Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie

Good Morning Mr Pancakes

I first heard of Australian author illustrator Chris McKimmie on Children’s Books with Kate De Goldi.

Listen also to the interview between Kate and Chris at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival.

One of the secrets to success as an illustrator is having an instantly recognisable, one-of-a-kind style. McKimmie’s various book covers will give you a glimpse of his style.

The naive style of art also works really well to encourage children in their own illustration. The Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, and the treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton do the same thing. Kids look at these pictures and think, you know what? I can do that. It doesn’t have to be realistic. Realistic art is sometimes confused for ‘good’ art.

Art is ‘good’ when it makes its audience feel something. That’s the only criterion. In picture books, art also tells a story.

Two Peas In A Pod



McKimmie is himself trained in graphic design. Moreover, McKimmie’s wife is a book designer.Assuming pillow talk, that’s an indication as to the deceptively naive graphic design going on in his work. Graphic design knowledge plus free-style, expressive, naive art = greatness in picture books. (His wife Jackie is also a writer and they collaborate at times on solving plot problems.)

Me Teddy

McKimmie started his career in the 1970s. Since then he has been a cleaner, a graphic designer, lectured in illustration at the Queensland College of Art, been a stay-at-home dad and an exhibiting painter. Freshly inspired, he came back to creating picture books when he had his own grandchildren.

Alex and the Watermelon Boat

His handwritten font looks like the careful ‘running writing’ of a child trying to do their neatest work. The intratext often includes asides which we assume to come from adults watching on.

Crikey and Cat is a landscape book, which requires different layout skills.

Kate de Goldi says “there’s nothing electronic about his work”.

I know exactly what she means, but as someone who illustrates digitally, I can tell you, there’s art created on computer/tablet now and you would not know it from real media. Software such as Rebelle is a good example of the digital art software revolution, which has only really levelled up in the last couple of years.

I knocked up the following on my iPad using Procreate to see if I could emulate the real-world media feel achieved by Chris McKimmie. It’s the owl from the back cover of Good Morning, Mr Pancakes:

Chris McKimmie owl

Brian Banana Duck Sunshine Yellow is one of the more popular of Chris McKimmie’s picture books.

The illustrations are deceptively naive. They look like they’re being thought of on the page, evoking childlike renderings on paper. McKimmie has re-channeled his inner child after a lifetime of experience as an adult illustrator.

Perhaps his style is best described as ‘naive collage’. He makes much use of washes and dye. Collages comprise scraps of paper, rips, tears, folds, borders which seem to be the drawing surface underneath, pencil/crayon/felt pen sketches. Characters are drawn with a minimalist level of detail, which has the advantage of allowing the child to see themselves in the characters on the page.

McKimmie’s Strengths

  • He is adept at not only channeling kids, but also at channeling kids using adult language. Alongside all the child’s immersion in her own world is all this verbiage floating in the air from the adults.
  • The adult language is often presented as intratext coming from an adult who stands out of the frame (not seen).
  • In Good Morning Mr Pancakes, McKimmie uses direct quotes from his grandchildren, making use of ‘found language’. If you are proximal to young kids (age 3-7 is great) sit down and really listen to what they come out with. This is obviously what McKimmie has done.
  • Not all author illustrators design their own books. A book designer generally comes in. But McKimmie has the skills to do all three, which affords perfect integration.
  • His stories are joyful, full of hilarity, except when deliberately sombre. (Lara of Newton is about a cat abandoned at Christmas. The cat is given as a Christmas present, which is where most picture books might end, but this cat is abandoned again.) Some of the humour is distinctively Australian, I expect. (In Good Morning Mr Pancakes, one of Larry’s chooks is called ‘Steggles‘, which is a local brand of frozen chicken.)
  • Across the entire work McKimmie preserves perspective of the young eye. For instance, things collide with each other on the page. He’s the most persuasive writer and illustrator using the child’s eye view that de Goldi has seen in 30 years of reviewing children’s books.
  • McKimmie is very good at taking small but important childhood moments and anxieties. (We see the pets from Good Morning Mr Pancakes in a later book, in which the pets have died. The mood in thatnext one is elegiac and a little scary, but gentle. McKimmie understands that small losses loom big in children’s lives.)
  • He steps across the real into surrealism, as children do. (‘Surreal’ refers to ‘super real’ art which tells us a super-real truth.)
  • He elides all the ‘connective tissue’ in stories (which de Goldi finds boring anyway, she says). In other words, there’s no clear bridge between events — he uses a kind of picture book version of stream-of-consciousness.
  • He is an illustrator’s illustrator. Other author/illustrators such as Sue deGennaro count his books among their favourite.

