The Chicken Book by Garth Williams

The Chicken Book cover

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at a story so simple you’d wonder how it could include all seven steps. Yet it does, between words and pictures. Today’s picture book is The Chicken Book by Garth Williams, first published in 1946.

This makes The Chicken Book an example of literature which emerged between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, when the publishing industry very much took a back seat to other world events. Namely, Garth Williams wrote and illustrated The Chicken Book at the end of the second World War.

The ideology of this story is more typical of the pre-war period. Child characters from the first golden age were self-sufficient, free-range and healthy and robust. The chicks (child stand ins) are not like that at first, but are chided accordingly and end up self-sufficient by the end. It’s basically a celebration of Puritan work ethic. During the wars, there was no room for anyone to take it easy. It was all hands to the pump. Women were seconded to do ‘men’s jobs’ (and didn’t easily retire to the home once the war was over, either.) With mothers out working in bullet factories and whatnot, the war era child was required to pull their own weight within the family. These chicks are wartime chicks.

Garth Williams is a standout illustrator of American children’s books. He illustrated Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web, so his work is still widely seen. His father was a cartoonist and his mother was a landscape painter, so it’s no surprise he combined those interests and ended up in children’s books. He also studied architecture, and brought his drafting skills into his illustrative work. The Chicken Book is one of his first works from a prolific career, and the first as both writer and illustrator.

The less we know about the man himself, the better we can enjoy his legacy. There is a surprising number of people who’ve made outstanding work for children yet in their personal lives were hardly upstanding citizens. Obituaries contain the glowing bits, so here’s a link to that, from 1996.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHICKEN BOOK

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

There is an entire brood of main characters in this picture book, but they are all identical. They are siblings and they look the same. They behave the same. For story purposes, this book has one main character — a chicken.

The other question to ask here: What is wrong with them?

They’re a bit lazy, or haven’t yet learned to do for themselves.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

They all want food. Sure, they each want something slightly different — one even wants a piece of gravel for some reason. But basically they want something to peck and munch.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

If The Chicken Book were a longer story an outside opponent would be necessary, but this is one of those super short narratives which gets away with ‘the main character is their own biggest enemy’.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Since these chicks are by their nature passive, they have no plan. That’s the entire problem. They literally just stand there and do nothing.

When your main character has no plan, someone else in the story has to make a plan for them. (It’s the mother who makes the plan.)

BIG BATTLE

Because Garth Williams places his ‘camera’ near the ground, when the mother hen turns up she’s formidable. When she tells the chicks to go ahead and scratch it feels like a telling off — at least, that’s how it felt as child reader. The Big Battle is the mother glaring at the chicks while standing over them.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When the chicks scratch they immediately find their hearts’ desire.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

This phase is omitted from the story because we can extrapolate on our own: We know that the chicks will keep scratching and finding good things to eat.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST THE CHICKEN BOOK

After The Fall is another example of a main character whose biggest opponent is themselves, although in Dan Santat’s book, Humpty’s anxiety is almost turned into a separate entity.

England’s Enid Blyton is an example of a children’s author who was writing and publishing prolifically all through this world war period of the 20th century. Notably, Enid Blyton makes no direct reference to war, anywhere. For her, writing was an escape, and her stories provided an escape for her young readers equally. In The Chicken Book, America’s Garth Williams has created a utopian version of an American farm, in which food is plentiful if only you know how to look for it.

You might also compare the original printing with a later one from the 1970s, in which printing technologies now allowed mass printing of highly coloured double spreads. My version, printed in the 1970s, is the full-coloured version. Printing technologies have made further advances since then.

with an odd little shrug

The Chicken Book with an odd little shrug

 

 

After The Fall by Dan Santat Story Tips

After the Fall cover

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Today as case study let’s look at Dan Santat’s After The Fall, a metaphorical picture book with a very simple storyline and a strong message. Still, this isn’t a didactic (preachy) message. Why not? Because it’s metaphorical. If you have a strong message you sure can put it in your story, but you can’t tell readers directly — you have to allow them to put two and two together. (Hopefully they’ll make four.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF AFTER THE FALL

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The main character is a well-known figure from the world of nursery rhymes. Even if modern kids aren’t being read the classic nursery rhymes (due to there being so many other things to read), Humpty Dumpty will still be familiar because of things like the Shrek franchise.

WHAT DOES HUMPTY DUMPTY WANT?

After The Fall opening page

Have you ever wondered WHY Humpty Dumpty wanted to sit on that wall? I hadn’t. I just figured he liked it up there.

To convert a short nursery rhyme into a full story, Dan Santat had to think a bit deeper. He knew there had to be a reason why Humpty Dumpty was sitting up on that wall. “I loved being close to the birds.” (Read: He wants to be close to birds.)

Heavy symbolism alert: Birds and flight are used often in literature to symbolise freedom (along with other things). Here they symbolise freedom from fears and anxieties. (Read: He wants to be free, like birds.)

