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The Two Promises Of Picturebooks

The Promises Of Books

According to Nancy Kress (author of the writing book Beginnings, Middles & Ends), every story makes two promises to the reader:

1. THE EMOTIONAL PROMISE

Read this and you’ll be

  • Entertained
  • Thrilled
  • Scared
  • Titillated
  • Saddened
  • Nostalgic
  • Uplifted
  • But always absorbed

2. THE INTELLECTUAL PROMISE

  • Read this and you’ll see the world from a different perspective
  • Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about the world
  • Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this. (This last promise can exist on its own or coexist with either of the first two.)

THE PROMISES OF PICTUREBOOKS

1. THE EMOTIONAL PROMISE

  • Almost all picture books aim to entertain. At the moment there’s a bit of a publishing boom going on with ‘single gag’ books. The best-seller lists are full of authors (almost all men, by pure coincidence??) such as Lemony Snicket, B.J. Novak, Jon Klassen, sometimes Oliver Jeffers, Mo Willems and here in Australia we have Nick Bland. 
  • Those that aim to scare will usually end on a reassuring note, unless the picture book is for older readers, or secretly for adults. See The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klaassen.
  • One of the most thrilling picture books for my daughter is one by Jez Alborough, It’s The Bear! The mother goes away to retrieve a forgotten picnic item from the car and while she’s away an enormous teddy bear turns up.
  • Some authors, such as Oliver Jeffers, often write stories with a touch of sadness, though I’d say ‘melancholy’ is a better word.
  • Titillation is off limits for young readers, though it’s well-known that in kid lit food basically equals sex. So there are a number of picture books which ‘titillate’ in respect to food. Perhaps The Biggest Sandwich Ever? I’m sure there are better examples — think of books with beautifully rendered food illustrations, in which food takes centre stage. The deluxe versions of the Faraway Tree books did this for me as a kid. The food at the top of the tree often looked delicious.
  • Are young readers too young to even experience the emotion of ‘nostalgia’? I’d say yes, although there are plenty of ‘retro’ picture books which aim to evoke nostalgia in the parent co-readers. For example, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris will evoke memories for adults who have holidayed in France. Mercer Mayer’s earlier books are set in an American 1950s era, and the setting hasn’t been vastly updated since.
  • The odd picture book for young readers manages to uplift the reader. (Though the vast majority seem to reassure rather than uplift.)

2. THE INTELLECTUAL PROMISE

Because of the young readership, ‘seeing the world from a different perspective’ is a big promise in picturebooks. But as underscored in the recent and ongoing talk of diversity, children ALSO need to see themselves and their own, familiar environs depicted in picturebooks as confirmation that they matter. In other words, they need the second promise, too.

When I think of ‘different, more interesting worlds’ I think first of science fiction, though fantasy is far more common in picture books than science fiction. In picture books we very often enter an interesting world not via some sort of portal (a wardrobe, a mirror) but simply via the young child’s imagination. We might be left to wonder how much of this fantasy is ‘real in the story’ and how much is conjured up. But often picturebooks are simply carnivalesque stories in which a child takes a hum drum situation and ‘lives it up’ for a while, Cat In The Hat style.

 

The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers (2007)

First published in 2007, The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers has a carnivalesque/tall tale plot but with the slow, reflective mood of Jeffers’ later work, for example The Heart And The Bottle.

the way back home cover

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE WAY BACK HOME

WEAKNESS IN THE WAY BACK HOME

“Once there was a boy.”

This is a generic child and he doesn’t require a psychological/moral weakness. He’s a stand-in character for the reader.

He is perhaps a little too rash. (He should have checked the plane had petrol, at least!)

DESIRE IN THE WAY BACK HOME

He wants to fly the aeroplane that he finds in his cupboard one day when putting things away.

OPPONENT IN THE WAY BACK HOME

Nature’s against him — this plane he found has run out of petrol and now he’s stuck on the moon.

suddenly-the-plane-spluttered

PLAN IN THE WAY BACK HOME

When the alien happens to turn up they make a plan together.

up-in-space

The reader only sees them gesture to each other. We don’t know how they’re going to get off the moon.

plan

A great example of sequential narrative art, in which the same characters are repeated performing sequential actions, without frames.

BATTLE IN THE WAY BACK HOME

The boy’s main battle is with himself. Back on Earth, he gets waylaid by the TV. But eventually he realises what he’s supposed to be doing. The battle is symbolised by the very high mountain he has to climb in order to hoist himself back up to the moon.

