Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: picturebook (page 1 of 5)

Picturebook Study: Mr Big by Ed Vere

STORY STRUCTURE

This is a tale told by a storyteller narrator, who we meet on the very first page and then soon forget. Almost all picture books have third person narrators but most often we don’t consider who that might be, so there must be a good reason for introducing Mr Big’s friend. The good reason is that the friend is very small, taking up about an eighth of the title page. Then, when we meet Mr Big on the following page, he seems adequately and ridiculously large.

The ideology of the story exists as back cover copy: A true friend comes in any shape or size!

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

“Now, Mr Big had a small problem,” we are told. “Compared to everyone else he was extremely… (page turn) big!”

The rule of threes is utilised as the first ‘act’ of the picture book takes us through various situations in which Mr Big is lonely. He is so big he scares everyone away from

  1. The park
  2. The cafe
  3. The bus

His psychological weakness is clearly explained: “No one stuck around to find out who he really was. So inside, Mr Big felt very, very small.”

DESIRE

As in many picture books, our  main character’s weakness has been clearly stated in words. In this format there’s no time to show it, hoping the reader will work it out for themselves.

The desire, on the other hand, is left up to the reader’s deduction.

Mr Big is lonely; therefore he wants __________. Any child can probably work that out.

This has me asking a question I haven’t had until now, even after all this time of breaking down the structure of picture books: Do successful picturebooks spoon feed EITHER weakness/need/problem OR desire, but not both? This is something I’ll have to take a closer look into.

OPPONENT

Mr Big’s opponent is his own body — a variation on ‘he’s his own worst enemy’. But for a story that’s never quite enough — the opposition has to be personified (anthropomorphised in this story, ‘peopled’ with animals). The opponents are all the smaller creatures who refuse to stick around to get to know who he really is.

PLAN

Mr Big gives up on friendship with ‘people’ and instead seeks solace in the company of a piano who looks all alone in a shop window. He feels a connection to it, takes it home and sits down to play, to assuage his own loneliness.

BATTLE

Instead of everyone gathering for an epic battle, everyone gathers in the square to listen to the beautiful music coming from Mr Big’s window, sort of reminiscent of Rapunzel. Remember how the prince hears Rapunzel singing as he rides by and makes it his mission to discover who it is? I’m also reminded of the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday in which a piano player has the ability to enchant the people around him, changing their lives.

The ‘battle’ sequence in this kind of story is perhaps better called the ‘Culmination’. The piano playing ends with him getting invited into a local jazz band.

The ultimate success of a piano player is to be seen on the stage, and so we see him playing to a crowd, who now think he’s marvellous.

SELF-REVELATION

But the stage scene is also the self-revelation.

At last everyone could see the real Mr Big!

Just like a film such as Le Week-end, self-revelations/end-of-battles often occur in front of an audience. This is a staple from traditional mythic structure. The 3000-year-old version of ‘Photo or it didn’t happen.’

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Wisely, the author replaces the problem of loneliness with the problem of celebrity:

Mr Big has a new problem. He doesn’t get much time to be alone… and that’s just the way he likes it!

 

Picturebook Study: The Amazing Bone by William Steig

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.

STORY STRUCTURE

Continue reading

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr Seuss

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was Ted Geisel’s first book. Well, he’d written an abecedary but failed to interest publishers in it. It took a while to find a publisher for this one, too, but compared to what author/illustrators are up against today, I’m guessing 20 rejections is actually pretty good.

mulberry street cover

Dr Seuss may never have moved into picture book world if Geisel had not ran into an old college classmate, who had just become juvenile editor at Vanguard Press. When I hear stories like this I wonder how many other wonderful writers and illustrators never see widespread success due to plain old lack of luck, and I feel the self-publishing movement is therefore a great thing.

RHYTHM AND PICTURES IN “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”

Legend has it that Geisel came up with this story on a ship. To ward off sea sickness he concocted a story. The rhythm is inspired by the ship’s engine. Of course, Geisel continued to write his picture books in that signature rhythm — a rhythm many writers have subsequently tried to pull off — perhaps more young rhymsters should take a cruise on a clunky old-timey steam ship??

(Why did we not see a movement of poetry inspired by a dial-up modem in the late 90s? Haha.)

