Story Structure: The Battle

All complete narratives feature a battle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal battle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun battles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.

I often feel the battle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a female myth structure should more naturally be shorter.

WHAT IS THE BATTLE SEQUENCE?

Not everyone calls it the battle sequence. In fact, that is specifically John Truby’s term. More traditionally it’s known as the climax.

When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realization. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.

Mythcreants

I’ve also seen it called The Dark Moment.

I’ve seen it called a Black Moment:

Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.

Naomi Edits

I’ve heard it called ‘The Big Doom‘.

  • Throughout the middle of the story the main character and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal.
  • The battle is the final conflict between main character and opponent and determines which of the two characters wins the goal.
  • A battle can be violent or it can be of words. In an action thriller it will probably be violent. In a rom-com it will probably be verbal.
  • The battle is an intense and painful experience for the hero. The hero has to come close to death, even if only metaphorically.

The battle sequence looks quite different in the female myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.

THE BATTLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

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The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is another feminist picturebook from the 1980s in which a scruffy princess does not end up marrying the prince. In fact, it must be one of the earliest of its kind. It’s published in 1980 and remains one of Munsch’s most popular books.

Like others of its kind:

  • the prince is an unlikeable fellow
  • the princess does not look like a princess (beautiful and coiffed)
  • the princess is a trickster rather than compliant
  • it’s still set in a fairytale world but with modern additions here and there — this setting has a medieval backdrop such as castles and dragons with modern details such as tennis rackets and sweaters.

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The History And Influence Of Cinderella

“Cinderella” is a classic rags-to-riches tale and can be found, written straight or subverted, throughout the history of literature.

It’s worth pointing out that Cinderella wasn’t truly from ‘rags’. She was related to middle class people, so was at least middle class herself. No one wants to hear about actual starvation, rickets and whatnot at bedtime. This is a middle-class-to-aristocrat tale.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CINDERELLA

Cinderella Is From China

Although we think of Cinderella as a quintessential European fairytale, it originates from China. If you’ve ever read the novel Chinese Cinderella, this renders the title a little moot!

Chinese Cinderella
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Ma is a memoir, but uses the term ‘Cinderella’ because the English speaking audience would be familiar. The reader knows the archetype. We immediately presume her step-mother is wicked. (Of course we’re only getting one side of the story.)

The Chinese title is Ye Xian (English speakers can approximate the sound by saying ‘Ye Shen’). The plot originated in the 5th century, which makes it about 1500 years old. This is a tale from the end of the ancient world, and marks the very beginning of when stories began to be written down. (Known also as the early modern era.)

In Ye Xian Cinderella has a golden fish in a pond. She likes to go and talk to this fish, imagining it’s her dead mother. Her tears mingle with the water in the pond. She lives with a wicked stepmother who hates her, and as an act of cruelty the mother kills the beloved fish/spirit mother, cooks it and serves it up to Cinderella who is made to eat it.

An old travelling man happens by and says, “Do not fear, the bones of the fish have great power.” He tells her to take them and use them at great need. The rest of the story is as we know it today in the West. Cinderella ends up asking for help from the bones (rather than a fairy godmother). The dress she wears to the ball is golden like fish scales.

It’s no real surprise to learn that Cinderella comes from China when you consider the degree to which (small) feet have traditionally been fetishised on the Chinese continent.

The Chinese story does continue past Cinderella’s marriage to the handsome prince. Unlike European stories, Chinese fairytales have tended to continue past the happily ever after = marriage. In the Chinese Cinderella, there are problems in the marriage because the king is jealous of those magical fish bones. He ends up throwing the bones away so he can have his wife to himself. He is coercively controlling, in other words. Not a happy ending at all. (At least, not for women.)

How did Ye Xian make it to Europe?

The story of Cinderella makes its way from China across to Europe along the silk roads, together with the silks, spices and diseases.

Marco Polo was famously one of the first Europeans to penetrate China. He returned to Venice in 1290. We can see the beginnings of the earliest Cinderella stories in Europe from the early 1300s.

The tale was written down by Giambatissa Basile in Italy in the 1500s. There is now no mention of the golden slipper. The Chinese small foot fetish thing wasn’t a thing in Italy you see, so it didn’t survive. That’s not to say that footwear wasn’t associated with women’s sexuality. Basile’s heroine does wear very high heels to keep her skirts from being muddied. Basile wrote down his tales in Neapolitan, a very rare dialect. His versions weren’t translated into other languages until the 19th century.

Perhaps because Neapolitan was a rare dialect, Charles Perrault’s French version of Cinderella is more famous. No one knows how French storytellers were able to get their hands on the Neapolitan tale. There must have been someone who could both read Neapolitan and speak French, but that storyteller has been lost in history. (Perhaps because she was a woman.)

