Norton’s Hut is an out-of-print Australian picture book, the second picture book written by John Marsden, and illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe.
When a young group of hikers gets lost in a blinding snow storm they find shelter in an abandoned hut. Inside the hut they find a man who ignores them and by morning has disappeared. After they are rescued, they question whether the strange events really occurred.
The following notes are from Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 04: Author and Illustrator Devices presented by David Beagley, La Trobe University, podcast available on iTunes U.
We often forget the tricks and techniques of illustrators, focusing only on the text. The reader must actively decode the sequence of elements to make meaning, whether those are letters or illustrations. Pictures in a picture book work similarly to words in a sentence. They follow a sequence: It has a vocabulary, a grammar. (Illustrated books use illustrations to illustrate a single point at that moment — it’s not a sequence.) So the grammar of pictures needs to be decoded. Text, on the other hand, can also have a visual effect, e.g. different shades of colour for shouting or whispering, variation in font size.
- The cover of Norton’s Hut depicts a lonely, tiny hut. The weather contrasts with the window light. We know what time of day it is by the light in the sky. Gouldthorpe illustrates in a photorealistic way. Illustrator Gouldthorpe is from Tasmania, though this book is not set in Tasmania. The cover gives clues, but whether the clues are accurate, we’ll have to read the book to see. Covers can be red herrings.
What Is A Red Herring?
Red herrings are false leads intended to keep the sleuth and the reader guessing, or send them off-course, making the big reveal more surprising.
This is a technique required in mysteries of all kinds.
- The peritext can also contain specific elements to place the story. In picture books we often need the peritext because there’s nothing in the story to tell us, for example, that it is set in a concentration camp. Title pages are a part of the story itself.
- The end papers in Norton’s Hut are a black and white depiction of a snow landscape.
- On page one we see someone tramping. The POV positions the reader as if we are walking behind; we are one of them. “We caught our first glimpse of the hut late afternoon…” There are two pictures, one laid over top of the other. This is a montage effect often seen with photographs. You stick a lot of photos together to get a full panorama. This is for two slightly different effects: First it’s time-lapsed. It’s also to position you in relation to the characters. You’ve looking down on them. The reader gets the idea of the passing of time, the difficulty. The reader is encouraged to make judgement about the characters. What about the bird? It’s a crow or a raven, often used in literature, particularly old lit going back centuries, as a symbol of death, more specifically of big strugglefields. Why not a rosella or an orange belly parrot? The beautiful birds that we have through those eastern ranges of Victoria are not in the picture. The crow looks down on the group. This is particular use of form and structure and symbolism, where the picture gives suggestions. This POV gives an idea of the vastness of the landscape, and the loneliness of the group. The girl indicates something to the group and the reader is encouraged to turn the page. Now it changes hugely. A couple of things are emphasised. We continue this photo sequence as if it’s been put in a scrapbook. Wide angle shot, middle distance, close up. It’s now stormy. Was the girl pointing at the hut, at the sky, at the map? “Beyond the distant governors the clouds churned…” The words create an emotional/visual effect of storming and froth on the water. Overlapping of the pictures indicate sequence of action: things are moving quicker. Now they’re going down the hill. But they’re also disappearing. There’s an urgency to quick, catch up to them!
- The next page is a good example of framing: Pointing out the thing that matters by having everything else around it focused on it. On the first (title?) page it is clearly the window with the light.
- Next we go inside the hut. “We knocked and opened…” This sentence makes good use of commas, inserting hesitancy. This page makes use of lighting effect. Inside is the fire, to illuminate characters. We get side-lighting, looking down at them from the ceiling and up at them from the floor and how they’re silhouetted by the light. When we can’t see the face of the character (due to lighting) this seems ominous. The sentence with commas is followed by a tumbling type of long sentence. The words and pictures work together to change the pace and emotions of the characters. There is contrast in the words and contrast in the pictures. This is trying to make us think of something in particular. With half a face, just a nose and a cheek, this is all we’re going to see of this character’s face. We get the full face shots of the hikers, but this is all we see of him. Framing around the fireplace. “Outside, mist and cold and cloud flooded over the peak.” But the words explain that inside, they’re warm. So there’s contrast between inside and outside. The words carry more than just their dictionary meaning: Poetic devices: alliteration and other repetition of sound, repetition by use of similar meaning words, words with onomatopoeic resonance, metaphor “the terror of gust”, “snow stung at the door”.
- The pictures get more claustrophobic: inside sleeping bags, inside the hut, enclosed by the white frame.
- The illustrations reflect the influence of cinema. Closer and closer and closer views. Individual close ups of characters. The slow, wide-angle pan. This story uses a lot of cinema technique.
- “In the morning the man had gone, but we…stayed three days trapped inside the hut.” What’s the mystery? Again time lapse photography is used to depict the passing of time. There is a series of photos again showing the lapse of time. They’re looking out the window, and they’ve found things to do: Braiding hair, looking out the window, brushing teeth. We also have the idea of scrapbooking and diaries.
- The red herring: There are clues in each picture to the resolution of the story. You only see them when you go back from the end of the story and realise what those clues are. Some are red-herrings and some scream out, ‘This is what the story’s about.’ But the reader doesn’t know on first reading.
- The final image reflects the first: We’ve returned to the sweeping vista — freedom at last. There’s been a change in colour from the yellows and browns to the sky-blues. There’s been a change in tension — a release after the storm. Continuing the release of tension, the characters do a lot of hiking — a lot more action. Again there is the time-lapse technique, and a POV which puts the reader in relation to the characters again.
- But looking back, the characters can’t find the hut. The reader’s eye is drawn to where the hut ought to be, with the characters gazing. There’s even a little photo superimposed over the top of it — a telescope view, pulling it out from where it is in the scene to highlight that bit.
- “We camped that night by clinker’s cold lake…” This story is open-ended, no resolution, yet you’re given a resolution. Red herrings: ‘Christmas 1955’. The shadow puppetry that they’re doing — a wolf. The little match game could almost be a swastika. (But neither of these last two things have anything to do with the story.) The reader contributes as much to the story as the illustrator and writer. The story that you enjoy may not necessarily be the same story that other people are getting. Don’t ever assume there is only one story in any given book. There are as many stories as there are people to read it.
Authors and illustrators make very deliberate choices. Would this story have worked if Gouldthorpe had used cartoon/comic characters, or little animals rather than humans? Probably not as well. The photorealism allows the reader to place ourselves in this situation. Picture books for older readers such as this one include intertextuality (cinema references) and explores sophisticated emotion. When reading a picture book, read the whole book. Don’t just read the words. As readers grow older it is presumed that words become more dominant than pictures. As we get older we want more from our books. We find them in words, but also in pictures.