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Picturebook Study: Pig The Pug by Aaron Blabey

pig-the-pug

Following on from my lengthy post about screenwriting tips, and how relevant (or not) they may be to writing children’s books, here’s an example of a picture book which fairly closely matches advice from John Truby, author of Anatomy of Story.

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN PIG THE PUG

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Picturebook Study: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat Back Jon Klassen Book Cover

When I read an opinion piece last week on the decreasing length of picturebooks from Elizabeth Bluemle at Publishers Weekly, the books of Jon Klassen immediately sprang to mind, especially at this paragraph:

Why are we so bent on brief? Is it because children have shorter attention spans? (They do. We all do. Or do we?) Is it because parents are working harder than ever and are too tired to face long reading sessions at bedtime with their kids? Possibly. Or is it because we are currently experiencing a trend of short, meta, funny picture books that don’t unfold a story with characters so much as riff on a clever idea? That’s a teeny piece of it, surely.

Pandering to, or presuming shorter attention spans?

This picture book is also interesting for the variety of reader responses who think that picture books must star morally upright characters; that children are vessels waiting to be filled with good examples, incapable of questioning moral grey areas.

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

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Picturebook Study: Mog The Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

Mog The Forgetful Cat Cover

This is the story that introduced Mog to young readers at the beginning of the 1970s. You’ll see from the illustrations that this is a book of its time, with 1970s fashion and a traditional nuclear family set-up, including a population that, compared to modern day London, is overwhelmingly white. If there is a spectrum of personification when it comes to animals in picturebooks, Mog is still very much cat rather than person, but Judith Kerr manages to convey the idea that she indeed knows exactly what goes on in cat’s world — what cats worry about, what they dream about and what their main concerns must be.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

This story is mostly a character sketch of a mischievous cat called Mog. Mog’s mischievousness is reframed as forgetfulness. She doesn’t ‘steal’ an egg at breakfast time; she ‘forgets’ she only has eggs as treats. This lends a gentleness to the character, and allows young readers to empathise. The plot of the story takes off after Mog is shut outside for being a nuisance. It just so happens that a burglar arrives that night. Mog frightens the burglar, who makes a noise by dropping something, thus awakening the family who are able to call the police to apprehend the baddie. Mog is now a hero.

WONDERFULNESS

The burglar in this story is an archetypical comic character dressed in a raccoon mask and striped prison uniform. He is smaller in stature than the policeman who comes to apprehend him. Rather than being locked up in handcuffs, the burglar even holds the policeman’s cup of tea while the policeman makes notes on a pad. This comic representation of intruders makes this story a perfectly safe going-to-bed book.

Burglar Holds Tea

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Picturebook Study: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Goodnight Moon Cover

Goodnight Moon is an American picturebook classic, and is of particular interest because who would’ve thunk it? Margaret Wise Brown had a talent for creating odd-duck prose which went down a treat (and still does) with the preschool set. But is this book only of value for toddlers? Never.

See: What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon

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Picturebook Study: Harry The Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

Harry The Dirty Dog is a good example of what Bakhtin termed ‘the material bodily principle’. — the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation), sexuality (usually displaced into questions of undress) and excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty).

This book is also an example of an ‘interrogative text’ in which authority is questioned. The main, childlike character (which happnens to be a somewhat anthropomorphised dog) runs away and has fun even though he is supposed to be having a bath.

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY?

Harry is a dog who hates having a bath. One day, he hears the bath water running, assumes he is up for a bath, and decides to skip out on it. The story starts on the front endpapers.

HarrytheDirtyDog Front Papers

He takes the scrubbing brush, buries it in the backyard, then runs off into town. On his adventures he gets dirtier and dirtier, until  he is unrecognisable. Eventually he gets hungry and must return home. But his family don’t recognise him and refuse to believe it’s him. He tries all sorts of familiar tricks, to no avail. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: No Roses For Harry! by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

No Roses For Harry Cover

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

Human grandmother sends partly anthropomorphised pet dog a coat for the dog’s birthday. The coat has roses on it, and the dog does not like it. He goes to great lengths to lose the coat. It ends up being used by a bird to make a nest.