Perry Nodelman has this to say about the rhythm and ‘curious reversal’ of Mulberry Street:

The regular rhythms […] have the strong beats and obvious patterns we usually expect of pictures in sequence; and as usual in a Dr. Seuss book, the action-filled cartooning does much to break up the regular rhythms inevitable in a pictorial sequence. But as the boy, Marco, adds details to his complex story of what he saw on Mulberry Street, the pictures become more and more complex, more and more filled with detail — but always in terms of the same basic compositional patterns: the elephant is always in the same place on each spread, and so on. So the pictures both build in intensity and maintain their narrative connection with each other, as the words in a story usually do; in each picture we look for new information to add to old, rather than having to start from scratch about what we are seeing each time, as usually happens in picture books. At the same time, the segments of text get shorter and tend to be interrupted by more periods. The result is a curious reversal, in which the text adds the strong regular beat and the pictures provide a surprisingly inter-connected narrative intensity. Indeed, many fine picture books create the rich tensions of successful narrative in pictures that strain toward the narrative qualities of text and in texts that strain toward the narrative qualities of pictures: they have repetitive rhythmic texts, and pictures with accelerating intensity.

Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman

The details in this story plant it firmly in the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature.

Modern stories of the imagination don’t tend to include Rajahs riding elephants and ‘Chinamen’.

seuss-mulberry-street-image

STORY STRUCTURE OF “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”

A boy imagines a series of incredible sights on his way home from school so that he will have an interesting report to give his father.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Marco is fanciful. He’ll lie about something in order to make his life more interesting. Some may see this as a weakness; the weaknesses of picturebook characters often have very benign psychological weaknesses — a big imagination is more properly considered a strength.

DESIRE

He wants to impress his father.

Throughout his work, Geisel seemed more at home writing about the typically male experience and it’s true here, too, with an understanding of how sons naturally want to impress their dads.

This book, of the Tall Tale type, is an historically masculine form.

OPPONENT

The father is a kind of opponent in that he has no time for Marco’s fanciful stories.

PLAN

He plans to make up a story that’s far more interesting than reality.

BATTLE

In a cumulative, imaginative, carnivalesque story such as this, there may not be any big battle between the child and the other characters. Instead, the ‘battle scene’ will be ‘the moment of extreme chaos’.

This is the illustration with everything in it.

 

SELF-REVELATION

In a chaotic, carnivalesque plot, ideally there will be a ‘breather’. Here, the self-revelation comes with the image of the crossroad.

mulberry-and-bliss

Note all the white space — the picturebook equivalent of a musical sequence with no dialogue in film.

Humans have been fascinated by crossroads since crossroads existed. In each case there is a spiritual significance. Something about crossroads has made earlier cultures superstitious:

  • Ghosts/apparitions appear at crossroads
  • Crossroads mark hallowed ground
  • Witches secretly meet at crossroads to conduct their nasty witchy stuff
  • Zeus hung out at crossroads
  • etc

None of this is going on here, exactly. In modern stories (like this) crossroads have lost their spiritual meaning but remain a psychological metaphor. Marco must make a decision very soon: Will he lie to his father or tell him the truth? In other words, crossroads in modern stories mean choice.

The self-revelation is that Marco has the power to make his own choice.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

In order to keep his father happy, the boy makes the decision to keep these fanciful imaginings to himself. He tells his father what he really saw.

Extrapolating somewhat, this boy seems embarrassed about his imagination running away on him, so I expect he’ll hit adolescence soon and leave his imagination behind.

STORY SPECS OF “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”

811 words

Between 30 and 40 pages long, depending on the edition

It’s interesting to see that the front cover has been published in varying shades of blue:

And_to_Think_That_I_Saw_It_on_Mulberry_Streetbook_andtothinkisawitonmulberrystreetand-to-think

And then it came out in yellow, and the recognisable red and white spine, along with the rest of the Dr Seuss collection:

and-to-think-that-i-saw-it-on-mulberry-street

 

The Dr Seuss collection is available as a series of apps on the App Store. These are sold as early literacy apps, with the interactivity limited mainly to words popping out above the objects shown in the illustrations.

Mulberry App Icon

COMPARE “AND TO THINK I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET” WITH

Marco appears again, ten years later, in McElligot’s Pool.

 

Picturebook Study: Thidwick The Big-Hearted Moose by Dr Seuss

thidwick-the-big-hearted-moose-hardcover-by-dr-seuss-new-c52f9839b63bf79da60e649110ab690c

Theo Geisel had a thing about antlers.

