Picturebook Study: Walter The Farting Dog

Walter the Farting Dog

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.

— Wikipedia

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 uncle
It doesn’t help that the cat has evil human eyes.

STORY STRUCTURE

Weakness/Need

Walter is smelly. He needs to stop assaulting other people’s noses with his farts.

Desire

He wants to stay with this new family because otherwise he goes back to the pound.

Opponent

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.

walter dad

back to the pound

Plan

The children take Walter to the vet, but that doesn’t help. They try all sorts of different diets, but still nothing works.

walter vet

Battle

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.

Self-revelation

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:

beginning of walter

New Equilibrium

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.

walter family

THE BURGLARS

burglars

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.

Walter The Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise cover

As in every children’s book series, you know at one point Walter will take to the air.

-FloatIntoTownSpread

Absent Parents In Children’s Literature

One job for children’s authors is to get adults out of the way so child characters can solve their own problems. How do they achieve this?

TECHNIQUE 1: PARENTS/CAREGIVERS TOO BUSY WITH WORK

absent parent in Pip: The Story Of Olive

In Pip: The Story Of Olive, an upper middle-grade novel by Australian Kim Kane, the mother of the main character is a busy and successful lawyer, left at home alone to tuck herself into bed with a hottie, but with full access to a credit card. When Pip tries to tell her mother (Mog) on the phone what’s been going on in her life, the mother gets interrupted by work colleagues, because they’re working on a big case, and so Olive is left to conclude that talking to her mother is a wasted effort. Continue reading “Absent Parents In Children’s Literature”

What Is A Flaneur?

As described by James Wood in How Fiction Works, the flaneur is

the loafer, usually a young man, who walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting.

Flânerie describes aimless behaviour.

In French it’s spelt like this: flâneur, though not if you’re writing in English.

Wood also uses the great phrases ‘porous scout’ and ‘Noah’s dove’ to describe this authorial stand-in.

We know this type from Baudelaire, from the all-seeing narrator of Rilke’s autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggs, and from Walter Benjamin’s writings about Baudelaire.

Flaneur

The flaneur hangs around cities. There’s not so much for him to do in the country. You won’t find Jane Austen’s characters wandering around aimlessly. But these guys aren’t actually aimless: they wander around with the purpose of deconstructing social life in order to form a critique.

The flaneur is a wandering narrator who is at once an outsider and native to a particular urban environment.

For more on the flaneur, see the Wikipedia article

THE FLANEUR IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Middle Grade Novels

Since the flaneur loves busy, interesting cities like New York, some critics have made a subcategory of American children’s literature set in New York where we might find the kidlit version of the flaneur. Eric L. Tribunella finds the flaneur in:

Although Tribunella published that paper in 2010, he cites examples from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature, which started after WW2 and ended around 1970.

Picture Books

Do modern young audiences have any time for the flaneur? When it comes to picture books, there is a subcategory designed to take the reader through a city, as an armchair tourist. Some critics have said that this is the picturebook version of the flaneur, in which the reader is the flaneur, not necessarily a character inside the story. Again, look out for American picture books, particularly those set in New York or Los Angeles.

Young Adult Novels

In modern teen fiction, consider the mall instead of the city as a place where young flaneur hang out.

In stories where teens hang out in malls — and often in real life too — teens are not welcome. The mall has the feeling of a safe, cloistered space and mall designers go out of their way to make shoppers feel as comfortable as if they were at home: modern malls are carpeted and warm and play calming music. Comfortable big furniture is provided as islands of refuge. Yet when teenagers congregate in malls they are not genuinely welcome unless they happen to have the disposable income of adults. Therefore, the mall in young adult literature is a setting which functions as a symbol of teenage-hood itself: that liminal space between childhood and adulthood.

weetzie bat covers

Some critics describe the ‘postmodern flaneur’. For example in Weetzie-Bat (1989), the debut punk-rock fairytale novel by Francesca Lia Block, we have a narrator who is both part of her urban environment but also narrates as if she’s an outsider. By this interpretation, the flaneur in children’s literature is unlikely to go away, since the entire category of YA makes heavy use of that feeling of being an outsider trying to find your place.

For more examples of young adult novels with a flaneur quality, see The Flaneur Goes To The Mall at The Millions

Iterative vs Singular Time In Children’s Literature

When writing about different temporalities in children’s literature, academic Maria Nikolajeva makes a useful distinction between ‘iterative’ time and ‘singular’ time.