Perrault’s tongue-in-cheek attitude makes it clear that he himself was sophisticated enough to find the story of Cinderella a little silly, but many popular versions of the story simply disregard Perrault’s tone and focus on the cheerful optimism of the events themselves.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

To read Perrault’s version online, see Project Gutenberg.

In Romania there’s a version called Fairy White. The girl who is mistreated only has a cow (called Fairy White). The stepmother serves the cow to Cinderella character. So the Romanians remember — from the original Chinese tale — that the girl has to cannibalise her fairy spirit.

In Italy the story gets sexy. Oftentimes the violence and cruelty in Cinderella tales was more akin to horror comedy such as we see coming mainly out of America today, notably in TV series like Dexter and Santa Clarita Diet.

The Grimm Brothers’ version was transcribed from the oral retelling delivered by a very old, very poor woman. It was written down October 1810. Theirs is a far more vivid, dark and wicked tale than the version by Perrault — is this because the woman who told it was herself living in dire circumstances?  The Grimm title translates to “Ash Fool” (Aschenputtel). In this version the girl has golden slippers. The Grimms oral source was not the French tale but came from China, bypassing Europe altogether. This shows that there are different streams and tracks for the migration of fairytales – following the various silk roads.

The Shoes

This tale is also sometimes known as The Little Glass Slipper.

The glass slipper in the French retelling makes the story so memorable. Glass was always extremely rare, fragile and expensive. It really came from Venice, just as the story did. Venice was the hub of the world’s trade and also of storytelling. Stories came from places like Persia via Venice and disseminated elsewhere. The glass makes the girl perfect and rare.

The shoes have an element of cruelty/fetishism to them. This is especially true in the Grimm version. It’s all about how tiny the shoe is. When the prince comes and tries to put the step sisters’ feet into it the feet won’t fit. The mother tells the first step sister to chop off her toes. So she does. The doves that had helped Cinderella say ‘Too wit too woo, there’s blood in the shoe!” ruining it, for both step sisters, who have both chopped their own toes off.

Glass may have been a mistranslation of ‘fur’ from French.

Why Does The Tale Of Cinderella Survive?

This is a story of justice being served. A girl who is mistreated and has nothing — a journey towards being loved and having a happy home of her own. This is a universal longing.

Cinderella paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should if possible be totally ignorant; such as envy, jealousy, a dislike to mothers-in-law and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc., etc.

— a lady who wrote to Mrs Trimmer’s Guardian of Education in the 18th century

In the real world, underdogs don’t often win, for the simple reason that those who are powerful use their power to control things. But the magical elements in fairy tales allow events to take place that couldn’t easily happen in real life. […] the magic in fairy tales isn’t capricious. In fact, the laws of physics or logic are suspended only to get the ‘good’ characters into trouble or to help them get out of trouble, or both. Pumpkins become coaches only when underdogs like Cinderella are in enough trouble to need a suspension of reality; the magic allows her to triumph, and then it stops.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

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Aaron’s Hair by Robert Munsch

Aaron’s Hair is not Munsch’s most popular book. That would be Love You Forever, which Munsch wrote just as a family story for a long time, after two of their babies were born dead. That book has sold 20 million copies, even though the publisher only hoped for 30,000 to break even. This book hits the sweet spot between charming and smarmy.

aaron's hair cover

The most discussed of Munsch’s books among critics is undoubtedly The Paper Bag Princess, which is remarkable for a relatively early inversion of gender stereotypes in a picture book:

Robert Munsch is a word-of-mouth storyteller, and his books cannot capture his brilliance in that capacity; but they have been highly successful all the same. The Paper Bag Princess (1980), made into a picture book by Michael Mortchenko, is about a princess called Elizabeth who is going to marry Prince Ronald. Elizabeth reverses the traditional order of things by rescuing her prince from a dragon. Her reward is to be told after all her exertions that she looks a mess.

Written For Children by John Rowe Townsend

As Rowe Townsend says, Robert Munsch is first and foremost an oral storyteller, and it’s for this reason that if you look up Robert Munsch on the Internet, you’ll find him photographed only in animated moments:

author of aaron's hair

 

Robert’s Hair might be described as the picture book equivalent of a Tall Tale, a form which evolved among working men in various English speaking countries, particularly in Canada and Australia. Indeed, Robert Munsch lives in Canada as an adult, and has probably been influenced by this same tradition. You may have noticed that a lot of the most popular humorous,  performative  books have been written/illustrated by men rather than by women. There are of course exceptions to this, but I have wondered why men seem to dominate in the gross-out, slapstick, performance arena. There is no single answer for this, but the history of such storytelling is gendered male, and there’s no real wonder that male creators are dominating this particular form of picture book.