In the mid-nineteen thirties, Theodor Geisel was a fledgling author and artist, operating as an illustrator for New York advertisement agencies. His father, superintendent of parks in Springfield, Mass., from time to time sent him antlers, expenditures and horns from deceased zoo animals. Geisel stored them in a box below his bed and used them to generate whimsical sculptures. Above, a replica of Flaming Herring.

Union Beatz

“Extra moose moss” for Helen, the dedication page reads, because Theodor and Helen were still married in 1948 when this was published.

I always like (dislike) to remember that Helen Palmer Geisel ended her own life in 1967 after some serious illnesses and also because her marriage with Ted (Dr Seuss) was falling apart. He had moved on to another woman.

I also like to remember the fact that Helen was a great first editor for Seuss, and encouraged him in his art.

STORY STRUCTURE

As is common in many picturebooks, the author starts in the iterative, telling us how life is. Then one day… (switches to the singular).

thidwick-iterative-singular

These moose are more personified than the moose in, say, This Moose Belongs To Me, which is about a very human boy and a very moose-like moose.

The story structure is partly of the There Was An Old Lady type, in which a small thing happens then the situation gets worse and worse. These are known as ‘cumulative tales’. This tale isn’t as repetitive as There Was An Old Lady, which is actually a song.

cumulative-tales

from A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka

WEAKNESS/NEED

Thidwick the bull moose is a pushover, which is antithetical to our idea of a bull moose — huge, dangerous creatures who fight each other for their place in the moose hierarchy.

thidwickthebigheartedmoose_ipad2_screen1large-642x481

Even the name Thidwick sounds like the name of a loser — perhaps because characters with low social capital are quite often depicted with a lisp in pop culture. Actors with lisps will never be the leading man, though as Sean Connery proved, other kinds of speech differences can work to your advantage.

princessbride-actor-lisp

He needs to figure out a way to deal with others taking advantage of him.

DESIRE

He wants to go on doing moose things, which means leaving with the other moose when the moose moss runs out. The part of the story where the moose friends dump him is important to the desire line of the story.

thidwickguests-540x405

OPPONENT

All the little creatures who decide to move in and make his antlers their home.

Another more deadly form of opponents appear with the start of hunting season, and the men with their guns.

PLAN

Finally, looking down the barrel of a shotgun, Thidwick makes a plan.

He’ll ditch his antlers.

If you’d like to see footage of a bull moose losing an antler, see here.

BATTLE

Although the animals in his antlers are annoying and not good for his social life, they are too comical to make a worthy opponent in and of themselves. It was a great choice to bring in the human hunters. In this picturebook we get a classic battle scene (with guns).

SELF-REVELATION

I’m not sure Thidwick really learned anything. If he had it wouldn’t have been pretty: “Your friends are quick to ditch you.”

In picture books the self-revelation is often had on the part of the young reader, who realises what the moral is. Here we are invited to judge Thidwick for being a pushover. Perhaps the young reader takes the side of the friends, who walk off when Thidwick puts up with an infestation on his antlers.

The lesson is that there are limits to your kindness. This makes a nice change from all the picturebooks out there teaching children to be kind.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Reminiscent of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, this moose is now happy eating the moose equivalent of grass with his own kind.

seuss-and-his-antlers

Picturebook Study: The Three Billy Goats Gruff

Can you guess which country this “eat-me-when-I’m-fatter” produced this fairytale? I’ll drop some clues:

  • Goats have historically been very important to this country, for their meat, milk and cheese.
  • It’s not a fertile country, which is always better for goats than for cattle and sheep.
  • It’s a land of mountains.

goat-in-norway-1800s

Yes, it’s Norway.

  • From ca. 1700 until 1850 the human population as well as the number of goats and sheep of this country  almost tripled.
  • The increased pressure on the natural resources worsened the living conditions for people and animals alike.
  • A characteristic feature of this period was the herding of single flocks by children. During the daylight hours, this was a precaution against predators as well as a way of keeping the animals off the areas meant for the harvesting of winter fodder. At night, the small flocks were in some places gathered in mobile corrals guarded by adults with dogs.
  • The Three Billy Goats Gruff was first published between 1841 and 1844, when goats were important to survival. The idea of a creature taking the life of a goat was not so far removed from taking the life of a child (due to the resultant starvation).