STORY STRUCTURE OF GOOD MORNING MR PANCAKES

McKimmie’s stories are ‘simple’ and ‘wacko’ As de Goldi puts it, he doesn’t write ‘what happened next’ stories. I’m interested in looking a bit more closely at that, because there are two main types of picture books:

  1. You can easily pick the seven step story structure.
  2. The story is carnivalesque.

There may be something else I can add to my binary classification. Maybe I just haven’t seen it yet… Do Chris McKimmie’s books create their own genre?

After looking very closely at the structure, I conclude that Good Morning Mr Pancake is a combination of both. I had no trouble picking out the seven step structure, which dips into carnivalesque mode after the Plan stage.

Kim Hill suggests an adult might find his books somewhat enigmatic and cryptic. De Goldi responds that these are books which need to be read slowly. There’s a ‘vertical profundity’ — you have to sit with a child, look hard and read (though without effort). Reading McKimmie’s books is an absorptive process. Collage and controlled chaos.

Her shortcoming (of not noticing) is revealed on the first double page spread, when an adult (off page) yells BEE THE TOAST IS BURNING.

SHORTCOMING

Bee is going on a fun holiday but she’s anxious about how the pets will get on without her to look after them. So she has to go through these rituals before she can look forward to her time away.

There’s ironic distance between animal-loving Bee’s stream-of-consciousness concern and the words coming out of the animals. Bee lacks true empathy, thinking, for instance, that the dogs are going to love the dog motel. (The dogs themselves are dreading it.) I imagine she thinks the chooks enjoy having their ‘toenails’ painted as much as she enjoys painting them.

This childlike concern for pets feels very familiar to me. In their wish to involve pets as characters in their imaginative play, pets sometimes become mild victims.

DESIRE

Bee wants all the animals to be waiting and safe for her when she and they get back.

But she also wants to have fun getting them prepared for everyone’s holiday. Getting ready is a game in itself. She imagines the fish is going to be minding the house. She imagines her toy leopard has to stay behind because she is ‘too wild’ to be allowed on holiday.

OPPONENT

Because the pets are animals, and though they can ‘talk’ they have the sensibilities of actual animals, there’s a natural opposition between their desire to be left alone and young Bee’s desire to ‘love them to death’ with care and attention.

PLAN

  • Bee paints the chooks’ toenails so they don’t get mixed up with the chooks they’re going to be staying with.
  • She packs bags for the dogs and cats. (Some treats and a ball of string.)
  • She provides Gregor with enough greens for a whole week. (Gregor is a caterpillar and needs zero help munching his own leaves, if only he were left alone.)

BIG STRUGGLE

In place of a Battle, in common with carnivalesque picture books, Bee slips fully into her imagination. She hasn’t gone on holidays yet, but she imagines how the holiday will be.

  • McKimmie is using the trick of hyperbole when Bee imagines ‘ten hundred turkeys’ on her island.
  • Bee is utilising the tall tale tradition when she tells us/herself that one of them sleeps at the end of her bed.
  • The most carnivalesque part of her imaginative holiday on the island: she is allowed to do what she wants. This includes drinking out of large puddles and licking her bowl. She has mentally aligned herself with her pets; she is now an animal herself. Bee is now removed from the picture. All we see are turkeys.

