Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

Light vs. Darkness

Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.

Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is about a young boy’s fear of the symbolic house at night.

the dark jon klassen

In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against pinks  (warm and light), and the flame from a fireplace casts a frame within a frame as our villain creeps towards the door. Continue reading “Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories”

What Is Surrealism?

The word ‘surrealism’ has a different use in everyday English from its meaning in critical discourse.

Surrealism in everyday English: I don’t understand it. Weird somehow. Creepy. Like a dream. Disparate things are together and don’t make sense.

Surrealism in critical discourse: Over and above. Literally, super-real (from French).

‘Surreal’ is a modern word and does indeed mean, correctly, what everyone thinks it means.

surrealism

The word ‘surrealism’ , however, existed before ‘surreal’, which is a back formation because an adjectival form comes in handy. ‘Surreal’ has been around since the 1930s and took off in the 1950s.

In other words, ‘super-real’ art tells us the ‘super-truth’. It’s all connected to Freudian ideas about dreams meaning something.

This explains David Lynch's storytelling philosophy
This explains David Lynch’s storytelling philosophy

Surrealist Picturebooks

The work of Anthony Browne and other postmodern artists are said to be surrealist.

Shaun Tan has this to say about the word as applied to his work:

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term ‘surrealism’, despite often using it as a shorthand to ­introduce my own books. I don’t have a strong interest in dreams per se, or the irrational, the way the capital-S Surrealists championed so brilliantly. I’m more interested in some kind of equivalent to reality, in itself quite rational and meaningful but just different to what we might be expecting. Perhaps post-colonial societies have a special feeling for weirdness that is not actually surrealism but to do with something far more conscious, just unresolved or hard to reconcile — a problem of reality.”

Considering The Rabbits, for example, Tan suggests that the psychological upheaval of the ­collision between European visitors and Aboriginal landowners is almost impossible to represent accurately. “I certainly have no capacity to do so myself, but at least I can indicate something of the impossibility of the task through some strange drawings.

The Financial Times

The author also says that the term ‘magical realism’ is more fitting when describing Tan’s work, even though it’s a word more often used to describe writing.

Surrealist Humour

This is another word for absurdist humour. Features of surrealist humour:

  • The juxtaposition of unlikely things
  • Non-sequiturs (means ‘does not follow’ in Latin). The converse of a non-sequitur is a cliche, because a non sequitur is something the audience hasn’t seen before.
  • Irrational situations
  • Just when we think we can make sense of something the story shatters our logic, showing us that logic is useless

Spike Milligan is an example of a surrealist comedian:

George Orwell’s assertion that “whatever is funny is subversive” was never truer than in the case of Spike Milligan. He did not invent surrealistic radio comedy – nor did he ever claim to – but he opened up the medium with his uncluttered anarchic vision, and his influence since the early 1950s has been vast.

Film School Rejects

This is why Roald Dahl wanted Spike Milligan to play Wonka in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory:

[Dahl’s] “ideal casting was Spike Milligan,” a surrealist actor. Dahl’s dismissal of his novels’ filmic adaptations are justified — he did write the source material, after all. Yet, with major studios like Paramount Pictures backing and distributing films with a young girl blowing up like a blueberry and evil witches turning children into rats, the Dahl films are already notably more surreal than their Home Alone-esque counterparts.

Film School Rejects

Alice In Wonderland is also an example of surrealist/absurd humour.

Eric by Shaun Tan Picture Book

Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.

shaun-tan-eric-cover

NOTES ON THE COVER OF ERIC

Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further.
A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:
judy-moody
Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks:
that-pesky-rat-lauren-child
For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s usually because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.

THE MINIATURE

Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.

Why is the exchange student in this story small? As explained by John Truby in Anatomy of Story:

Whenever a character shrinks, he regresses to a small child. Negatively, he experiences a sudden loss of power and may even be terrified by his now massive and domineering surroundings. Positively, the character and the audience have the amazing feeling of seeing the world anew. “The man with the magnifying glass is … youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of the child … . Thus the minuscule, the narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”

Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?

Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is just a symbol.

Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.

Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:

The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them,and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.

Unlikely Normal

Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:

  1. The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
  2. It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
  3. The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
  4. The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
  5. The creature in this story is interested in small things whereas the boy in The Lost Thing is the one who is the noticer. (Noticing this creature is a noticer is itself a form of noticing…)
  6. Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
  7. The narrator is left wondering what it all means.

ERIC AS A POSTMODERN PICTUREBOOK

What is a postmodern picturebook?

Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picturebook. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural differenceGrigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.

Unlikely Normal

STORY STRUCTURE OF ERIC

The main character is the storyteller narrator.

WEAKNESS/NEED

This kid (I assumed it was a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl)  She is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer.

DESIRE

She is looking forward to teaching an exchange student everything about her local environs. This will make her feel like an expert.

OPPONENT

Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore.

eric-illustration

Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.

PLAN

Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:

I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excusions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.

Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. At the casino he gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.

BATTLE

I might have found this a little exasperating, but I kept thinking about what Mum had said, about the cultural thing. Then I didn’t mind so much.

The battle is with herself — between the self that wants to show Eric everything she knows, and the self that’s open to learning from the foreigner.

We see more of this psychological battle at the dinner table when ‘There was much speculation over dinner later that evening. Did Eric seem upset?’ and so on.

SELF-REVELATION

In Shaun Tan’s work, self-revelations are often accompanied by images of doors and windows.

In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.

It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.

The window, however, comes before the battle scene.

Here we have a door: the pantry door.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again.

This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.

Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.

The Lost Thing By Shaun Tan

the lost thing cover

THEME

Interestingly, the flap copy manages to describe the theme in a metafictional kind of way:

I guess you want to know what this book is about, just by reading this cover flap. Fair enough too; time is short, lives are busy, and most smart, thinking people have better things to do than stand around looking at picture books about some big red thing being lost in a strange city…

This is basically a critique of people wandering through life not noticing things.

The narrator’s parents are too busy keeping up with current events. This reminds me of a Freakonomics podcast Why Do We Really Follow The News? tl;dl: We follow the news to seem smart. We follow news for entertainment, treating politics like a kind of sport. But does following news really make you smarter, or do you just seem smarter? Are you following the right amount of news, or is your interest in current events perhaps leaving you without time for the small things in your immediate surrounds?

The final page is again metafictive: “And don’t ask me what the moral is.” This is a nod to the fact that children’s books are expected to have morals (even though the best and latest ones don’t at all.)

Readers will bring their own meanings to this story. I’m inclined to see stories as metaphors for autism. The boy’s massive collection of bottle tops is one clue, as is the fact that he is able to notice things others don’t. He’s offered a sign and “I can’t say I knew what it all meant.” There is a popular view of autism as illness, in which an autistic child is expected to learn to fit in with allistics in order to get on in life. Social skills can indeed be learned, but only at the expense of losing that highly individual part of yourself.

More widely, this could be a story about any child with an unusual worldview who, by social conditioning, is gradually forced into adult conformity.

CHARACTER

Continue reading “The Lost Thing By Shaun Tan”

The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan

I can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said about The Rabbits 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.

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.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE RABBITS

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.

the rabbits internal image

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.

Rules Of Summer by Shaun Tan Story Structure

On the surface, Shaun Tan’s award-winning picture book Rules Of Summer is simply a list of rules. Below I take a look at how Rules Of Summer is in fact a complete narrative.

There is also a message here. Readers are asked to wonder: What are the real rules of summer? Play together. Use your imaginations. Work out your differences.

rules of summer cover

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF RULES OF SUMMER

Does this picturebook — more like a coffee table book of art in some ways — follow the universal seven steps of narrative, as outlined by John Truby? Yes, it does, though it requires the reader to provide some of that story. Shaun Tan doesn’t hand it to us on a plate.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Two brothers are faced with a long summer and they must learn to entertain themselves and how to get along.

DESIRE

They want to have fun

OPPONENT

Each other

PLAN

They turn everyday situations into imaginary scenarios to fight the boredom of long, never-ending days of summer holidays.

BATTLE

Notice the pictures get darker. Especially the skies.

They have a fist-fight. The older brother wins. The younger brother feels isolated as he waits for an apology.

SELF-REVELATION

If he waits long enough, the older brother will eventually come back to him. This emotional state is depicted as a snowy, cold landscape.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The boys sit together on the couch looking at the TV.

 

Sure enough, Rules Of Summer  is a complete narrative, and this is what makes the book resonant.

 

Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Throughout history, folklore has included stories of dogs who roam towns at night, especially in Britain. There’s Wiltshire’s Wilton dog or the fierce mastiff that roamed the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Anyone who has ever seen a huge unfriendly dog standing right outside their glass door will know how frightening it can be. Pinfold takes that fear and now we have Blackdog.

A black dog is the name given to an entity found primarily in the folklore of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes. It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk),[2] and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.

Black dog (ghost) – Wikipedia

The illustrations are so beautiful in this author/illustrator picture book I suspected the story wouldn’t quite reach the same level. Readers will have varied responses to this, but for me, the story is structurally fine but the message problematic: Readers are taught to face their fears head-on, using the metaphor of a big dog outside the house. The problem is, I’ve been trying to teach my kid the opposite when it comes to dogs, as there are a lot of dangerous ones in our neighbourhood: If a dog looks scary, it probably is! I’m therefore left wishing the dog could have been some mythical, non-existent creature. The final scene shows a young child hugging the dog in a way that dogs should never, ever be hugged, as it’s a sign of domination, and little kids tend to be right at eye-level too. Even when picture books are to be read at the metaphorical level, we can’t forget that the literal level doesn’t suddenly cease to exist. So for entirely practical/safety purposes I do have a couple of issues with this book.

ALLEGORY AND SYMBOL

There may be a good symbolic reason for using a black dog, however, as the black dog has been used as a metaphor for depression and other mental illness, i.e. The Black Dog Institute. I have absolutely no idea if this were intended by the author/illustrator, but because of the black dog connection I can’t read this book as anything other than an allegory for agoraphobia/anxiety. (Update: I’m more sure of the symbolism since happening across the history of black dogs as metaphors of mental illness.)

Let’s look at Blackdog through this lens and see if it holds up.

Agoraphobia isn’t contagious insofar as I know, so it would be unusual for an entire family to be simultaneously terrified of going outside. For this reason, I’m interpreting the family as ‘different aspects of the same individual’, in much the same way as the Winnie-the-Pooh characters are each different facets of a child’s single personality. Sometimes this person looks out of the window and is not quite so scared — other days the size of the menace is overwhelming. But there is one small part inside this individual which has sufficient bravery to face the world. This is the classic mouse tale trope, in which the smallest character is ironically the bravest. (And anyone who’s ever had a mouse infestation knows they’re not timid at all — mice are stupid brave for their size, relying on speed more than smarts!) This technique definitely lends the feel of ‘fable’ to this story, with thanks to Aesop and The Lion and the Mouse.

By going out into the world and practising exposure therapy the small child in this story shrinks the black dog down to size. Again, a metaphor for mental illness: mental illness is always a part of you, but it can be reduced to a manageable size.

A MINIATURE WORLD

blackdog levi pinfold

The presence of a massive dog temporarily turns this family into miniatures, of the type you’ve seen in The Borrowers and Stuart Little. There are specific narrative reasons for making use of miniatures.

A miniature has three main uses in a story:

1. It lets the audience see the world of the story as a whole.

2. It allows the author to express various aspects, or facets, of a character.

3. It shows the exercise of power, often of tyranny.

— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

All three reasons are at play in Blackdog: We see the warm interior/foggy, cold exterior all at once; we see each member of the family react differently to the same event; we can easily imagine how scared we would be at this tyrannical creature outside our house.

JUXTAPOSITION OF SETTING

The snowy, ethereal setting of Blackdog is a brilliant choice, and is in stark contrast to the warm, but oddly grotesque interior:

Hope Family living room

There’s something steampunk about this house, and the scene of the bathroom and playground, with the rivets and steel, remind me very much of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.

blackdog bathroom
The bathroom from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog
playground levi pinfold
The playground scene from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog, in which the previously ‘elephant sized’ monster is now small enough to fit through an elephant’s trunk.
lost-thing
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Though Pinfold has his own distinctive style, the colour choice, too, is very Shaun Tan, especially when you look at the accent colours. Pinfold makes use of inset thumbnails, too, and in this book we have tiny sepia drawings decorating the text. It’s tempting to skip over these thumbnails because the eye tends to linger on the full-colour spreads, but if you go back and examine them closely, these thumbnails offer the ‘alternative view’ of the story: While the full colour spreads in the first half of the story depict only the inside of the house and a little of what can be seen through the window, the thumbnails show us the massive dog outside in a long shot view of the tall, skinny house.

There’s something gothic about that house. It’s a three-storied structure with an attic which would never get approved by any local council, and must have therefore come from another era. This is the trope of the Terrifying House. But this house is both terrifying and warm.

Opposite the warm house, the terrifying house is usually a house that has gone over the line from cocoon to prison. In the best stories of this kind, the house is terrifying because it is an outgrowth of the great weakness and need of the character. This house is the hero’s biggest fear made manifest. In the extreme, the character’s mind has rotted in some way, and the house too is in ruins. But it is no less powerful a prison.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

It’s warm because it’s cosy, with the roaring fire and comfort of family. It’s cheery like a rainbow, in fact, with each room having its own dominant hue. This is more obvious when you view the various parts of this house together in a single image. Orange, yellow, green, pink…

each room different colour

But the accoutrements scattered around — the stone animals with their staring eyes, the cluttered chaos, the soap-holder that looks almost like a mechanical hand reaching into the dirty old bath, the red tricycle that will always scare anyone who ever watched Saw  — there’s something definitely spooky here. And of course your warm house is spooky… when you can never leave. The mother looks a lot like a Marionette as she clutches the jug in the orange image above.

WEATHER SYMBOLISM

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing — as well as his other work — features industrial smoke and city smog, but here the outside world is shrouded in a clean, forest mist — a great choice given the accepted symbolism of fog and mist. In fiction, fog equals obfuscation and mystery. In Blackdog I think it also has connections to ‘mental fug’ and not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, but ploughing on anyway.

WEIRD THING I DON’T GET

What on earth is a Big Jeffy, though? I expected to be rewarded with the answer after looking closely at the pictures, and I did see much earlier in the story a child’s sketch of Jeffy on the sideboard, but in the end I resorted to the internet and learned that Big Jeffy is off Sesame Street. His inclusion in this story puzzles me. Big Jeffy is a member of Little Jerry and the Monotones, supplying bass back-up for the group. He is considered to be the fourth member of the band. Maybe the author is a particular fan of Sesame Street and will reference a muppet in every picture book?  Chris Van Allsburg puts a little white dog in all of his books. (It’s not even his own dog — it was his brother-in-law’s!) I haven’t read Pinfold’s other work so I can’t tell if they also include Sesame Street characters. Also, I wouldn’t be brave enough to try those guys on copyright. It’s possible that Pinfold’s Big Jeffy has no connection to the minor Sesame Street character at all.