 

My childhood version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff was unfortunately — I see now — not a good one. It’s the small format Little Golden Book published in 1982, retold by Ellen Rudin. (The 1980s were chocka block full of retold fairytales.)

three-billy-goats-gruff-first-little-golden-book

Rudin has a good sense of rhythm, and has retained all the things that are fun about this story as a read-aloud, but I feel the point of it is lost.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

This is not clear from the text of the Little Golden Book version, but the goats need to get to the other side of the bridge because there is nothing to eat on their current side. Perhaps if I’d looked at the pictures more carefully as a child I’d have noticed all the rocks on the left, contrasting with the healthy green growth on the right. But I just assumed the goats happened to be standing on a pile of rocks and that the greenish hue of the background was perfectly good grass.

The stakes were much higher than that.

Here is a page from a completely different version, illustrated by Paul Galdeone. “There was very little grass in the valley” offers a clear need in the text (as well as in the illustration.)

Notice these goats looking left. In the vast majority of Western picturebooks the main characters look right, encouraging the reader to look forward to what’s overleaf.

paul-galdeone-billy-goats-gruff

DESIRE

These goats have to cross the bridge. They’re not doing it for the adrenaline rush.

They desire food.

OPPONENT

The troll under the bridge.

Trolls featured prominently in Norwegian myth and legend. They were originally believed to be actual supernatural beings who lived in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves. They lived together in small family units, and were rarely helpful to human beings. Later they became more concretized. They became more evil and although they were often ugly, it was also thought that trolls would walk among us, undetected. Like vampires, they have trouble with sunlight. I suppose this is why the troll in this fairytale lives under a bridge.

Roald Dahl was influenced by such mythology. You’ll find aspects of trolls in some of his stories (along with witches, of course). The Trunchbull of Matilda feels a bit troll-like in her one-sided badness and ugliness. So do The Twits.

PLAN

One day the littlest Billy Goat Gruff said, “I cannot wait any longer. I am going t cross the bridge and eat the sweet, green grass.”

“We will come, too,” said his brothers. “We will be right behind you.”

This is the most problematic part of the retelling, because it always seemed to me that each goat genuinely attempted to sacrifice the older one in order to save himself. I feel the ‘plan’ should be made clearer here. These brothers are working together strategically rather than looking after self-interests.

BATTLE

“Then I am coming up to eat you!” the troll shouted. And he climbed onto the bridge.

Big Billy Goat Gruff was not afraid.

“I would like to see you try!” he said.

He rushed at the troll and butted him with his horns. The troll fell off the bridge and disappeared, leaving no trace.

Since trolls can’t be exposed to light, the simple act of coaxing the troll out from under the shade of the bridge may have been all that was needed!

SELF-REVELATION

For me this story failed, because I had no revelation. I was supposed to realise at the end that these goats had worked together. Instead I wondered why the older goats didn’t spend the rest of their lives holding grudges against the younger ones.

I was supposed to learn that working together can defeat evil.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

After that the three Billy Goats Gruff crossed the bridge whenever they liked and ate their fill of sweet, green grass.

And the horrible, mean troll never bothered them again.

Related

THE THREE FISHING BROTHERS GRUFF BY BEN GALBRAITH

Ben Galbraith is a Kiwi illustrator who says on his blog that he’s ‘quite colour blind’, which kind of backs up my theory that colour selection is far more scientific than successful artists like to make us think, and that it can be learned. (There are also tools to help artists out like Adobe Kuler and that picker thing you get in Illustrator etc.)

The art in this book is an appealing mixture of textures and collage. Sometimes this art style can look too digital, but it’s done well here. I like the humour of a boat called ‘the cod’s wallop’. If I had a boat I might call it that. The author is a keen fisherman, and this comes through in the story. The New Zealand way of speaking and its sea setting also comes through quite strong, and the issues about over-fishing aren’t specific to New Zealand, but remind me of the problems I see on any episode of Coast Watch. It was an inspired choice to set the story in ‘Bay of Plenty‘ and in ‘Poverty Bay‘, which are not only allegorical names but are actually real places.

The Useless Donkeys by Lydia Pender and Judith Cowell (1979)

the-useless-donkeys-cover_800x853

At first I thought this was going to be a more realistic, earlier version of Walter The Farting Dog in which an adult threatens to get rid of a family pet, but over the course of the story the pet(s) prove their true worth and end up staying with the children.