Harry gave his sweater to a bird

 

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Picturebook Study: Perspective

The illustrators I admire the most have one thing in common: They each employ the full range of perspectives and points of view: high angle, low angle, up through tunnels, long shots, close ups and so on and so forth. Much can be gained from thinking about perspective in picture books, though Perry Nodelman the whole thing up in a few sentences:

Generally speaking, figures seen from below and against less patterned backgrounds stand out and seem isolated from their environment and in control of it; figures seen from above become part of an environment, either secure in it or constrained by it. Also generally speaking, illustrators who make significant use of changing angles tend to be those who emphasize the intense drama of the stories their depict; Van Allsburg and Trina Schart Hyman, both of whom tend to depict highly charged emotions, use extreme views from above and from below in book after book…As well as viewing their characters from varying angles, picture-book artists can place them against differing sizes of backgrounds, much as movie directors do, in order to focus our attention on specific aspects of their behaviour. Long shots, which show characters surrounded by a lot of background, imply objectivity and distance; they tell us about how a character’s actions influence his environment, or vice versa. Middle-distance shots, which show characters filling most of the space from the top to the bottom of a picture, tend to emphasize the relationships between characters. Close-ups generate involvement with characters by showing us their facial expressions and, presumably, communicating the way they feel…In picture books, close-ups are rare–not surprisingly, for the width of most picture books makes it difficult to show a face without any background behind it. IN any case, this is a literature of action rather than of character, and the empahsis is on events and relationships rather than on subtleties of feeling. If close-ups are used at all in picture books, they tend to be on the front cover or dust jacket and to operate more as an introduction to a character’s appearance than as a way of revealing character.

– Words About Pictures

 

Jumanji Van Allsburg

from Jumanji by Van Allsburg

from Zathura by Van Allsburg

from Zathura by Van Allsburg

 

A Child's Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman

A Child’s Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman – bird’s eye view

A Child's Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman

A Child’s Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman – over-the-shoulder view of empathetic character

The Kitchen Knight Trina Schart Hyman

The Kitchen Knight Trina Schart Hyman – drawn from the height of a child reader looking on

Burkert's Snow White - an example of a close up of a face on a front cover

Burkert’s Snow White – an example of a close up of a face on a front cover

 

Picturebook Study: Conventions From Photography

[F]or many decades after the invention of photography, blurred objects represented inferior work, for we do not actually see fast activity as a blur, and people therefore did not understand the blurs in photographs. But now we have learned from photographs to interpret blurs as objects in motion, and the conventionality of conventions is confirmed by the fact that even illustrators now sometimes imply speed by drawing a blur.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

 

Scene from Hilda Bewildered

Blurred scene from Hilda Bewildered

Hilda Bewildered is full of illustrations which borrow from photographic conventions; indeed, that’s what the story is all about — surveillance. For more information, see the close-reading notes, available as a link from within the app.

 

Picturebook Study: Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay

Rudie Nudie Cover

ABOUT THE STORY

A sister and brother have a bath together. Their mother towel dries them. Instead of getting dressed immediately, they take a few minutes to prance and leap and enjoy the way their textured environment feels against their skin. The story ends with their parents putting pyjamas on them and tucking them into bed. Everyone is exuberant from start to finish.

WONDERFULNESS

The words  have wonderful mouthfeel, and remind me of the prose of Dr Seuss at  his best. This is a kind of chant, which I can see being memorised and played out in real life by children who emerge from the bath.

There’s an argument to be made that there is not enough nudity in children’s book, or in media in general. Left to their own devices, children are interested in the body in its natural form.

Hannah's Undie People

by Hannah, age 6

There may well be a time when we look back on this period of history the same way we modern people tend to look back on the Victorian era: There’s something very strange about how we conflate nudity with sex. And surely this is the reason we don’t see more naked children in picturebooks for young children. Children in real life are naked a lot more often than they are naked in the books they read. The conflation of sexuality and nakedness is especially the case for naked little girls.