SELF-REVELATION IN THE WAY BACK HOME

After fixing the alien’s flying saucer and filling his own plane with petrol he learns that he can be self-sufficient.

But the other part of the plot is about the kindness of strangers. The boy learns that strangers in a pickle can help each other out.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN THE WAY BACK HOME

He goes back home. The alien goes the opposite direction, also back home. A lot of picture books have a circular ending, especially carnivalesque ones, in which we get the idea this kind of thing is going to happen all over again, only with a minor modification. But Oliver Jeffers doesn’t tend to do that — his work has a melancholic finality to it. It’s bittersweet that this boy will never see the alien again, and Jeffers’ depiction of the boy saying goodbye is perfect — looking at the ground and drawing into the moondust with his toe.

the way back home ending

 

Moon As Night, Sun As Day

Here’s something you won’t easily find in fictional picture books: The moon out during the daytime. In picturebooks — as well as in comics, film and movies — you’ll find that the moon signifies the night.

Even our hand held technology reinforces this binary. Various apps on my phone use a crescent moon as the symbol for ‘night mode’, even though the moon is not visible every night and even though it is sometimes visible during the day.

Why is the moon visible during the day? It’s one of those questions you think you know the answer to until a child asks you. Then you might find you need to go look it up. Here’s a YouTube video for just such an occasion.

Related Links

The Rule of Oversized Moons In Picturebooks – moons in picture books tend to be much bigger than in real life.

The Colour Of Sky — no, it’s not always blue!

from Bringing Down The Moon by Jonathan Emmett and Vanessa Cabban

from Bringing Down The Moon by Jonathan Emmett and Vanessa Cabban, in which a little mole tries to get the moon out of the sky.

The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker (1982)

The Do-something Day is one of those didactic stories in which the parental figures are too busy working to play with their precious little children. In such stories, the child usually goes out and has their own adventure, or an elderly neighbour/grandparent steps in to fill the psychological need, which is loneliness/boredom. And that’s what happens here.

The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker cover

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE DO-SOMETHING DAY

WEAKNESS/NEED

The Do-Something Day staircase

 

DESIRE

Bernie wants to make the most of the great weather outside.

OPPONENT

His family are too busy to spend time with him, absorbed in their own work and play.

PLAN

Bernie got mad. “No one needs me. I’ll run away!”

He left the house and went down the street.

The plot relies on mythic structure as Bernie leaves home and encounters a variety of people along the way. This is a very Sesame Street sort of neighbourhood — the old-fashioned view of a capitalist utopia in fact, with a friendly neighbourhood mechanic, a Mr Dimple who runs the delicatessen, Bertha who owns a bakery and so on. Each of these friendly adults with endless patience and time on their hands lets Bernie ‘help’ them with their work. Bertie collects talismans on the way (a map, a salami, a sour pickle, warm rye bread. This lends the story a distinctly fairy tale feel. Eventually he meets a horse and cart, which puts me in mind of a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk.

The Do Something Day horse and cart_700x595

The running away scene is already the start of other famous tales such as The Three Little Pigs (who are pushed out of home due to economic constraints rather than leaving of their own volition, but still).

BATTLE

The battle in The Do-something Day is entirely psychological. At each stop we hear Bernie’s sob story about how everyone is too busy for him. The gifts he receives culminate until eventually he is given a dog.

Don’t you love it how white boys in storybooks so easily acquire dogs… a pet which takes a lot of work, a lot of money and a suitable home with consenting adults? How many kids think they can bring home strays just because they’ve seen that so many times in picture books? And how many adults? (Quite a few, according to my mother, who worked for some years at the SPCA.)

SELF-REVELATION

The Do Something Day street scene_700x624

Bernie has his self-revelation when he sits down to rest.

They all needed me and wanted my help, thought Bernie with satisfaction. He looked at his things and had an idea. He got up and started walking home.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Obviously, the family have been worried about him, having undergone their own self-revelations about the importance of attending to the needs of the youngest member of the family:

His mother, father, and brother were on the porch waiting for him. Slowly he walked up the steps and said, “I ran away.”

Bernie gives the talismans to each member of the family. The map goes to the father, of course (since women can’t read maps). The food goes to the  mother (because women are in charge of the day-to-day feeding of the family).

His mother smiled. “We need help from one another, Bernie. But we really need you to love.” And she gave him a great big hug.

Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham

Mr Gumpy's Outing

Mr Gumpy’s Outing is a picture book for young readers who are still learning English — a variety of verbs are introduced in a way that will help toddlers to remember them. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill

Where's Spot cover

G.K. Chesterton pointed out that where a six-year-old is excited if someone opens a door in a story and finds a dragon on the other side, a two-year-old is excited enough if someone opens a door.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

LIFT-THE-FLAP CHARM

If you’re thinking of buying one of the Spot books for a young person in your life, make sure you pick one of the editions which actually has lift-the-flaps in it. There are more cheaply produced versions that don’t have this rather more expensive feature, and I don’t think that’s how these books were meant to be experienced. It makes me sad to think someone thought it was a good idea to produce non-flappy editions. (Likewise, stay away from the bound anthology of Beatrix Potter stories — those stories were designed to be read in miniature, and part of their charm is lost if the child can’t hold the book themselves.)

A no-flaps edition

lion under the stairs

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Spot, who is not at all like a real dog, hasn’t eaten his dinner. The mother Sally has eaten her dinner, but Spot has left his and walked off. “Naughty Spot.”

DESIRE

The sentence, “Where can he be?” elicits desire in the reader, to look for Spot.

OPPONENT

Sally goes on a mythical journey and on the way comes across all sorts of creatures: a bear with a jar of honey, a snake, a hippo, a lion, a monkey, a croc. Three birds.

PLAN

Sally looks everywhere Spot could be hiding.

BATTLE

The animals Sally encounters are all pretty fearsome, though not ordered in order of ascending scariness. However, when we get to the birds there are three of them, whereas there was only one bear.

A no-flaps edition

When the narrator says, “There’s Spot! He’s under the rug” we find out he is not, and the stakes are raised; will we ever find Spot?

We see Sally running to the basket, rather than standing at the possible hiding place. This is Sally at the climax, in crisis, fretting.

SELF-REVELATION

Spot is hiding in the basket. (The narrator tells us that’s where he is.)

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Spot eats his dinner.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses is the third Olivia book I’m taking a close look at; the first was Olivia, which I really liked; the next was Olivia and the Missing Toy which I really didn’t and now for a story which has garnered Olivia a bit of a reputation among reviewers on social media for being a great feminist read.

Olivia-the-fairy-princess

The ideology in Olivia and the Fairy Princesses is clear: Little girls don’t need to ALL dress up as pretty pink fairytale princesses if they don’t want to . They don’t even have to be pretty. And if they do want to dress up as a princess, there are plenty of options from other cultures from which to choose.

I live in the Village in New York City, and it has become radically gentrified in the last 15 years. All of these little girls walk around with their wands and their tutus. There are squads of them roving the streets. And Olivia would want none of that.

The story came out of working with my sister, who is also my assistant, and doing the marketing. We oversee as best we can the kind of toys they produce. We kept running into this problem – they all wanted to do pink, pink, pink. I had to say, “No, no, everybody’s doing pink! How many pink tutus can you sell?” Marketing people just want to stick to something safe, I guess.

— from the Publishers Weekly interview with Ian Falconer

Falconer also says he was directly influenced by this video which went viral a few years back, which shows you the power cute YouTube rants can have on pop culture!

Anyone with a passing interest in issues such as those discussed in Cinderella Ate My Daughter or Packaging Girlhood will be happy to see a message like this.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter coverPackaging Girlhood

But is this Olivia story by Ian Falconer ‘feminist’?

I count this as an example of a children’s book which unjustly basks in the glory of seeming feminist only because, after a few centuries of symbolic annihilation, the bar is set so very low. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: Stuck by Oliver Jeffers (2011)

Stuck cover

According to the Internet:

The name Floyd is a Welsh baby name. In Welsh the meaning of the name Floyd is

  • Grey.
  • One with grey hair.

In common use as both a surname and first name.

I often look up children’s book character names in case they are somehow meaningful. I don’t think this one is. Little Floyd has bright red hair. (I am sure kids with red hair are way more common in books than in real life!)

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

When Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, he tries to knock it down with increasingly larger and more outrageous things.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

it all began

Floyd is not a pro exactly with the kite. It has got stuck in a tree.

Floyd is not sensible.

Notice how the phrase “It all began…” puts us in mind of some great event from the past, something legendary and unforgettable.

DESIRE

He wants to remove the kite from the tree so he can have more fun.

OPPONENT

The tree.

PLAN

The plan stage of this book comprises the bulk of the story and is a great source of humour, because everything Floyd throws into the tree gets stuck. His ideas for retrieval get more and more ridiculous. Floyd’s behaviour is funny because he just won’t learn. The young reader learns, though, and there is great dramatic irony when we see what he’s about to do, then he does it and… SURE ENOUGH! It doesn’t work.

