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Inversion Does Not Equal Subversion: The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt And Oliver Jeffers

The Day The Crayons Quit

This picture book is a best seller and is made by two picture book superstars, so I’d like to use it as an example of something which bothers me a lot in children’s literature and film: Gender inversion that ironically supports the status quo.

This book has a message for young artists: Use all the colours in your crayon box. Use them in original ways. (‘Think Outside The Crayon Box’.) And the gender message for boy readers: If you’re a boy, don’t be afraid to use the pink crayon.


The problem with pink and gendered constructs in general.

(Please tell me who created this graphic if you know.)

This is of course a response to the pinkification of toys and games that’s been happening over the past 10-20 years.

1. Do Gendered Toys And Playtime Have Their Place Or Is It All For Profit? from The Mary Sue.

2. Stereotyping Childhood from Don’t Conform Transform. Why does the pink and blue division of toys matter? See also: I’m Dreaming Of A Non Pink and Blue Christmas from the same blog.

3. Beauty And The New Lego Line For Girls from The Society Pages (See also: Retro Lego Catalogue Praises Little Girls’ Imagination from The Mary Sue. And if you’re wondering what the new Lego for Girls looks like, you can see it at Ms Blog.) Here are a couple of retro Lego ads, and as far as I’m concerned, they should still look pretty much like that.

4. Lego For Girls Already Exists. It’s Called Lego from Mommyish, and here’s more commentary on the superfluousness of the new Lego line, which is discussed amid a handy explanation of Stereotype Threat from Don’t Conform Transform. (Girly Lego Sucks, But It’s Selling Like Hotcakes – an update from Jezebel.) And if anyone here is still wondering what the problem is, Peggy Orenstein tells Mommyish Why Those Girly Legos Should Give Parents Pause.

5. Gender Typed Toys: What The Research Says from naeyc

6. On Vanity And Princess Culture from Blue Milk, talking about dolls and other faux-harmless toys for girls

7. Pink Or Blue: Defining Gender Neutral Parenting – Baby Storm’s parents have not revealed Storm’s gender.

8. Toy Ads And Learning Gender from Feminist Frequency (a video)

9. But just because it’s not pink, doesn’t mean it might as well be.

10. Monica Dux conducted an experiment: ‘Walking my baby up and down a busy shopping strip. She was dressed in a lime-green hoodie and pink pants but before I set out I covered her pants with a grey blanket. The immediate assumption from all those who cooed at my infant was that she was a boy.’ The rest of the story is here.

11. Embracing Girly: On Letting Girls Be Who They Are from Don’t Conform Transform: ‘There’s nothing wrong with a child choosing any or all of those things or loving them, but there is something wrong with media and marketers providing only one vision of what a girl can like and who she can be.

12. A short clip from the comedian Jared Logan about the difference between the television commercials for boys’ vs girls’ toys.

13. Feminizing The Masculine, a Pinterest collection which ends up being a visual guide to how pink is used to market to adult women as well as to girls.

14. Are Gender Neutral Spaces Actually Doing Anything?, from Inequality by (Interior) Design

15. Dame Jacqueline Wilson dares her publishers to not put a pink cover on just one of her books, to prove they would still sell, from The Telegraph

16. Loving pink for boys, hating it for girls, from Motherlode




The Difficulties Faced by Authors/Illustrators In Conveying This Message

Best selling title that it is, lauded for its gender subversion, there are some potential problems in this story.

First I’ll quote Jennie Yabroff who wrote in The Washington Post:

Even children’s books that seem radical in other ways reinforce a male-dominated universe. The current bestsellers “The Day the Crayons Quit” and “The Day the Crayons Came Home” have been praised as parables of inclusion and celebrations of diversity. One bookseller I spoke with even described the rebelling crayons as a metaphor for the Occupy movement. Yet not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun. Just about everything and everyone in the books — from five of the crayons to a paper clip to a sock to Pablo Picasso to the crayons’ owner, Duncan, to his father to his little brother — is male, or not assigned a gender. The exceptions are a female teacher and Duncan’s little sister, who uses the otherwise under-employed pink crayon. To color in a picture of a princess. And is praised for staying in the lines.

