the world? How are we supposed to live with that fact?

Here is the creator of BoJack Horseman, a cartoon for adults, on the concept of punishment in storytelling:

[We are conditioned by narrative to believe] that if we are good we will be rewarded, and if we have good intentions, that will lead to good actions. And if we are true and brave and loyal and kind, then things will work out.

I’m interested in the ramifications of believing in that. And I think that’s another reason why Hollywood is interesting, certainly for me because the show is about how the people who create these stories are the people who are affected by these stories.

Junkee

JUSTICE AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT

The idea of retributive justice is a concept learned very early by children, though we probably shouldn’t call it that. I remember my own daughter at about two or three years old, banging her own knee on a table, then crying with some fury. She believed the table had done that to her out of spite.

Psychologist Paul Bloom has shown that retributive thinking appears very early in the lives of infants, even before they begin to use language. Infants are delighted when they see the “bad person”—a puppet who has snatched something from another puppet—beaten with a stick. Bloom calls this an early sense of justice. I prefer to call it the internal Furies that inhabit us all, and that are not securely linked to real justice. The infants’ idea looks like a version of the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, pain for pain.  It’s not hard to imagine that the crude idea of proportional payback has an early, perhaps an evolutionary, origin. It is a leap to call this an idea of justice, and I think we should not make this leap.

Martha Nussbaum, Jefferson lecture on Powerlessness and Politics

CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUNISHMENT FOR CHILDREN

In recent years educators and parenting experts have started telling us that punishment doesn’t work when it comes to modifying children’s behaviour. Techniques around behaviour modification change from one generation to the next and is of course mirrored in children’s literature.

Take parents and children. Parents often feel that children have acted wrongfully, and they are outraged. They want to protest the wrong, and somehow to hold the child accountable. But they usually avoid retributive payback. They rarely think (today at least), “now you have to suffer for what you have done,” as if that by itself was a fitting response. Instead, they ask themselves what sort of reaction will produce future improvement in the child. Usually this will not be a painful payback, and it certainly won’t obey the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye.” If their child hits a playmate, parents do not hit their child as if that were “what you deserve.” Instead, they choose strategies that are firm enough to get the child’s attention, and that express clearly that and how what the child did was wrong. And they give positive suggestions for the future, how to do things differently. So, loving parents typically have the outrage part of anger without the payback part—where their children are concerned. This will be a clue to my positive proposal for democratic society.

Martha Nussbaum, Jefferson lecture on Powerlessness and Politics

John Yorke reminds us that there really is no distinction between a real person and a fictional person when it comes to reader opinions on how ‘avatars’ should be treated:

[Characters] are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Jeff Kinney created a very popular character who is basically an asshole a lot of the time, and although Greg Heffley is not actively punished by retributive parents and Trunchbull-archetype teachers, natural consequences tend to kick in for him. Here’s Kinney’s philosophy on punishment in children’s fiction. Like all popular contemporary authors, he’s wary of writing ‘morality tales’:

I think [readers] like to see somebody behaving badly because [they] know you can’t really do that. And you also like to see somebody punished for behaving badly,” he says. “My books are not morality tales but they allow kids to see their own lives through this character; what could happen if they made certain choices.”

— Jeff Kinney, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid

Kinney uses natural consequences and an unreliable narrator to great effect. But what about all those other stories with clear, unambiguous baddies? How are we meant to tie those off nicely, if punishment doesn’t work, and is more and more often seen as unfair?

Here are a few case studies in poetic justice, from picture books which have sold really well. It would be worth looking at the most recent picture books too, because these are a few years old now, and this part of culture is changing rapidly.

SOLUTION ONE: FORCE AN EVIL CHARACTER TO EAT SOMETHING DISGUSTING

The Highway Rat punishment

Julia Donaldson knows just how to punish her baddies, avoiding the criticism of immorality, but without going too far. Donaldson is indeed a master of knowing what will be sell well. Continue reading “Punishment In Children’s Literature”