STUCK LADDER

bucket got stuck

the family car

lighthouse whale

and they all got stuck

BATTLE

There’s a particular kind of deus ex machina that is fine to use in humorous picture books (we also see this in Walter The Farting Dog) — a police car or a fire brigade just happens to be passing. The fact that they just happen to be passing at the exact right time is funny in its own right. In general, though, it pays not to have adults in authority stepping in to save the day, and here Jeffers subverts that by showing Floyd with the fireman in his arms as if he’s about to heave the fireman into the tree. (And by now we all know how that will turn out…) Turn the page and sure enough, Floyd has got the firemen AND the truck stuck in the tree.

SELF-REVELATION

In picture books, sometimes the self-revelation is signposted with a lightbulb above the head. (Oliver Jeffers likes lightbulbs.)

Then he had an idea, and went to find a saw.

But masterfully, even the self-revelation phase of the story is subverted by this master storyteller. The trick works — the saw indeed gets the kite down — but not in the way we expect.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

That night Floyd fell asleep exhausted. Though before he did, he could have sworn there was something he was forgetting.

Through the window, we see everything, including the firemen, are still stuck in the tree.

This picturebook is a ‘never-ending story’, because we already know that the firemen are going to go through their own, similar rigmarole trying to get themselves dislodged.

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

There doesn’t seem to be a reason why the character is named Floyd, but can there be a reason why Floyd’s hair is red, however? Or a reason why the kite is red? The kite is important to Floyd and they are linked by the colour red. When the kite gets stuck in the tree, to Floyd the situation is as dire as if he himself were stuck, irretrievably, in the tree.

I feel that Oliver Jeffers’ picture books, even more than other picture books, have been made to be shared with an adult co-reader. The big clue? Jeffers’ handwriting is pretty hard to read. In fact, my eight-year-old has trouble reading it. The ability to read individuals’ handwriting comes quite a long time after learning how to read common typefaces and their teacher’s perfect, slanting script. This book is similar to The Day The Crayons Quit, in that regard. (I like this book a lot less than I like this one.)

MOVEMENT FROM LEFT TO RIGHT

In Western picturebooks, the default movement through a story is from left to right, as the page turns. But illustrators can deliberately invert this convention, causing some sort of obstacle to the progression of story, by depicting the main character facing left, unable to move forward. We see this here, too:

Floyd Fetched Mitch

We see it again when ‘Floyd fetched a ladder,’ and on the following page as well, which is mainly blue (symbolic of Floyd’s general mood). In short, Jeffers has used this trick three time, making use of the rule of threes.

Another interesting trick Jeffers uses is to do with colour. Often in a story like this, when an action is established and supposed to continue on and on, long after it has become interesting, you’ll find a double spread in which the actions are compressed into a series of thumbnail actions.

Here, too, we have the double spread which starts with ‘a duck to knock down the bucket of paint…’ Notice Jeffers has switched to a single dominant hue for each half of the page — a greeny-yellow for the left, orange-sepia for the right. Why did he do this?

monocolor stuck

Picturebook art has been influenced by the age of photography, and this may be a recreation of a page of old-fashioned photographs you might find in an album — photos which have been taken on the day of some important event.

Or, it may simply be because the reader is not meant to linger on this page, enjoying the artwork. Jeffers knows that the child is keen to know the outcome — does Floyd get his kite back? The limited palette means these pictures don’t draw attention to themselves.

COLOUR TO SIGNIFY A TALL TALE

But that’s not the only thing Jeffers did with colour — the tree is a different colour in every picture. We understand that it’s the same tree. Why change its colour?

This is a subtle clue that the story is a tall one, not to be taken seriously. Of course the whole thing is made up. It’s one of those stories that has been told over and over many times. Maybe, in Floyd’s (Oliver’s) youth, a kite did get stuck in a tree and maybe it required several shoes before it came down. Over the years, this story gets embellished and built upon until it reaches a ridiculous level. The tree itself changes colour to suit the mood of the storyteller.

 

The main requirement of a tall tale is exaggeration: There are unbelievable creatures, huge fish, large distances, huge volumes. But hyperbole alone does not mean ‘tallness’. In a tall tale, the listener must both accept and refute. The listener has to know enough of the environment in which the tale is told to realise this can’t be true. The line between fact and fiction is hazy, and the humour derives from pushing that boundary. Which parts of this story are true, and which aren’t?

 

 STORY SPECS

Everything is about 400-500 words these days. This picturebook is no exception, coming in at 493 words.