 Anita Sarkeesian has already explained in detail our culture’s tendency to create a cast of male characters, each with differing personalities, then create a new ‘female’ version, in which her defining characteristic is ‘femaleness’. The audience knows that this is the girl because the creators have slapped a bow on her head, put her in heels and a dress, given her eyelashes or marked her out with pink.


This doesn’t just happen in video games — it happens on TV shows designed for children, in computer software used in schools, in advertising, in toys, and of course in mass market picture books.

Toy makers are in the same moral bind: Consumers want female versions, but how to show femaleness without stereotypical markers of femininity?

Toy makers are in the same moral bind: Consumers want female versions, but how to show femaleness without stereotypical markers of femininity?

Since readers of The Day The Crayons Quit have been acculturated within a system which pinkifies everything associated with girls, it should have been clear to this book’s creators — who presumably understand this tendency in children precisely so they can subvert it — that without gender pronouns, or clothes, or human names, the crayons are all default males.

It should also have been clear to any creators properly schooled up in gender politics that getting the male hero to pass on a message praising his little sister for ‘staying within the lines’ is just the sort of sexist bullshit that turns primary school aged girls into what I’ve heard teachers refer to as ‘colourer-inners’ by the time they hit high school. No, that’s not a grammatically sensible phrase, but an English teacher I once knew used it to refer to her female students who, instead of doing the research and the thinking required before writing any essay, would spend 90 per cent of their allocated time creating an ornamental page border, choosing which shade of paper to print on, then hum and ha over 7 different system fonts without doing any actual work. Having later taught at a girls’ high school myself, I became so exasperated with this tendency that I banned any modification to the Word template at the start of each lesson. Who could blame these girls though, after having been told their entire lives that looking pretty and creating prettiness was the most important thing they should do?

This picture book hardly blows that bullshit apart.

I’m most disturbed by the bit that says:

Okay, listen here, kid! You have not used me ONCE in the past year. It’s because you think I am a GIRLS’ colour, isn’t it?

I’m reminded here of all those picture books for toddlers which are designed to teach children not to be afraid of monsters. The book will then offer up a detailed picture of just exactly what a monster looks like (green and scaly or warm and fluffy) and where it lives (under the bed, behind the curtains). My own daughter was never scared of monsters until she encountered them in other people’s stories, and those first stories happened to be picture books, naturally.

When boys and girls are told that this generic ‘kid’, Duncan, is not using the pink because he is a boy, there is nothing whatsoever within the text or the pictures to say:


The message is not: Femme phobia is stupid because even though pink is ‘for girls’ girls are just a-okay. No, the message is: You can use the pink crayon even though it’s an icky girl colour. (So long as you use it to make a dinosaur.)

How Might This Book Be Better?

  • The crayons probably do need to be gendered, with 50/50 male/female. The pink crayon could have even been a boy, to really hammer home the ‘pink is for everyone’ message. I’m a bit icky still about all this because in a perfect world these crayons could remain completely ungendered. Also, the pink crayon is not actually marked as female in any other way apart from being pink. Still, if the creators didn’t know that was going to happen, they are surprisingly naive.
  • Don’t praise little girls for colouring within the lines while offering up an example of creative freeform drawing in little boys.
  • Show that Duncan has coloured in the princess rather than creating a dinosaur with the pink. Maybe have the little sister be the one drawing the pink dinosaur.
  • Either get rid of the bit that preaches about pink being related to girls (it should be obvious from the illustrations anyway, for children who already ‘get the cultural message’), or else append with something that challenges the inherent femme phobia.

The first part of the message works i.e. ‘Be creative and original with colour’. But with something as complex as gendered messages, unfortunately inversion does not equal subversion.

This picture book fails in its gender message however. In fact, it makes the whole thing worse.

And the peach thing is a bit problematic, too, as noted by a Goodreads reviewer:

In regards to the “naked crayon” (peach) mentioned by other readers, I believe this refers to Duncan removing the crayon’s wrapper and not the author’s inadvertent implication that peach is the only color equivalent to skin tone. Even so, as others have noted, the illustrations would be improved by diversifying the figures in the book (they’re all colored with peach crayon although brown and beige crayons are referenced), especially since one of the book’s lessons is to experience color in various ways.