Good Morning Mr Pancakes green bird

  • When Bee watches spiders writing on a red sky, McKimmie has slipped into dream territory.
  • He inverts girl and dolphin on the following spread, when Bee says ‘beep beep peep’ and the dolphin replies in English. This is ‘hat on the dog’ inversion humour, popular with preschoolers especially. This scene also continues the thread in which Bee imagines she swaps places with animals.
  • The fish talking to each other under the water is an excellent example of what de Goldi means when she says McKimmie is great at channeling adult language, but through children.
  • This carnivalesque escapade also contains elements of classic mythic structure, similar to Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. For example, she eventually meets up with a crab (called Mr Sidewalker), who is playing the role of the mentor, as described by Joseph Campbell (transliterated more simply much later by Christopher Vogler).
  • The journey gets kind of mystical when Bee imagines all the holes she can climb into and out of again.
  • Eventually she lands into an Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland sort of scene, in which she’s sitting at an outdoor table eating cake, cheese and fruit with a Bee (her alter ego) and a turkey.

The carnivalesque sequence is apparently a story told by one of McKimmie’s grandchildren. He has incorporated that story into a wrapper story.

ANAGNORISIS

Eventually, after eating, Bee imagines herself sailing, sailing home across the sea.

She must have realised that whatever happens on her trip, it will probably be fun, and it will involve coming back home again. Therefore, so long as she prepares (including mentally), she has nothing to worry about.

NEW SITUATION

Once home, Bee imagines greeting each of the animals by name. This spread is reminiscent of Goodnight Moon in that it seems to be a chant designed to reassure herself that nothing is going to change.

The dogs didn’t like their holiday, but the caterpillar has turned into a butterfly — a metaphor for how Bee herself has grown, all over the course of an imaginative trip to precede a real one.

The final sentence, “It’s like starting the world all over again” is apparently a real line from McKimmie’s 8 year old grandchild.

COMPARE WITH

McKimmie’s art style reminds me of paintings by Odilon Redon.

Odilon Redon, Centaurs musicians, watercolor

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield

Albert Chevallier Tayler - The Quiet Hour

Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.

Commentaries on this story fall into two main categories:

  1. Over multiple viewpoints we are shown that Kezia still has the future before her. (Sometimes Beryl is thought to have the future before her.) But Linda, in contrast, has no future at all. In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is seen as a warm and encouraging grandmother. In this reading we can find numerous examples of preludes: The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living, the children’s prelude to adolescence, Beryl’s prelude to spinsterhood, Mrs Fairfield’s prelude to death. Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.
  2. In the feminist reading, Mansfield uses imagery to reveal the power struggle between men and women. Kezia is all caged up. Linda is trapped within marriage, but going through an hysterical rebellion. Stanley exerts dominion over not just the house he bought, but also wants to expand to buying a pew at church etc.
Continue reading “Prelude by Katherine Mansfield”

Outrage News Is Powerful Storytelling

outrage cat

Recently I played a form of mixed doubles tennis in which the final point is served from female to female, or male to male. At our small club, when it comes to tennis skills there’s no clear division along gender lines. A number of the women can outplay the men.

So I mentioned maybe we could ignore that rule, depending on who’s playing. I’m also mindful of being gender inclusive. The distinction between male and female has been shown — across different disciplines — to be nowhere near as binary as previously decided by culture. Our club may, in the distant future, seem sufficiently liberal that a gender non-conforming player joins in for the occasional hit. That’s my goal.

But my politically conservative tennis partner, who vociferously voted against marriage equality in Australia last year, chortled at my suggestion and said, “Don’t you know there’s 33 different genders now?” (Subtext reading: Once we get started down that line, where do we stop? How are we meant to play a fun game of mixed doubles with 33 different genders!)



I had no words. Words were useless anyhow, as our opponents on the other side of the net agreed that all of this leftie gender talk is nonsense. We continued to play. We served the decider woman to woman, man to man.

I had no words at the time, but have since encountered the phrase to describe the so-called 33 genders article as recalled by my tennis partner:  ‘outrage news’.