 

 

Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

In Stick Man, an anthropomorphised stick ends up far away from his family tree when he is fetched by a dog, thrown by a child, used as a snowman’s arm, and even put on a fire, but finally, Santa Claus steps in to make sure that Stick Man and his family have a joyous Christmas.

stick man cover

Julia Donaldson is expert in several distinct areas: This is a writer with an excellent feel for and broad knowledge of folk and fairytale, myth and lore. In common in J.K. Rowling, she knows how to take bits from one well-known tale and mix it up to make an entirely new, popular creation. With elements from The Gingerbread Man, The Night Before Christmas and the structure of a classic myth, we have here a secular Christmas story, hence the snowy cover and big Christmas sales numbers.

Donaldson is also an expert rhymester (and performer). New writers are advised to avoid changing the natural order of modern English in order to squeeze lines into a rhyming scheme, but Donaldson gets away with using old-fashioned poetry techniques because she is creating a story-quilt from timeless stories. So it works.

 

stick man opening spread

Stick Man lives in the family tree/With his Stick Lady love and their stick family three.

Along with many of Donaldson’s stories, this one is a bestseller which has been turned into a play and a short film.

STORY STRUCTURE OF STICK MAN

WEAKNESS/NEED

Stickman has been separated from his family.

DESIRE

Stickman wants to go home (for Christmas).

OPPONENT

The whole world is against Stickman. Every possible use for a stick is explored as Donaldson takes our Stickman on a perilous journey: opponents are dogs, children, a dad, and anyone else who can think of something to do with a stick.

stick man at the park

PLAN — omitted

Stickman is a reactionary character, flailing about from one perilous situation to the next even worse one, until finally he is thrown onto a fireplace as kindling. Later, when Santa struggles to come down the chimney, Stickman helps out. This isn’t so much to get himself out of strife, it’s because he is a helpful stick.

poo stick

BATTLE

When the Stickman is washed out to sea we think this is the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone who wants to go home to their tree, but when he ends up on a fire, that’s even worse! That’s the masterful thing about this sequence of events; Donaldson really puts her hero through the wringer and we really do feel for the guy.

stick man is floating

The passing of time is shown succinctly with a montage of seasonal stills:

Stick Man Julia Donaldson seasons_600x810

stick man on the fire

SELF-REVELATION

The self-revelation happens for the young reader, who receives a conservative and popular message: If you are nice to people even when you, yourself, are in the most dire of circumstances, people will be nice to you in kind.

santa stickman

This picture could (almost!) be an illustration from The Night Before Christmas

stick man helps santa

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Stickman is reunited with his family and we assume they spend an enjoyable Christmas together.

 

STORY SPECS OF STICK MAN

At 731 words, this is a slightly higher word count than your average modern picturebook. (I figure if Julia Donaldson can’t persuade publishers to allow more than 500 words for the K-3 audience, no one can.)

Published 2009

32pp

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH STICK MAN

Gingerbread Man Carol Jones

The Night Before Christmas

 

Olivia And The Missing Toy by Ian Falconer (2003)

Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer shows Olivia the Pig at her most bratty, and her parents at their most indulgent.

There are several versions of the book cover of Olivia and the Missing Toy, and the dark one is the scarier of the two.

Olivia and the Missing Toy scary

The other is mostly white space, in keeping with most of the Olivia series. This book has a gothic episode in it — a definite spoof, with knowing use of the cliche “dark and stormy night”. Below, Margaret Blount explains one reason Olivia is a pig and not a little girl:

Even more suburbanised is Russell Hoban’s Frances where the child/animal substitution is so complete as to be unnoticeable. Frances the Badger is a small girl afraid of the dark, tucked up in bed but constantly annoying her parents by coming downstairs and interrupting the television. Why make her into an animal at all? The cosy delights of the Badger household — so like a human one — do remove the situation one or two degrees away from discomfort; some children are afraid of the dark, do dislike being alone.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

As for Olivia the pig, love her or hate her. Olivia is one popular children’s book character who pisses a lot of parents off, judging by reviews I have read online. While I don’t have a problem with some of the Olivia stories, this particular one annoys the hell out of me. That tends to happen when an adult reader sees a parenting style in a picture book with which we disagree. Here we have a demanding brat, an acquiescent mother and a father who is quick to say ‘I’ll buy you a new one’ after Olivia’s own carelessness with a toy.

I don’t think this is one of Falconer’s best. And it doesn’t just apply to the indulgent parents and bratty child character; the story structure is also a little odd and I don’t think it works. Why not? Let’s take a closer look.

Continue reading

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