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Normally, the general rule is that the main character’s main opponent can’t be themselves. This doesn’t make for a great dramatic arc, mostly. This is true for longer stories.

But it works here for two reasons:

  1. Very short works like picture books can break a few rules because they don’t have the problem of a saggy, boring middle.
  2. Humpty’s anxiety is so strong that it really is a formidable opponent. (I just realised I wrote that sentence as if Anxiety is an opponent in its own right.) Dan Santat has talked widely about the very personal story behind this picture book, like at Publisher’s Weekly.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Humpty’s plan is to avoid the scary thing. That’s pretty common in main characters, especially when those characters are pretty ordinary people just like you and me. They don’t have any reason to believe they can overcome adversity, so they sit around hoping they won’t have to. We can identify with this.

But fictional characters who plan ‘to do nothing and hope it goes away’… well, that NEVER happens.

Otherwise there’s no story. Well, maybe there’s an ironic, shaggy dog kind of a gag:

Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall.

He decided not to sit on walls.

So he didn’t.

The End

(Comedic arc is different from dramatic arc. We’re talking about dramatic arc here, folks.)

Humpty’s world becomes very grey and dull. The supermarket/cereal aisle scene shows that. But Dan Santat doesn’t dwell on that period of Humpty’s life. One double spread is enough to get the message across. Notice how the cereal boxes are bright and colourful, but Humpty’s state of mind makes everything he sees (at his eye level) dull and grey. Even the titles of the cereals look rubbish down low. This totally benign cereal display reminds him of the wall. Ladders, and all that. (Notice he’s looking at the ladder and frowning.) This picture says so much.

After the Fall supermarket page

Next, Humpty catches sight of a paper plane so he decides to make those because it’s kind of like being close to birds again, even though he is anxious about getting paper cuts (and does get paper cuts). This isn’t as good as being up there with the birds, but it’s a little bit like that.

All of this is a way of saying: You might not be able to do the REALLY scary thing, but if you do something a little scary you can build on that and eventually the scary things seem less scary.

BIG BATTLE

The Big Battle for Humpty is when he tackles that wall again. It’s all in the hands — there’s a close up of the hand, reaching up to grasp onto the higher rung.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When he’s up on that wall he realises it’s awesome being with those birds again.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Humpty has overcome his fear of falling from the wall, and feels a huge weight lifted from his life.

Is he up there flying with the birds? There are three small white dots in the sky and any one of them could be Humpty flying.

I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew

solla solew

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss.

Solla Sollew is plotted using classic mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, changes a little along the way, meets a variety of friends and foes (and some who are both), ends up in a big battle and then either returns home or finds a new one. Yesterday I looked closely at The Gruffalo, which is also mythic structure but less obviously so. The day before I looked closely at The Gingerbread Man, which is pretty classic mythic structure except Gingerbread Man never meets any helpers along the way (and spoiler alert, he doesn’t live to learn anything from his journey). I figure it’s time to present a solid, classical mythic structure picture book with all of the most basic elements.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW

Continue reading “I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew”

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

the farmer and the clown

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories, even when those stories don’t have words.

(Frazee is pronounced FRAY-zee.) Continue reading “The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee”

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Alexander No Good Very Bad cover

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is an American picture book written by Judith Viorst, published 1972.

This was the first in the Alexander series, followed by:

  • Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday
  • Alexander, Who Is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move
  • Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever

Writer, journalist and psychoanalyst Judith Vorst wrote her Alexander books modelled on her own three sons, who were about that age when she wrote them. She decided to write the book about Alex because he seemed to have more than his fair share of bad days at the time. At first he wasn’t happy about this and asked if someone else could have the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, but when his mother reminded him that he’d get his name in big letters on the cover, he agreed to be the star. These days he is apparently quite happy about the whole thing.

Much more recently, Viorst has created a girl version of Alexander. Her name is Lulu.

  • Lulu and the Brontosaurus
  • Lulu Walks the Dogs
  • Lulu’s Mysterious Mission

Like Alexander, Lulu is what Viorst describes as ‘a hard like’. These are the Max’s from Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, or some of Shel Silverstein’s characters. Viorst names The Secret Garden as an influence from her own childhood. The children in that classic are also hard to like. Viorst writes these characters because she knows children take comfort in learning that others have the same bad feelings as they do.

Before writing Alexander, Viorst had worked as a children’s book editor. This partly explains how she was able to create such an iconic book that the title became part of the English language lexicon. (She says she is very proud of this fact.) Like all the best picture books, Alexander feels simple. For this reason, it’s worth breaking down.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY

Continue reading “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”

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 Signifies Night, Sun Signifies Day

Here’s something you won’t easily find in fictional picture books: The moon out during the daytime. In picture books — 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 — tell young artists, 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.