As Perry Nodelman writes:

There are few [especially] female nudes in picture books, simply because there are relatively few pictures of unclothed girls in picture books — it seems that we so associate feminine nakedness with sexual availability that artists tend to forbid its appearance in the theoretically sexless atmosphere of children’s books. Nevertheless, the rare female nudes in picture books tend to sit in bathtubs or hold towels around themselves or hide behind trees; they almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity, and they almost always smile out at viewers. For instance, Carl Larson’s “Bedtime scene,” reproduced in Wiliam Feaver’s When We Were Young, shows a young girl in nothing but black stockings, facing the viewer; she stands and looks at us without modesty but clearly not without consciousness of her full frontal nudity. Her gesture implies that she knows she is being looked at and clearly assumes that her viewers have the right to look at her, and her pout makes it clear that she enjoys being looked at.

Even rarer than female nudes in picture books are naked females. The only two I have encountered are both infants, and thus, presumably, representations of a safely asexual innocence, and both were drawn by Maurice Sendak. When Sendak depicts the Princess of MacDonald’s The Light Princess as a naked baby with exposed genitalia, her facial gesture is unlike those we associate with nudity; she is neither smiling nor pouting nor in repose with her eyes close; she looks a little drunk. Of all the naked goblin babies depicted in Outside Over There, only one reveals her genitalia and only once, and that happens when she is too busy dancing to Ida’s wonderhorn to look very enticingly available. The other naked babies in Outside Over There do often take the poses of nudes, but their doing so establishes an ironic tension both with the fact that they are dangerous goblins and the fact that they are “just babies”.

There are more naked boys than girls in picture books, probably because we unconsciously accept that boys can have their clothes off without implying their availability for our pleasure. In fact, pictures of naked boys almost all show them clearly doing something–moving, active, not posing. One of Caldecott’s illustrations for “The Farmer’s Boy” shows a naked boy cavorting on his nurse’s knee while a nude girl with the pouty mouth of many pinups sits quietly in the tub, her voluptuous back awaiting our inspection. When male frontal nudity occurs–more often than does female frontal nudity–the boys in question are too involved in intense activity to be passive pinups. The action lines at the elbows and knees of Carlos Friere’s depiction of the unabashedly naked Simon in Daniel Wood’s No Clothes make it clear that is is in motion even though he directly faces viewers.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

 

The wonderful but rare thing about Rudie Nudie is that we see two naked children (one boy and one girl) and neither of them is aware of the ‘gaze’ of the imaginary camera. They are completely unselfconscious in their nakedness. Not only that, but they take great delight in the sense of touch, rubbing their bare feet across the coir doormat, running through leaves, feeling the wind rush past as they run. This is a period of early child which is all too soon gone, but Rudie Nudie is a celebration of that carefree time.

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Rudie Nudie bath scene

The best picture book illustrators are able to show characters in motion. Too often (as described by Nodelman, above), characters are too static. It is indeed easier to draw a character who is poised for the viewer. Much more difficult to convey a sense of movement. Emma Quay notes this on her blog, and realised between creating the first drafts and the final that even the mother needed more movement:

When I look at this page from my sketch book, I can see the history of the development of my ideas for the bath illustration. I tried a few positions for the little boy, and at first Mum was a bit too static, sitting on the right hand side of the bath. I decide to move her to the left and have her leaning in to splash the children. The various diagonal lines help add more movement to the picture.

Emma Quay

Illustrators and writers have had difficulty getting naked children published in books, and there are no signs that the self-publishing era is making it any easier. (Apple, for instance, has its own restrictions on nudity in products available on its app and iBooks stores.) Even when naked bodies are published, there is the hurdle of getting past the gatekeepers of children’s literature: teachers, librarians, parents. Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen ranks high on the list of banned books.

So how does Emma Quay avoid the ‘icky’ feeling that some adults harbour about children cavorting naked in books?