The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business by Holzwarth and Erlbruch


The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was None of his Business is a very popular picture book originally published in German. You can tell if a story is popular when you see the plush toy version of the hero!


Although The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business is all about pooh, this avoids being a typical ‘gross out’ story because of an overriding gentility in the language. The onomatopoeia has retained a foreignness about it — perhaps retained partly from the original German? — and because this is a picture book rather than a chapter book (as many gross-out books are), the language can be a little more sophisticated due to the fact that adults are likely to be reading this aloud to their children. The goat poo, for instance, is compared to ‘toffee’, which the little mole finds ‘almost appealing’.

So, does this narrative have all the basic components of a complete narrative, as described by John Truby in his book Anatomy of Story? According to this theory, even the shortest of works has at least the seven basic steps. Let’s continue our investigation…




The little mole can’t be at peace until he finds out who dropped a turd on his head.


He is vengeful.


To find out who committed the crime of dropping a turd on his head. (This is basically a mystery story. In fact, an alternative title is:The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit.)


The dog. (Oops — spoiler alert!)

(There are two allies — the flies — they are experts in poo and are able to solve his mystery for him by landing on his head.)



The little mole will question every animal in the vicinity until he finds the culprit. He will examine the turds to find a match for the one on his head.


There is no single great battle in this story, in which the mole must endure encounters with a number of animals. But the encounters do escalate — each pooh is worse than the last one, with the cow pancake being the worst of the lot. He does get spattered in poo, which can be likened to wounds in a battle.




He finds out who dropped the turd on his head.


None. He remains a vengeful little bastard.


“Satisfied at last, the little mole disappeared happily into his hole underground.” (And presumably continued on with his mole doings uninterrupted.)


This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers

This Moose Belongs To Me is a 2012 picture book written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. This best selling picture book fits the seven steps of storytelling perfectly.


This Moose Belongs To Me AR Bookfinder


I’ve recently re-read Anatomy of Story by John Truby, in which we question the advice dished out to storytellers everywhere: Three act structure. Instead we have 22 steps (for your average film), more steps for novels, and 7 or more steps for short stories. Picture books are not mentioned, but we’re told that all stories — whatever their form — have at least those minimum seven steps. My daughter just happened to get this book for Christmas. So let’s see…



Wilfred is lonely.


Wilfred is controlling.


Wilfred desires some company in the form of an obedient pet. This character is a riff on the Crazy Cat Lady trope, in which a character also likes to collect animals. There’s also a bit of Kindnapper in there, too.


Wilfred’s opponent is the moose, who wants to do its own thing.

Another opponent is the old lady who, like Wilfred, has named the moose and claimed it as her own. The best opponents want the same thing as your hero, so this is a particularly funny example. Also, the ‘inverse’ of a little boy is an old lady, so she looks different, but she is exactly the same.


Wilfred’s plan is to basically follow the moose around. But he also has a fairly detailed plan, seen partly in the illustrations: He will put a name tag on the moose’s antler and write a list of rules for the moose to follow. That’s his first plan. But he has to modify his plan slightly because he has a poor sense of direction. In order to not get lost, he’ll roll out a ball of string.


Wilfred’s battle is between himself and nature ( of which the moose is a part). He is lost and stranded and at the mercy of the ‘monsters’. This is the very worst thing that could possibly happen to our hero.



He can avoid feeling lonely by simply being with the moose.


But he doesn’t have to control it. Wilfred realises that animals have minds of their own, and that they don’t exist for his personal amusement and convenience.


The moose will continue to listen to Wilfred but only when he feels like it.



Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman

caleb gary crew and steven woolman

Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman 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


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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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 by the Berenstains 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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Gorilla by Anthony Browne Picture Book

Gorilla is the book that made Anthony Browne’s name.

Anthony Browne Gorilla 30th Anniversary Edition Cover


A girl called Hannah — about 6 or 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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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


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

Bilbo Baggins, illustration by Vincent Boyer

Bilbo Baggins, illustration by Vincent Boyer

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:



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


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:


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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