Iterative Time

In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening.

Iterative: ‘In the winter time the Rat slept a great deal, retiring early and rising late. During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry…there was a good deal of storytelling.’ (In which storytelling is a ritual act). There are a lot of iterative sentences in circular stories such as Anne of Green Gables, as well as in The Secret Garden.

Singulative Time

A singulative sentence applies to an action in this particular story. Stories for children often start in the iterative then switch to the singulative.

All over town, from basket and bowl, he pilfered and pillaged, he snitched and he stole. (ITERATIVE)

He pulled them, he dragged them, he HEAVED them until… he’d carried them home to his house on the hill. (ITERATIVE)

One rascally night between midnight and four, Slinky Malinki stole MORE than before.(SINGULATIVE)

— from Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

slinky malinki teddy bear

In picture books the switch to the singulative part of the story is often marked very clearly with a phrase such as ‘But one day’ or ‘However, on her fifth birthday’ or any similar variation.

You may have heard a related term: Discriminated occasion.

DISCRIMINATED OCCASION IN STORYTELLING

A specific, discrete moment portrayed in a fictional work, often signaled by phrases such as “At 5:05 in the morning . . . ,” “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season . . . ,” or “the day before Maggie fell down. . . .”

EXAMPLES OF THE SWITCH

Below is the switch from iterative to singulative in The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen:

lazlo's bedroom

Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo
Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo
Chapter Five marks a switch from the iterative to the singular. This is where the *current* adventure begins.
Chapter Five marks a switch from the iterative to the singular. This is where the *current* adventure begins.

How The French Do It

Note that this division doesn’t necessarily hold for all languages. As James Wood writes in How Fiction Works, grammar works differently in French:

French verb forms allow [Flaubert] to use the imperfect past tense to convey both discrete occurrences (“he was sweeping the road”) and recurrent occurrences (“every week he swept the road”). English is clumsier, and we have to resort to “he was doing something” or “he would do something” or “he used to do something”–“every week he would sweep the road”–to translate recurrent verbs accurately. But as soon as we do that in English, we have given the game away, and are admitting the existence of different temporalities.

Iterative vs Singular in Literature For Adults

While this distinction is particularly obvious in picture books for children, might we also see it in books for older readers?

Yes, though it’s a lot more complex. In a picture book, you can pretty reliably expect the first few pages of the book to be in the iterative, especially if the author is introducing a new character. Then, after the switch to the ‘story at hand’ (the singular), there’s no switch back.

In a novel for sophisticated readers, there is a constant switch between iterative and singulative and the reader copes with this no trouble at all. In genre fiction such as thrillers and crime, rather than starting with the iterative, the modern requirement is for the story to grip the reader, so stories often begin in medias res. In contrast a novel which begins in the iterative lets the reader know that they’re in for a quieter, less disturbing read. Unless you get someone like Stephen King, who likes lengthy set-ups just so he can lull you into a sense of security before knocking you upside the head. It is perhaps psychological thrillers which are more likely to make use of this particular technique, since the setting is very often domestic, and domestic life is by its very nature iterative.

Maps In Children’s Books

Is there anything more satisfying than a fictional literary map? Sometimes these maps are designed by the illustrators. Other maps are done by unsung heroes called book designers, whose names are left off the front cover and publicity material. Making a map of a fantastic world is also a favourite thing to do in fan fic, and some fan fiction maps are truly amazing. Some maps are even done by the authors, even if the authors aren’t otherwise illustrators. Sometimes the sketch of an author’s map goes public after a book takes off, as in the case of J.K. Rowling’s map of Hogwarts.

Some of them are from an oblique bird’s eye angle, others are decorated emulations of ye olde worlde maps. Some seem to be to scale while others are designed to give readers the general idea. Since a lot of these maps appear in novels for which there is no budget for coloured illustration, black and white maps need to look great.

For much more on this topic see The Art of Illustrated Maps by John Roman.

Continue reading “Maps In Children’s Books”

The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

The Mouse and His Child

This middle grade novel features talking animals, especially mice, toys and doll’s houses. This is no Velveteen Rabbit, however.

As Margaret Blount says, The Mouse and His Child defies classification, and is therefore of interest to critics and kidlit enthusiasts:

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1969) is such a strange, haunting and distinguished book that it is very difficult to classify. It is about toy mice, yet the clockwork father and son move through a world in which small animals act out human dramas.

— Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Continue reading “The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban”

Making Use Of The Miniature In Storytelling

Thumbelina Ladybird coverTOM THUMB

Some of the oldest tales about miniature creatures living in oversized land come from fairytales: Thumbelina and Tom Thumb are the first that come to mind.

My method was mostly metaphorical: what if Thumbelina wasn’t actually small, she just felt small?

— Emma Donoghue, explaining how when rewriting fairytales she took tales from the oral tradition and simply considered them in metaphorical terms.

A useful term here is ‘homunculus‘, which means a very small person. The plural is homunculi. This was originally a medical term which comes from alchemy. By the nineteenth century we knew a bit more about how humans come about, so now the homunculus was a fictional character.

WHY DO STORYTELLERS LOVE MINIATURE WORLDS?

This comic by Poorly Drawn Lines spoofs the concept of the miniature concept of tourist destinations.Poo

Continue reading “Making Use Of The Miniature In Storytelling”

The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

The entire story of Peter Rabbit can be read here at Project Gutenberg, but bear in mind that Beatrix Potter was very fussy about the size of her book and everything about the printing process, and it’s therefore meant to be read as a bound copy, in its original small size rather than as part of an anthologised collection.

The Tale Of Peter Rabbit

 

See also: The Size And Format Of Picturebooks

PROBLEMS WITH PETER RABBIT

As Marjery Hourihan points out in Deconstructing the Hero, Peter Rabbit is basically an Odyssean story. A male hero goes out, has an adventure, faces death and then arrives home, changed. Beatrix Potter was following a long tradition of storytelling when she wrote this one.

It’s worth looking closely, too, at the gender attitudes reflected in this tale — attitudes you might expect to have evolved since this story was written, but which haven’t really, in popular children’s literature. Although Peter Rabbit’s sisters are all wearing pink shawl’s, it’s coincidental that it was only several decades later that the colour pink started to be associated with femininity, and blue with masculinity. (Perhaps this partly explains the enduring popularity of Peter Rabbit merch given as baby gifts.) For links on the Pinkification of Everything, see here.

Continue reading “The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter”

Domestic Dramas In Children’s Literature

While adventure stories were originally written for boys, domestic dramas were written for girls.

DOMESTIC DRAMAS AND PLOT SHAPES

Adventure stories are linear. The hero starts the story by leaving. He often finds himself in a new home after completing his journey. This is a linear plot. In contrast, domestic dramas are circularDomestic stories are home-away-home stories, with the implication that a girl’s proper place (indeed, only place) is in the homeThe chapters of domestic stories tend to be episodic rather than suspenseful, a la Anne of Green Gables, in which a number of the scenes could be switched around and it wouldn’t really matter to the timeline of the plot. Domestic dramas emphasise the seasons, since seasons are themselves cyclical and therefore circular.

For more on the major plot shapes in children’s literature see this post.

STORIES FOR MEN, STORIES FOR WOMEN

Even today, stories thought to be more popular with men tend to feature stronger narrative drive. Breaking Bad, for instance, has recently been a very popular fictional work among men and women alike, and its heroes are men. But the women of Breaking Bad exist mainly as wifely opponents, with the addition of a non-wife female role only in the final season (Lydia). Breaking Bad has episodic elements to it — each episode features a different self-contained plot such as a factory heist to steal a drum full of chemicals, or a visit to the guy with the gold tooth to blow up his lair. At the end of each of these episodes, Walter White returns to his home. As the series progresses it becomes more and more linear. Walter White does not end up back in the home.

Breaking Bad

We might compare and contrast Orange Is The New Black for a modern television drama starring women, ‘for’ women. This is a far more episodic show. Though there is a linear narrative holding the scenes together, the audience derives pleasure not from intense curiosity about what’s about to happen next, but in enjoying the moment — the humour and the dialogue of each scene.

Orange Is The New Black

There are of course genre differences between Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black, but it’s no coincidence that one stars men and the other stars women; there is a long history of just this sort of gender division in our popular fiction.