1. This is an Australian publication. I’m going to hazard a guess that Australians are generally a little more open when it comes to showing vast areas of skin. It’s probably to do with the subtropical/tropical climate of the top part of this continent. A hypothetical question: Would this book have emerged out of England, or America? If it had, it probably would have taken a slightly different form. I can’t imagine English children finding delight in rushing outside naked for all but a few weeks of the British summer. On the other hand, there are parts of Australia where you wouldn’t let your children run around outside without shoes on. In the end, anything is possible in a picture book.

2. There is no depiction of genitalia. The children are drawn side-on and in motion, and their raised legs hide any genitalia. Their bottoms are in full view, but…

3. These are highly stylised drawings of children.  It wouldn’t do to make these drawings too realistic, to the point where a viewer could recognise the child model upon which the illustrations are based. these children are everyone and no one.

4. The illustration style never lets the reader forget that these are just drawings. Apart from the highly stylised line-drawings, the colour of the children extends beyond the line, reminiscent of cut-outs glued on. So the reader thinks of collage. The graphic design of the book is quite like a scrapbooking project, with blocks of pastel colour forming the background. The ‘cut-out children’ therefore seem like embellishments, like part of a decoration. Their nakedness therefore is very much secondary.

Interestingly, the hue chosen for the colour of the skin is what we typically think of when we think ‘flesh colour’. This is the colour of the ‘flesh’ labelled crayon of my 1980s box of Crayolas. In other words, it’s nobody’s colour in particular, though undoubtedly reminiscent of ‘white’.

Rudie Nudie running down the hall

I really like that there is a father who gets involved in bath time here. Although the story could have been completed without a father in sight, I get the sense that some fathers (more often from an earlier era) feel uncomfortable getting involved in the nitty-gritty personal care of their (or especially other people’s) children.

Rudie Nudie dad's involvement

STORY SPECS

Published 2011 in Australia by HarperCollins

Children’s Book Council Of Australia short-listed book

Australian book industry award winner

COMPARE WITH

Books mentioned by Nodelman, and which work as counterpoints to Rudie Nudie:

When We Were Young William Feaver

The Light Princess Cover

Scene from The Farmer's Boy

Scene from The Farmer’s Boy

no-clothes-daniel-wood-paperback-cover-art

Picturebook Study: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Hansel and Gretel Gaiman Mattotti Cover

THE STORY

One of the best ways to retell a familiar story is to add plenty of minor detail. The trick is to make this detail seem both unexpected and surprising.

There are things I really like about Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel:

1. In earlier retellings, it is Hansel who has all the bright ideas. Hansel realises what the parents/step-mother has done to them — abandoned them in the woods. By comparison, Gretel seems naiive and even stupid. In this retelling, Gaiman offsets this interpretation by making Hansel — but not Gretel — privy to an overheard midnight conversation between the  mother and the father.

2. So often in fairytale retellings, it is a step-mother rather than a birth mother who is evil. It is generally thought that a story with an evil mother is too terrible for a young reader to contemplate. If there are unwritten rules in children’s literature (and indeed, there must be few these days, if we include YA), it is that mothers must love their children unconditionally, even if they themselves are too screwed up to care for them properly. If you went looking for terrible mothers in children’s literature you’d be hard pressed to count the evil ones on one hand. But Neil Gaiman does not shy away from the reality that some women do indeed lack mothering instincts, just as many men lack fathering instincts.

3. Not only that, Neil Gaiman portrays gut-wrenching emotion in the father. Counterintuitively, this is what makes this story feminist — a story in which women are not put on a pedestal as mothers, where women have only one representation: self-sacrificing and emotional. In stories, men are often allowed to be just men, even when they have children. They are not judged so much on how effective they are as fathers. In this story, however, the father is the parent with the nurturing instinct, and is at the mercy of his wife’s terrible decisions rather than the other way around. We won’t have gender equality until we have as many bad mothers as there are bad fathers, I guess.

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