I was a little off in my prediction. Instead, these donkeys are donkeys in the realistic sense. There’s nothing anthropomorphised about them at all. So they just wander around being donkeys, without ever proving their worth. Instead, the oldest daughter in this story happens upon what’s nowadays known as ‘The Benjamin Franklin Effect‘, in which the more you do for someone the better you like them.

The front matter tells us the illustrator, Judith Cowell, is a perfectionist and spent two years working studiously on the watercolours of this book. As you’d expect, they’re worthy of framing.

useless-donkeys-rain-house_800x800

Perhaps this is why Cowell seems to have produced only two books in her lifetime. I suspect you can find more of her artwork here.

STORY WORLD

useless-donkeys-page-one_800x812

This storybook world is something between English and Australian. I couldn’t decide whether the author was Australian or English, in fact, so wasn’t surprised to look her up and find she was English born but spent most of her life in Australia.

Lydia Pender was the daughter of George Herbert and Ethel Podger. She came to Australia with her parents and four brothers in 1920. They lived in Sydney and she went to St. Albans Church of England School, Hunters Hill, completing the Leaving Certificate. Pender won a scholarship to do a bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney but did not complete it.

There is something quite English about the diction, and the way the full names of the children are used. Then there’s that heavy rain, of course, which is often absent from Australian picturebooks set on farms. (See for example Two Summers.)

This is a cosy homestead, a small farm with a big, bustling family. The house provides safety, and the children are healthily excited about the rising river.

stormy-night-inside

We have a newspaper reading father and a mother dressed as a 1940s housewife, tending to the family.

useless-donkeys-cosy-house

DONKEYS

Donkeys are one of the main animals in Aesop’s fables. (They’re often referred to as an ‘ass’, which has fallen out of favour for some weird reason.)

Asses, no surprise, are often depicted as hapless victim types, with no brains. They fall into traps easily, and they are drawn towards fun with no thought to consequences.

Donkeys in real life have been important to us since the age of agriculture, but only if they can be put to work. Unlike horses and ponies, donkeys in children’s literature are primarily for working rather than for companionship. Donkeys don’t save the day very often. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the donkeys in this story are actual donkeys, not people in the form of donkeys.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

A pair of donkeys are useless and a bit annoying.

useless-donkeys-at-the-window

DESIRE

The mother and children want to keep the donkeys.

OPPONENT

father-with-donkeys_800x800

The father. This guy is a farmer type who values animals only for their utility.

PLAN

The two eldest children row to the ‘island’ and spend the night keeping the donkeys company.

BATTLE

useless-donkeys-rainy-night_800x800

The storm sequence.

A storm can symbolize the turmoil in the character’s psyche.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva

The reason for that watery watercolour technique, with those large splashes to add texture, becomes clear when it starts raining in the story and the river rises.

SELF-REVELATION

The more you do for somebody, the more you like them. It applies to babies and it applies to animals.

useless-donkeys-last-page

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The donkeys will be allowed to stay. We know this because the father gave the final say to the more sympathetic mother.

This part of the story is implied rather than shown.

 

Picturebook Study: Leaf by Stephen Michael King

leaf-stephen-michael-king-cover

This is a book comprising pictures and onomatopoeia. No narrative text.

How does one write flap copy for a (largely) wordless picture book? The publishers of leaf have obviously done a test read with a young reader called Amelia and they quoted her response for the flap.

This story reminds me of the advertisement for Tooheys Extra Dry — both are surreal and involve a dream sequence with real-life influence, and both are about what happens after planting hair.

But to linger for a moment on the word ‘surreal’:

Surrealism is used wrongly in everyday speech  to mean “I don’t get it, I don’t understand”. But in an academic sense it means almost the opposite: It’s an abbreviation of ‘super-real’, in which we do understand a surrealist work of art by going past the surface and looking at the essence behind. The idea you dig for is more important than any conveyed by the first impression. Surrealist art makes the viewer work before understanding the meaning.

When it comes to children’s picture books, a boy with a leaf growing out of his head is surrealism. That’s not what you’d expect. Humour is rampant in surrealist picturebooks and kids’ films, in which the audience may be a part of the joke or even the butt of the joke.

 

CHARACTER

The first thing you may notice about the boy is that his shirt is green and his trousers are brown. Obviously, the boy = the tree.

