Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: picture book

Picturebook Study: Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman

This book is less picturebook (compound word), more ‘illustrated short story’ in typical picture book binding. In other words, the story could exist in its own right. The illustrations expand the story, sure, but unlike typical picture books for younger readers the words still make sense on their own. So perhaps this is best described as an illustrated short story for older readers — the most interesting kind of story I know (and sadly, the one most likely to go out of print or never make it to soft back, from what I can gather).

Gary Crew is a writer who defies convention in other ways as well. Not only in his story telling techniques and characterisations, but also in his ability to transcend age and genre boundaries. Take for example his hugely successful 1990 horror novel, Strange Objects (William Heinemann). Among numerous other awards and nominations, this book won the highly respected Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for Older Readers in Australia. But it was also short-listed in the adult category for the Crime Writer’s of America Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award! Likewise, while Crew also writes picture books, more often than not they are written for older readers rather than the youngsters you might expect. So while Gary Crew is primarily marketed as a children’s writer, he is not constrained by marketing boundaries. Indeed, many of his books are ageless, able to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Australian Horror Writers’ Association

WHAT’S THE STORY ABOUT?

Written in first person point of view, the character as narrator, Stuart Quill, describes his university room mate Caleb van Doorn. It’s clear to the reader from inference that Caleb is the human version of an insect. Both Stuart and Caleb are studying entomology. Caleb’s behaviour grows stranger and stranger. He never seems to eat, but is one day caught eating a bowl of raw meat, with blood all around his mouth. On a field trip these two are supposed to be sharing a tent. Instead, Caleb disappears into the forest and manages to find a great collection of very rare insects. In the end, a woman is murdered and Caleb goes missing. The mystery is never solved. But enough information is given to the reader for us to know exactly what happened: Caleb metamorphoses backwards  and forward between insect and human, and in some sort of ‘reverse sexual cannibalism’ (that’s what they call it, since it’s normally the females who eat the males), Miss Emily is killed.

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Picturebook Study: Bears In The Night by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Bears In The Night Cover

Anyone who has helped an emergent reader with assigned readers knows the difference between an interesting early reader and a ‘slog’. Bears In The Night is an early reader with a focus on positional words. This book is an example of a successful early reader because the story is engaging and children will want to return to its fun creepiness over and over. This is achieved by:

  1. Creating an eerie story with just the right balance of scary and humour
  2. Creating words with wonderful rhythm and judicious use of repetition.

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Picturebook Study: Gorilla by Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne Gorilla 30th Anniversary Edition Cover

WHAT HAPPENS?

A girl called Hannah – about 6 0r 7 years of age – feels that her father doesn’t spend any time with her. She often wants to do something with him but he is always busy. One day her father gifts her a toy gorilla, as she is obsessed with gorillas, seeing gorilla related things everywhere. That night Hannah dreams she goes on a dream date with her life-sized gorilla, who is now a stand in father figure. He takes her to the zoo and then to a cafe. In the morning we learn that it is her birthday, and her father has a surprise — he is going to take her to the zoo.

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Picturebook Study: Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner?

This is one of my all-time favourite picturebooks and funnily enough, it has been created by a husband and wife team. Some of the very best picturebooks are obviously created with a lot of collaboration between writer and illustrator, and it amazes me that so many (also good) picture books are created without writer and illustrator ever meeting.

For anyone interested in gender equality in kidlit world, guess which of the creators of this book has their own Wikipedia entry? Guess who doesn’t?

Guess Who's Coming For Dinner Picturebook

PLOT

Horace and Glenda Pork-Fowler hav one an “all-you-can-eat” weekend at Eatum Hall – a dream come true for the pair for whom no plate is too big. However, their greed and desire to make the most of their luxurious surroundings distract them from the true purpose of why they are there!

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Tobacco Use In Picturebooks

First, some disclaimers:

  • I am and have always been a non-smoker.
  • I agree with all government measures to get rid of cigarettes from visible places in shops, and to limit advertising.
  • I hope smoking as a normal habit will go the way of the dodo sometime during this next generation.

I do broadly agree with Philip Womack in his recent article defending the latest Julia Donaldson picturebook, in which a scarecrow lights a cigar. I’m not among the picturebook enthusiasts who believes that smoking should be banned in children’s literature, or that it would even make a difference. Womack summarises this week’s furore:

In Julia Donaldson’s new picture book, The Scarecrows’ Wedding, Reginald Rake, a scarecrow, lights a cigar, and is immediately admonished; he then manages to set on fire the female scarecrow that he’s courting. Cause and effect are clear: smoking harms you and those around you (although Rake gets off with only a cough). What could be more obvious, and less controversial?

Sure enough, I’ve been considering the possibility of having a character smoke in the picturebook app (for older readers) which we’re planning to release later this year. The art has already been done. One of the characters seems like the sort of person who you’d see with one of those lady cigarettes, the kind with the holder, like you’d see on a noir film of yesteryear. In completing the artwork I pussied out a bit, and instead I have a small stream of smoke coming out of an ashtray, which may or may not be noticed by a reader, and wouldn’t be interpreted as cigarette smoke by any young readers who are lucky enough to have been sheltered from the practice of smoking over the course of their entire life:

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(At least I got the knitting needles right.) Here are the problems I see with Womack’s argument, however.

1. FANTASY OR REALISM: WHEN IT COMES TO CAUSE AND INFLUENCE, THE DISTINCTION IS IRRELEVANT

Womack writes:

This [furore] misunderstands something fundamental about picture books. They are, first and foremost, fantasies. I don’t see anyone complaining about the fact that the scarecrows can talk; nor that they are brought a necklace of shells by a handy crab when they are nowhere near the sea. A fantasy can be used to make a moral point, as Donaldson does, patently; and since children respond much more easily to ordered, made-up worlds than they do to the baffling real world, it is often the best way to get something across.

And so Womack contradicts himself. He seems to be saying that fantasies are disconnected from the real world of the child while at the same time admitting that fantasies are actually the best way to influence young children. I am very wary about using the ‘it’s only make-believe’ as an argument either for or against anything in the world of literature and other media. But here’s something I’m not seeing come out of this debate. In fact, it’s taken as a given, and is instead being used in the book’s defence:

2. SMOKING IS NOT ACTUALLY A SHORTCUT TO SIGNAL VILLAINY

Many smokers are lovely people. One of the most important things I hope to teach my daughter is that you can’t tell much about a person by looking at them. Goodies and baddies cannot be identified on the street simply by their clothing, physical appearance and accoutrements. If they could, the ‘Keeping Ourselves Safe’ unit they’re learning at school right now might take a different tone altogether. In fact, by conflating smoking with evil, we’re possibly creating two unintended lessons for young readers: 1. People who smoke are evil; ergo discrimination of people who are addicted to tobacco (often the most disenfranchised) are not deserving of help, or of Champax subsidies, come to think of it. 2. People who smoke cool because they have a touch of evil, or subversive, or against the grain; ergo, if you want to identify as alternative in your post-adolescent years, taking up smoking is one way to do it. More ominously, perhaps, children may absorb the message via common tropes that people with bad intentions can be identified by their appearance, in which case, real world people who look ‘normal’ may get away with things they should not. My decision to avoid the more overt smoking scene in Hilda Bewildered and instead have the character pick up a pair of knitting needles was actually down to my reluctance to promote tropes which, unexamined, may be doing more harm than good. If children’s book writers and illustrators are going to avoid depictions of tobacco use in their picturebooks, then I’d prefer it were for this reason.

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