Outrage news describes media specifically designed to undermine a movement by making it out to sound ridiculous. Readers are thereby encouraged to focus on ridiculous non-facts of the movement, and feel justified in dismissing everything said by the movement’s informed activists after that point. It is remarkably effective as a tool of propaganda.

Sure enough, 33-genders-guy has referred to that ridiculous ‘fact’ about gender more than once since then. Whenever anyone says anything about gender, he comes out with that.

As is the case with most outrage news, the outrage article he read was based on a kernel of fact.

Here’s the fact: As part of a new anti-discrimination policy, it was reported that Australia is preparing to introduce at least 33 different gender OPTIONS on birth certificates and passports.

To those who know nothing about gender, ‘gender option’ (the box one ticks on a government form) becomes conflated with ‘gender’, which actually lies on a spectrum.

Pick your number, because the number doesn’t matter. Other articles will declare 63 genders. Some say 37, because apparently it’s newsworthy that Tinder offers 37 gender identity options in its efforts to not be assholes.

To conservatives who insist on the importance of a clearly delineated gender binary, the higher that ‘ridiculous’ number, the more they like it. I won’t link to the outrage articles themselves, but what these articles are describing is ‘language’. The English language is a constantly evolving beast, used across many, many different cultures and subcultures. Of course English contains at least 63 different ways to talk about various gender identities. Next year we’ll be up to 150, I guess. And then, next time anyone tries to bring up a real issue regarding gender, conservatives can bring that up, too.

Or maybe they’ll bring up the following 2018 pre-Christmas outrage article courtesy of Fox News:

Some say it’s time for gender neutral Santa.

A classic outrage news template: [X] group petition against [much beloved pop-culture/tradition] because [discrimination].

Here’s a classic template from Fox 13 News Utah:

Petition against ‘Deadpool’ promotional poster says its [sic] religious discrimination against LDS Church

Super popular fictional stories, such as say, an X-Men comic, are vulnerable to the outrage news treatment, especially when paired with major religions:

Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men Wipes Out Centres of Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism

No. No one is saying that, apart from the people who wrote that article.

This is why the following Onion parody works as parody:

Radio Station Playing Controversial ‘Little Drummer Boy’ On Repeat In Defiance Of Those Who Claim It Contains Sexually Predatory Themes

Oftentimes, the title is an outrage title but the few people who read the article within learn that the title doesn’t match the contents:

This Australian University Is Under Fire For Offering A Controversial Western Civilisation Degree

Read the article and we learn the main concerns are not about the degree itself, but the fact that it’s sponsored and run by the Ramsay centre and not the university. The course was rejected by other universities because it takes away their autonomy and allows a third party to control their courses. But the outrage title encourages the casual scroller to assume a different article: That it’s not okay to offer a course Western civilisation these days, because it might offend the non-Westerners (or the ‘PC’ crowd). However, a title about internal university politics isn’t near as interesting, let alone outrageous.

When we feel outraged, we hit share. And we remember the basic message. Outrage is a strong emotion; any strong emotion makes memories stick. Worse, in this case, the disseminators of outrage news believe they themselves are the lone skeptics, living in a world gone PC mad.

Such is the power of story.

We love stories for many different reasons:

  • To see ourselves reflected in others
  • To question and to think
  • To feel a strong emotion, perhaps as catharsis
  • To feel thrilled, excited, turned on, horripilated, depending on the genre

But sometimes, unfortunately, we also have the capacity to hold on to any story which makes us feel something, especially if it confirms our existing beliefs about how the world should work.

The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield

The Tiredness of Rosabel Katherine Mansfield

Outside school magazines, “The Tiredness of Rosabel” was Katherine Mansfield’s first published story (1908, when Mansfield was 20 years old).

Already we can see features the author became known for:

  • The ability of a character to impersonate another
  • Daydreams/fantasy used to reveal deeper desires
  • Three time levels are used simultaneously (past, present, future)
  • A central theme throughout Mansfield’s work: ‘fastidious feminine recoil from the arrogant male, conflicting with a romantic idealism and resulting in disillusionment’ (Alpers).