As for the mother, this is a caring but unsympathetic character — the opponent in this scenario. She, too, is tall and thin. (For genetic reasons, it makes sense, since the boy grows tall and thin himself.) A thin, angular mother in picturebooks is ‘not warm’.

Notice her coffee. The author/illustrator makes sure we notice it in fact; she holds it out against a purple background; she holds it out against the white space; she next seems to point to it, although in the story world she is simply reaching for the shears. The steam curling up from the coffee cup is the inspiration for the boy’s leap into imagination.

 

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

A boy does not like having his hair cut.

DESIRE

He wants to run in the wild with his dog with his long, untidy hair, au naturel.

OPPONENT

The mother figure, who wants his hair to be cut.

mother-figure-and-boy

PLAN

He runs away from his scissors-wielding mother. He takes his dog for companionship and adventure.

leaf-boy-and-dog

BATTLE

Like many picturebooks, the ‘battle’ scene take up the middle third-or-so of the book. A bird drops a seed onto the boy’s head and a leaf grows. This marks the beginning of a carnivalesque imaginative sequence in which they get blown in the wind, the leaf almost dies from the heat of the sun, the dog gets saturated by the water from a watering can used to perk up the leaf, followed by the crescendo, which is a literal dream (at home in bed). In this dream the mother has been replaced by a man with huge gardening shears who wants to cut the leaf off the boy’s head.

The ultimate battle scene is when the mother greets him with the scissors the next morning and gives him a buzz cut.

SELF-REVELATION

The boy’s self-revelation is connected to his revelation that the leaf is not dead. He can still save it. He plants the cut-off hair along with the leaf. Amazingly, it grows into a tree.

The self-revelation may be that he will continue to grow, and will soon be out of the grip of his mother’s enforced buzz cuts.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

A few flashforwards and we see he is now tall and thin, just like the tall tree the seedling has become. He has his own family and has grown his hair out long, just how he likes it.

As for the dog, a bird drops a seed onto the dog’s head. We presume the same story will happen to the dog.

 

See a Goodreads list of picturebooks about trees.

Picturebook Study: More! by Peter Schossow

more-cover

This picturebook is wordless in the same way Robert Redford’s All Is Lost is wordless: Both contain one spoken word, imbued with huge weight accordingly.

Gecko Press brought this book from German to English in 2010, and have also translated another of Schossow’s works: My First Car Was Red.

Even a ‘wordless’ picturebook follows the typical story arc.

 

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

A man is small and helpless compared to the forces of nature.

DESIRE

The man would like to enjoy a walk along the shore.

OPPONENT

The wind, who blows off his hat.

PLAN

He will chase the hat.

BATTLE

The battle takes place over a number of double spreads, and we see the man thrown higher and higher into the air, until he is level with an aeroplane.

SELF-REVELATION

He likes it!

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

He will let himself get swept up in the wind again.

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Ask a child the colour of sky and they’ll tell you ‘blue’. They get this from picturebooks, perhaps. In reality, the sky is many colours. But in this picturebook we have a distinctly green hue. Why? What was behind this choice?

Well, the thing about green is, it feels otherworldly. Green is associated with the subconscious; it’s thought we see green just before passing out (though I haven’t given this a go). The other thing is, a green sky means the sky is part of the land. There is no real distinction between land and sky. Did this story really happen, or is it entirely in the man’s imagination?

Notice the sun, also — this is not a distinctly delineated circle but rather a roundish glow, suggestive of some sort of magical haze. Yet at the end of the book we have a crescent moon. Over the course of a day the sky changes from bright to dark, but in this story the sky remains the same otherworldly hue of green. It’s only once you notice the moon that you realise the man has been flying in the wind all day. This is not the first time he’s asked to go again!

Though this is not a Christmas book, the colour palette is made up of green, white and the red of the man’s trousers and scarf. Red and green are complementary colours, so shouldn’t be commandeered by Christmas, sure.

This limited palette means the man is the same colour as the bits of rubbish blowing in the breeze.

This character has a very big nose. In fact, the nose is the first thing we see of him. I thought it was a chin. Then I realised the nose matches the shape of the shoes; these are big clodhoppers of shoes which should plant the man firmly upon the ground.

I’m left with one question though: What happened to his dog? Normally if the story starts with a dog it reappears on the final page. Did the dog get sick of him and go home alone? I believe the dog is an example of a picturebook McGuffin. The dog is the reason the man sets off on a walk in the first place, but after the inciting incident, the audience (generally) doesn’t think about the dog again. And it does work. For me, the dog’s fate was a refrigerator moment.

