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Boys And Dream Narratives In Picturebooks

Strange as it may seem, few dream narratives involve girls, that is, the nature of the dream quest is seldom unquestionably female and not possible with a male character

[…]

Fanny and the Birds/Fanny och fåglarna (1995), by Margareta Stromstedt and Tord Nygren, depicts the character’s transformation, but unlike into the jaguar of Not Now, Barnard, this transformation is not into a huge and fierce beast, but into a little frail bird (does this reflect the authors’ idea of male aggressiveness contra female gentleness?).

– from How Picturebooks Work by Nikolajeva and Scott

 

 

now-now-barnard fanny-och-fa%cc%8aglarna-book

Toddlers, Picturebooks and Dieting

Children’s stories are full of weird food messages, but perhaps the weirdest to me is the idea that a preschool market can — and should be able to — get jokes about dieting.

song-of-the-zubble-wump-dieting_800x600

from The Song of the Zubble-wump written in Dr Seuss style by children’s TV writer Tish Rabe

The obvious answer is that these jokes aren’t really meant for kids — they’re meant for the adult co-reader.

You’ll probably only find them in relation to anthropomorphized animals. Large animals such as elephants and mammoths are most likely to be the butt of this joke. Being built that way by nature, dieting simply won’t work, and that’s the root of the humour. In one of the later Ice Age movies Manny tells Ellie (both mammoths) that her butt is big. The joke is that Ellie doesn’t realise at first that he means this as a compliment. She takes offence, as all female characters must, because being fat is the absolute worst.

And that’s the message here, right? That being big is unacceptable, even if you’re naturally so.

It doesn’t take any experience with dieting to get that. Young readers get that.

The Two Promises Of Picturebooks

i-solemnly-swear

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.

 

Picturebook Study: The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers (2007)

the-way-back-home-cover

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

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS

“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

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

OPPONENT

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

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

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

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

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_02

 

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.

Picturebook Study: The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker (1982)

The Do Something Day by Joe Lasker_700x579

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The Do Something Day staircase_700x579

This 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.

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 this story 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.

Picturebook Study: The Day Patch Stood Guard by Elizabeth Laird and Colin Reeder (1990)

The Day Patch Stood Guard

Notice anything a bit different about the cover? The usual convention is to credit the writer first and the illustrator second. Here the convention is reversed. In fact, it’s not only reversed, but depicted in such a way that the illustrations are the main story and the writing came after. I am not making any value judgment here. Instead, I’m reminded of all those times we are told who wrote the story, and then the illustrator is tacked on afterwards, perhaps with ‘illustrated by X’, to suggest that the illustrations are tacked onto the story.

In a picture book, of course, both text and pictures interact to create the story (except in wordless picture books, that is).

WHAT’S WITH THE OTTER?

This is a strange book, written by a New Zealander but once again featuring an otter.

I have since learned that there have been rumours of actual otter-like creatures spotted in the South Island of New Zealand for over 200 years. But honestly this is a big-foot sighting because you’d think scientists would’ve found the critters by now, wouldn’t you? New Zealand isn’t all that big.

As far as storytelling goes, I am a bit flummoxed about the meaning of the otter, who makes a brief and inexplicable appearance at the end.

MEN AND THEIR DOGS

This is a dog and a man story at its heart, and because there are many such stories in the world it was cheering to learn that Patch is a female dog, at least. (Usually it’s a white boy with a male dog, though boy-bitch pairings aren’t completely unheard of. Sometimes the male dog dies and is replaced by a female dog.) On the downside, this an example of the female maturity principle I have a huge problem with, and the farmer does refer to his female dog in diminutive terms, “the best little guard dog” one could hope to have; would a man have referred to a male dog in this way? Would a male dog have been quite so self-sacrificing? Self-sacrificing female characters can be traced all the way back to Beauty and the Beast and beyond, and are still very much seen in children’s stories today, held up as a model of feminine virtue.

BORDER COLLIE CHARACTERS

This is ultimately a story for lovers of Border collies, and I definitely fall into that category. Border collie characters in books tend to be even more intelligent and intuitive than real-life Border collies and Patch is no exception. She understands the command to ‘guard’, considers the tractor a live-being and also understands when the tractor is fixed. Uncharacteristically for a socialised Border collie, though, she growls at Walter the mechanic.

Let’s take a closer look at the storyworld and the structure of the plot.

STORYWORLD

I don’t know where the illustrator comes from — is this an American/British illustrator or is he from New Zealand? The truth is, it’s impossible to tell definitively from the illustrations, as this is a fairly generic ‘storybook’ farm. The names of the places on the aerial map make me think this is an English countryside. Also, the geese. Geese seem to be more populous in English farmyard storybooks.

The Day Patch Stood Guard opening

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

As in many animal + human stories for children, it’s not all that easy to separate the human character from the animal one, and in the end it’s easiest to consider them one and the same. Or more typically, the human character is the one who undergoes the character change by having the self-revelation, but the bulk of the story is told from the point of view of the animal.

Stan’s weakness: He is a bit of a loose cannon. He gets up late and has neglected his morning jobs. We’ll soon find out that his muddle-headedness makes him leave his handbrake off.

DESIRE

Stan wants to get his farming jobs done: milking, feeding pigs, collecting eggs and all those other storybook farm activities which probably have little to do with actual farming these days (and have more in common with hobby farming).

OPPONENT

The tractor is given a name: Duncan. There’s a good reason for this. Although Stan doesn’t mean to, he stupidly rolls down an incline and crashes into a tree. The personification of the tractor absolves Stan a bit.

PLAN

Stan plans to mend the bridge. He loads the tractor trailer up with planks of wood and sets off with Patch.

This plan goes awry when the tractor crashes into the tree.

BATTLE

The battle takes place overnight, when poor, loyal Patch is left to stand guard over the trailer and is locked inside the work shed.

SELF-REVELATION

But the self-revelation is had by Stan, who realises what a good little guard dog he’s got, after getting so immersed in the problem of the tractor that he forgot to tell her she didn’t need to guard the tractor overnight.

The self-revelation seems to be symbolised by the otter swimming past. Stan is reconnected to the animal world after a day of being immersed in his mechanical, human one.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The point of view then expands to include all of the farmyard animals who are ‘glad to see the little red tractor safe home again’.

Picturebook Study: Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham

Mr Gumpy's Outing cover_700x711

This is a picturebook 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.

Picturebook Study: Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Olivia-the-fairy-princess

This 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.

The ideology 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

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