 

VICTORIAN DOMESTIC DRAMAS

Examples
  • The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell — a sentimental, religious story. A girl is sent to live with a country aunt after her mother is sent away to die.
  • The Lamplighter by Maria Cummins — Gerty is dragged up by a brutal woman in a Boston slum, popular on both sides of the Atlantic. (Read online.)
  • The works of Miss Charlotte M. Yonge — a very ‘Victorian’ woman, believing in the inferiority of females. She edited a magazine for girls called The Monthly Packet for more than 40 years. (See it online.) Considering her works are now out of print and seldom read, she was very popular in her time. She wrote The Daisy Chain, which is an important forerunner to Little Women.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — the first two books in this series have been an enduring success. As well as sermonising, the stories feature human reaction against sermonising, which is probably part of their longevity. The character of Laurie is probably a precursor to the likes of Edward Cullen — not entirely fleshed out as a male character, but filling girlhood dreams of boys at a certain developmental stage. This series set the tone for many girls’ books to follow.
  • Elsie Dinsmore by Martha Finlay — a series about a tearful eight-year-old who is an extreme goody-goody.
Elsie Dinsmore Number 6
Modern cover model looks a lot like Elaine Benes to me, though I doubt there are many similarities.
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge — starts off active and ‘feisty’ but ends up married to a handsome naval officer as the series continues.
  • The Gypsy Series by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — the heroine Gypsy Breynton is an appealing and sporty main character, but there’s no realistic place for her one she is past adolescence, so she ends up supporting her brother as he goes off to Yale.

Gypsy Breyton sopping wet

 

  • Three Vassar Girls Abroad — the first story to feature young women at university, as was happening in the real world with the admission of women to Vassar College and other women’s colleges in America.
  • Little Prudy by Sophie May — for younger readers. Prudy is mischievous and fired with enthusiasm, perhaps a precursor to the likes of Junie B Jones
  • The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney — notable for being the first story about genuinely poor people rather than just ‘hard up’.
  • Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner — the first notable Australian story of this kind, starring model children,  though it reads as quite English, since the father was English.
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin — very similar to Anne of Green Gables, though it came first
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery — Anne exemplifies the ‘Ugly Duckling’ plot, not present in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Later books in the series have been described as ‘sentimentally dishonest’.
  • Jackanapes by Mrs. Ewing — a later Victorian work. A low-tension story about a boy and his growth into manhood with a war setting.
  • The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth — Griselda goes to live with her two old-maid aunts in an old-fashioned house. She gets bored and enters into a fantasy world with a real-life friend who has come to live nearby.
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett — similar to Mrs Ewing and Mrs Molesworth but by a much more powerful writer. This book is described as ‘namby pamby’ but the main character isn’t all that odious, apparently, if you read the story. Instead,  he is likeable and unaffected and has left-wing politics for his class. The moral is that the only true nobility is within oneself. A Little Princess is like Fauntleroy but in reverse — a story about a girl who goes from aristocracy to the street. The moral is exactly the same. The Secret Garden was written 20 years after Burnett’s first, and is a lot more complex. Mary Lennox has to struggle before achieving a heroine’s status, whereas for the other two main characters it came naturally. The Secret Garden does not espouse Victorian values, in which children should be seen and not heard and do as they’re told. Instead, the book encourages self-reliance and cooperation, which may explain its enduring appeal.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

NOTES ON DOMESTIC DRAMA
  • The function of domestic dramas was to teach girls that a home life is a glamorous one, and to give them a glimpse of life outside the home, presumably so they’d be happy to stay inside the home.
  • But looking closely at these stories, they weren’t really about promoting how wonderful it was to scrub and cook and look after babies — the absolute ideal has always been that these tasks are done by ‘some other woman’ rather than the heroine.
  • There’s no doubt that most reading girls would have been reading adventure stories too, especially if they had brothers. Unfortunately for them, they never got to see themselves in those stories, except as annoying mothers who needed to be broken away from.
  • The more successful domestic dramas were less pious and had more action, which shows what girl readers really wanted, despite what was thought to be good for them. For example, the character of Nancy (a friend to the heroine) made The Wide, Wide World successful because she was a bit of a tearaway, and Gerty of The Lamplighter was also a wild child.
  • “Domestic” does not necessarily mean “bliss” in a children’s book. From the mid 20th Century authors didn’t shy away from portraying threats to young characters’ well-being. But even earlier than that, intimacy didn’t equal peace.
  • Domesticity has always been considered an unstable state. The word itself has meant different things in different eras (think of today’s common usage, as police terminology). It has gone from ideal to pejorative.

 

FURTHER READING

WRITTEN FOR CHILDREN BY JOHN ROWE TOWNSEND

KEYWORDS FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE BY PHILIP NEL, LISSA PAUL