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”

Rosabel takes a bus home after a tiring day working in a millinery shop. She thinks of a good dinner, feeling she would sacrifice her soul. On the bus, Rosabel sits next to a girl reading a sentimental novel. Once home in her room, Rosabel recalls two well-dressed customers who came to the shop to buy a hat for the young lady. They had been hard to please until Rosabel found a hat that entranced them all. Rosabel models the hat at the request of the young woman, who then buys it. The couple leave, but not before the young man has spoken to Rosabel with a touch of insolence.

Alone in her room, Rosabel imagines that she is the young woman with the new hat, inspired by the sentimental novel she noticed on the bus.

STORYWORLD OF “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”

the limited OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN

In the first paragraph, Rosabel would like to eat a substantial meal at Lyon’s. This is a massive chain which closed the year before I was born, so I’ve had to look it up. Basically, Lyon’s sounds a bit like Starbucks today. In 1920, the waitresses who worked there weren’t allowed to bob their hair. (That rule was loosened up in 1924.) Young women who worked there were supposed to find it easy to find a marriage partner, which is a solemn reminder of the limited options for young women in those days. Mansfield’s character of Rosabel, likewise, existed in the world as a pre-married young lady, whose main purpose in life was to find a husband.

SENSORY IMAGES AND JUXTAPOSITION

Rosabel gets onto a London bus, next to a girl reading a ‘tear’ spattered book. The warm, humid bus with its garish advertisements contrasts with the magical streets outside.

All five senses are evoked:

  • The street is blurred and misty
  • Rosabel’s feet are horribly wet
  • The sickening smell of warm humanity
  • The girl licks her fingers and mouths her words
  • Rosabel feels stifled

Rosabel’s own room is marked by poverty, with the chipped enamel on the wash basin and the overall grimy description. We already know she’s living in poverty because she’s hungry. She would like a meal including meat but can only afford a scone, tea and boiled egg. Later in the story, a male customer will compliment her on her petite figure. The irony is one that endures today — Rosabel is fashionably petite (in the 1920s, a straight-up-and-down, boyish body for women was the dominant ideal). But Rosabel’s small body is due to lack of nutrition. The man wouldn’t suspect that for a moment, never having experienced hunger himself.

In this era, hats were a booming business because no one was seen in public without one. Hat shops are far fewer now, beause elaborate hats are worn only on very special occasions.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”

The structure of “The Tiredness of Rosabel” juxtaposes Rosabel’s reality with her imagined world, highlighting the difference between them. In 1908, ‘structure creating metaphor’ was something of a revolution in British short fiction. Mansfield grew up in New Zealand but was part of that revolution. At the time, short stories were not considered an art form in their own right, but rather a sort of inferior novel for beginners.

NARRATION AND LANGUAGE

Apart from the final sentence, the point of view is consistent. The narrator’s comments merge with Rosabel’s thoughts to minimise the distance between readers and the story. This serves to draw the readers into Rosabel’s world and keep us there.

Language employed by the narrator is the same as Rosabel’s, and we hardly notice a difference between Rosabel’s voice and the that of the unseen narrator.

Some critics have said that the final sentence is not in keeping with the tone and focus of the story, violating point of view.

Critics have also said that Mansfield’s parenthetical expressions break the narrative at awkward places. For example, we don’t need to know that Rosabel’s knees are getting stiff and that she is so taken by her own fantasy that she laughs out loud. What kind of details should authors include in stories? For more on that, see this post. What do you think about these details? Alice Munro is another short story specialist who includes unexpected detail.

SHORTCOMING

A young woman makes her way home from work in central London. She works in a hat shop.

Rosabel is also a fantasist, but not in a way that damages others, as in the Mansfield-esque movie My Summer of Love.

This story opens with Rosabel buying violets for herself. Later, she dreams the young man buys her great sprays of violets yet still there is enough money for a lavish lunch. Throughout the day, serving customers, she imagines being at a ball. The ball tires her out in the same way serving customers tires her out, hence the title. The story is full of parallels between Rosabel’s real world and her fantasy world.