 

Picturebook Study: The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan (1998)

the-rabbits-cover

Shaun Tan writes about his work on his own blog. I highly recommend taking a look at Tan’s entry on The Rabbits if you haven’t already.

I can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said about this book elsewhere. Except, perhaps, for a closer look at the story structure. John Marsden has done a couple of interesting things with the traditional story structure, especially in the final two steps.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The native creatures are not very numerous. They are vulnerable to invasion.

DESIRE

At first they want to get to know the rabbits. There aren’t many rabbits. But after a while too many rabbits come.

OPPONENT

Now the rabbits become the opponents.

PLAN

Unfortunately for the native creatures, there is no real plan other than to try and protect themselves.

BATTLE

“Sometimes we had fights … We lost the fights.”

The main battle page is the double spread in which the children are stolen. The reader has already realised that this tale is an allegory for the white invasion of Australia and the decimation of Aboriginal peoples. The stolen children remains one of the most egregious politically sanctioned crimes in Australia today, so this part is treated very carefully: Each word is separated within the illustration, giving it due weight.

and-stole-our-children

SELF-REVELATION

Instead of a typical self-revelation, we have a few double spreads of reflection:

Where is the rich, dark earth,

Brown and moist?

and so on.

 

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Unusually for a story, this one ends with a question. “Who will save us from the rabbits?” Despite the question, the new equilibrium is clear: The native creatures are in trouble.

Picturebook Study: Jack and the Baked Beanstalk by Colin Stimpson (2012)

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk

As you can see from the cover art, this picturebook has been illustrated by someone with a lot of experience in digital art — as a coffeetable book of illustrations this stands alone as an exhibition of beautiful colour, wonderfully composed perspective drawings and interesting character design.

See here for notes on ‘the’ original tale.

The original is, at its heart, a male coming-of-age tale, in a milieu where boys must learn to be the income earners for the females in their family. You’ve probably also heard theories about what the beanstalk symbolises. I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM

As a story for older readers, this modern retelling would be good for discussing ideas such as industrialisation and its impact on small vendors, the problems with large fast food companies and a capitalist economy.

Normally in stories like these, the ‘giant’ stands for ‘the corporation’. Is that what the giant stands for here? If so, would the world really run better if these corporations suddenly quashed the structures they’ve worked to build?

The ideology of the original tale is a bit dodgy actually, when you think about it: Modern picturebook writers don’t get away with glamorising thieves. Just take a look at the one-star reviews of This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, which is a great story, but rubs some gatekeepers of kidlit completely up the wrong way. I would add, in the case of the modern Klassen story, the thief is duly punished. (He — or she? — gets eaten.) Not so in the original Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack is richly rewarded for his thievery and daring.

In Stimpson’s modern retelling, however, the setting is different and so must be the ideology. What do you think of when you think ‘capitalism’? Those in favour of capitalism probably conjure up a (traditionally) picturebook township, with a milk bar, a greengrocer, a picture theater and butcher on each side of main street. The butcher who sells better sausages ends up making more money and eventually puts the inferior butcher out of business. Consumers win.

We’ve seen over the past centure or so that, actually, capitalism has a much darker side than that; in a capitalist society the rich can become super wealthy simply by having money in the first place, while the poor become increasingly destitute and are unable to work their way out of the pit.

What about the ideology in this book? This is no idealistic view of capitalism; it is a critique. The ‘little guy’ can easily get screwed over due to the machinations and schemings of people with far more money. This ‘flyover’ symbolises the way in which the super wealthy build their empires without a second thought to the little people, passing them over, so to speak. And in any narrative, the little people are the ‘underdogs‘.  We love stories starring underdogs.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Stimpson’s wonderful illustrations emphasise the similarity between the beanstalk and the flyover. Both are very high, thick structures wending and twisting high into the sky. There are other hints of beanstalk, too, foreshadowing what’s to come. Take a closer look at this wooden pole below, with the electrical cabling wound around it; this city hasn’t completely given itself over to industrialism — vestiges of the more wholesome natural world remain.

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk treasure

The illustrations in this story are wonderfully atmospheric. I love that there seems to be light coming off the magical can.

Continue reading

Older posts

© 2017 Slap Happy Larry

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