That said, tall tales have their origins in folklore, with stories such as Little Red Riding Hood originally being performed rather than read, with storytellers pouncing on their listeners as the wolf eats the grandmother, for example. And Little Red Riding Hood started out as a tale for women and girls, to tell each other as they sewed. (Hence the original ‘path of needles and pins’ wending through the forest.)

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

Marketing Copy of Aaron's Hair
Marketing Copy

WONDERFULNESS OF AARON’S HAIR

This story absolutely benefits from an animated storyteller, preferably wielding a wig.

It is not considered by critics to be one of Munsch’s finest books at all. It’s pretty far from a mentor text. You’ll be left scratching your head if you’re looking for a moral, or for a way to link it to the CCSS. This from Publishers Weekly:

PW Aaron's Hair

On the other hand, children do seem to go through a phase of personifying things (in this case hair), and this story plays into the tendency.

Children do enjoy slapstick humour. And they especially enjoy slapstick humour when the butt of the joke is someone in authority, such as a traffic officer directing traffic.

Children also find humour in misplaced objects. Put glasses on a dog and children will find it hilarious; likewise, put a boy’s hair on a baby and they’ll find that funny too.

Aaron's Hair03


NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

The best illustrators of picture books tend to draw people in motion. It’s relatively easy to draw a family sitting at a table, but expect the illustrator to depict a mother dropping her coffee, a father wiping his baby’s chin, one child mid-gulp and another jumping down from the table and it seems you’re calling on a different set of skills. Munch’s books have been illustrated by a number of different artists, and this one has been illustrated by the duo of Alan and Lea Daniel. They each bring slightly different art backgrounds:

Fine artist and Illustrator Alan Daniel creates works of art in watercolour, oil and illustration and offers instruction in a variety of mediums. His original paintings and reproductions are for sale and also available for licensing.

Writer, artist and playwright Lea Daniel writes and illustrates for children and also creates dramatic works for the stage.

Alan and Lea Daniel’s Website

I’m not sure how two artists collaborate on a project, but I’m guessing Alan did the watercolour fill. Unlike other styles of caricatures and cartoons often found in picturebooks, the Daniels have brought traditional art training to this work. I’m not sure if the coupling between realistic tones and caricature is a particularly comfortable one for critics of this style of book! There is actually something a little disarming about it.

Aaron's Hair02

There aren’t many pictures of bald children in picture books, either. Just like you don’t see hairy legs on mums, or nipples on anyone. So simply depicting a bald boy is somewhat confronting, perhaps because it is reminiscent of child cancer, without being about child cancer.


 

STORY SPECS OF AARON’S HAIR

32 pp

First published 2000 by Cartwheel


 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH AARON’S HAIR

A more recent entry into the realm of Picture Books To Be Performed is comedian celebrity B.J. Novak, whose best-selling The Book With No Pictures proves that when it comes to this genre of picture books, illustrations may indeed be beside the point. I do wonder, however, if Novak has a conscious grasp on all of his own influences, and is aware that there are many picture books apart from his own which are designed to be performed:

Novak has suggested that The Book With No Pictures “could be a whole new way to introduce the children to the idea of what a book can do”.

The Guardian

The sense of humour of children is quite different from that of adults, and changes rapidly every few years as children pass through various developmental stages. There has been talk lately about how the best-selling picture books are overwhelmingly meta now, with questions about who picture books are really for: the children or the adult co-readers who pay for them? But there’s no doubt that books such as Novak’s and Munch’s appeal to a genuine child audience, possibly alienating a lot of adult co-readers a little (though there is still joy to be had in watching your child reading a book — much like watching them open presents on Christmas morning).

Also from the review of Novak’s Book With No Pictures:

Compared to the extraordinary ingenuity and engagement of, say, Viviane Schwarz’s There Are Cats in This Book series, it’s a one-trick pony that I, as an adult, am quite happy to put out to grass. Then again, had I been surrounded by children rocking with laughter and squealing with delight as I was forced to say sillier and sillier things, my attitude might well have been different.

Though, as one commenter noted on YouTube, this book is still meta.

Meta comment

I've Seen It Done Better

An Australian children’s author who specialises in the Tall Tale is Paul Jennings. He writes short stories for emergent readers.

Tongue Tied


 WRITE YOUR OWN

“With first graders you can get them to laugh just be saying ‘underwear’. They go crazy! You can’t do that with older kids. They don’t think the same way.”

Robert Munsch

Is it really as easy as all that to get kids to laugh, or is Munsch underestimating the gift of comedy?

Where is that sweet spot of taboo, loved by kids and tolerated by parents, which Munsch describes as ‘middle of the road’? (He wouldn’t use the word ‘goddamn’ for example, though in this book he uses the word ‘hate’, in a world where a lot of parents ban the word ‘hate’.)