Fantasising about another life is Rosabel’s way of coping with her own economic reality. She is weary (and I submit, undernourished, probably iron deficient). Mansfield makes use of sentence structure to reflect the weariness of Rosabel. The sentence structure of Rosabel’s real world contrasts with the light structure apparent in her dream state.

We are inclined to be quite harsh on fantasists. Stop dreaming, get out and do something about it! we’re inclined to think. But what are Rosabel’s options, really? Her best hope is meeting a well-off young man to marry.

Rosabel’s innocence is underscored when her imagined night with the man does not include sex – she may not have considered what comes next in a real world relationship.

DESIRE

Rosabel would like to escape living in poverty. That’s her long-term desire, which we deduce from her immediate desires:

  • First she imagines she ate a much more expensive and sustaining evening meal.
  • Once home and in bed, she imagines scenario in which she and her rich customer swapped places.

The violets in the opening sentence are a motif throughout; like the violets, Rosabel herself is delicate of taste, sensitive, charming and innocent. Perhaps the purple colour of the flowers suggests royalty – the role Rosabel would like to play.

OPPONENT

Rosabel’s foil character is the rich young woman who comes to buy a hat. Rosabel imagines herself in her place later, and she is attracted to (as well as repelled by) the young woman’s beau. The young man is obviously attracted to Rosabel, which is Rosabel’s entry point into her imagined other-self.

PLAN

Perhaps a story like this one challenges the idea that a character needs a plan in order for the story to work.

But Rosabel does have a plan. Her ‘plan’ is to go home and continue her fantasy in private, really delving into her secret, other world.

I’ve often wondered what proportion of people have a secret fantasy world they regularly dip into for fun and escapism. I know anyone who writes definitely has this facility. What about the proportion of humanity who does not write?

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘Battle’ of this story is the interaction Rosabel has with the young man and woman. She almost cries from anger. We don’t necessarily know exactly what this anger is borne of until afterwards — plain unfairness. When Rosabel is required to try on that hat, she’s literally trying on another girl’s life.

Hats are often used this way in stories, as well as in real life — crowns are the ultimate ‘hat’ which are used to symbolise a new role for its wearer. The addition of a crown suddenly makes one a prince. Hats exist partly to tell the world who you are. White hats and black hats in Western movies tell the audience who’s good and who is bad. Jon Klassen’s tortoises fight over a hat for a good reason — a hat would make one tortoise more important than the other.

ANAGNORISIS

When the young man (creepily, in my opinion) cracks on to Rosabel, despite being there with his own girlfriend, Rosabel seems to realise that finding a rich boy to marry might not be out of her reach after all, because of the way she looks.

As I mentioned above, because she happens to be fashionably slim, Rosabel matches the female fashion of the era, and in a rich girl’s hat she looks exactly the same as a genuine rich girl.

Why could that not have been her? It’s all down to luck and circumstance. And she knows it. Perhaps she has realised it fully, only after literally trying on another woman’s hat.

NEW SITUATION

Rosabel goes about her day, eventually building upon her regular fantasy of a better life.

We extrapolate that she will go to work at the hat shop the next day and the next and the next. Because of her looks, who knows? She may well attract the serious attention of a rich boy.

But I doubt it. Rich boys don’t enter hat shops unless they’re there with an existing girlfriend. And this boy isn’t serious about Rosabel. I think he enjoys the adrenaline of temporary attraction, and the power he has over a shop girl, unable to respond as herself, bound to formality by her subservient role. I learnt this as a young woman working in customer service: some customers love this dynamic and seek it out.

So what of that final sentence? Mansfield seems to be saying that because of Rosabel’s youth, she’s still optimistic that she’ll marry her way out of poverty. She is still able to smile, unlike Miss Brill of a later story, who realises suddenly that she is old. For Miss Brill, an unpleasant day out seems to mean her life will keep going the way it is, possibly without change, until she dies.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION