Writing Activity: Describe A Classroom

Winslow Homer - The Country School

Describe a classroom is the perfect writing activity for schools. Maybe you’re in a classroom right now. If so, you can write about that. If not, you can imagine any sort of classroom you like. It may be one classroom in particular, or it may be an amalgamation of several, or of all the classrooms you’ve ever set foot in. Or you might make it up completely.

Jonathan Pobre
This is an engraving which appeared in the November 17, 1888 weekly of the Harper’s Young People Illustrated book. It was called “Kept In.” and engraved by Ch. Baude after the painting by Trupheme. The original painting was “In Detention”, 1888 (oil on canvas), Trupheme, Auguste Joseph, Musee de la Ville de Paris.

Write what you see and imagine, not what you know.

Blackboards are really quite green, aren’t they? I wonder who scribbled on the board in the photo above. Do you think it was the teacher? What happened? This is a creative writing about setting, but I want you to imagine what happened in that classroom just before you wrote about it. This will affect the atmosphere in the room.

pic by monkeyc.net

First, imagine the outside of the building. Is it a modern building or old? What’s it made of? Is it well-maintained, or in a state of disrepair? Whatever you imagine, exaggerate a little. If there’s a flight of steps leading up to the classroom, you might instead write of a long, winding staircase. Because that’s how it sometimes feels, if you don’t want to go to class.

Now we’re inside the classroom. In your mind, is it full of people, or are you alone? If you’re alone, why? Maybe you’ve been kept back after class. Perhaps you just imagine a teacher in there, preparing a lesson, or a magic potion to cast over his students tomorrow.

What’s on the walls? If you’re writing a fantasy scene, it’s sometimes better to ground the fantasy in reality by describing what might well be on the walls of a real classroom.

What’s the mood? This classroom looks like a cheerful place with a fun teacher.

pic by Night Owl City

This looks like a dreaded exam room.

pic by Dystopos

So does this one. Sometimes it’s more fun to write about an unpleasant place than a happy one. Look at the details. What do you notice after a few minutes that you did not immediately see?

The windows cast squares of white upon the wall.

The linoleum tiles are lifting in places, perhaps where the cleaner spilled a bucket of water. (You can imagine whatever you like. The more you imagine the more interesting this will read to others, who will never imagine exactly the same thing as you do.)

Ask why. Why are all these chairs pushed to the back, and why are the red ones clustered together? Who sits in the red chairs, do you think?

What happened to the children who used to study here?

Notice the smallest detail. If you’re in a classroom right now, this will be easy. Perhaps there’s a lump of chewing gum stuck to the underside of your desk. (No, don’t check.) Or perhaps there are stains on the carpet.

pic by Aaron Knox

See how this teacher doesn’t wipe previous sums from the board before starting on another. It looks a little as if he can’t remember his equations, so he tapes them above the board as reference. Notice the way the light bounces off his head. What is the most distinguishing thing about the teacher in your classroom? (Tip: don’t choose the teacher who’s going to be grading this particular paper.)

Now, your eyes are only of so much use.

How does your classroom smell? I can smell wet wool, because it’s been raining and every student wears a green, woollen jersey. The girls wear oatmeal woollen tights.

I smell orange peels and peanut butter, because it’s after lunch and 28 students just ate their lunches in here. No doubt some of them stuffed their waste between the bar heaters and the wall.

What can you hear? Even a quiet classroom is seldom without noise. If it is, you might hear the sound of biro on paper. I hear the rain outside, and students from an adjacent classroom about to visit the library. I hear someone at the back of the room tapping a ruler on the desk, absentmindedly but annoying.

Now write.

Start with the largest detail, and zoom like a camera down to the most minuscule. Make stuff up. Let your mind make diversions. Imagine what has happened, what will happen, what maybe happened and what probably didn’t happen but is interesting anyway.

Write for ten minutes. Then see where you are. You may be surprised.

classroom
Abe Birnbaum (1899-1966) classroom 1951
Abe Birnbaum (1899-1966) classroom 1951
Home EC by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) The Saturday Evening Post cover February 28, 1953
Home EC by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) The Saturday Evening Post cover February 28, 1953
Erskine Nicol - Kept In classroom
Erskine Nicol – Kept In
An archetypal elementary school classroom from 1960s suburban America
An archetypal elementary school classroom from 1960s suburban America, “Vacation Plan” by Ben Prins (1902-1980) for The Saturday Evening Post cover April 9, 1960.
George Washington Brownslow - A Straw-Plaiting School in Essex
George Washington Brownslow – A Straw-Plaiting School in Essex
Thomas Webster - A Dame's School 1845
Thomas Webster – A Dame’s School 1845
Ralph Hedley - The Truant's Log classroom
Ralph Hedley – The Truant’s Log
Ralph Hedley - The New Scholar classroom
Ralph Hedley – The New Scholar
Ralph Hedley - Barred Out (29th May) classroom
Ralph Hedley – Barred Out (29th May)
Norman Rockwell NORMAN ROCKWELL VISITS A COUNTRY SCHOOL, 1946
Norman Rockwell NORMAN ROCKWELL VISITS A COUNTRY SCHOOL, 1946
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Norman Rockwell puppy
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Norman Rockwell
STEVAN DOAHNOS (1907-1994), Flowers for Teacher, 1946
STEVAN DOAHNOS (1907-1994), Flowers for Teacher, 1946
Amos Sewell parent teacher interview classroom
Amos Sewell
Babar's story the little elephant, Jean de Brunhoff, 1931
Babar’s story the little elephant, Jean de Brunhoff, 1931
Fritz Baumgartner. Enchanted Forest
Fritz Baumgartner. Enchanted Forest
Mari Kanstad Johnsen. Vivaldi. Text by Helge Torvund
Mari Kanstad Johnsen. Vivaldi. Text by Helge Torvund
Vintage Mermaid Illustration FATHER TUCK'S ANNUAL for 1902 classroom mermaid
Vintage Mermaid Illustration FATHER TUCK’S ANNUAL for 1902

FURTHER READING

  • A short story set entirely within the boundary of a classroom is “Carnation” by Katherine Mansfield.
  • In many scenes set in classrooms, windows are highly symbolic. A character will often feel trapped within a classroom, and uses the scene outside the window to allow their mind to wander. Windows are highly symbolic.

Header painting: Winslow Homer – The Country School

How Teaching School Is Different From The Movies

An English teacher I had at school couldn’t stand that Robin Williams movie, Dead Poet’s Society. The ideal of the enthusiastic teacher jumping about on all the desks, monologuing center stage gave him the shits, I was surprised to learn.

Then, when I was at teachers’ college myself, I remember the tutor saying a few times, “Now you may have seen [X] happen on the movies, but don’t ever do that.” If you overthink it, it’s bizarre that teachers’ college students need to be told this, because we’d all spent 13 years in the school system ourselves, so you’d think we’d have known the difference between movies and real life. But no, a few things still needed saying. Especially since university lectures are different again, and in just four years you tend to forget.

Then there are simple details which you see all the time in school stories without really thinking (perhaps until the fridge moment), that doesn’t really happen in schools.

Take for example The History Boys (film or play), written by Alan Bennett.

COMPULSORY PHYSICAL EDUCATION

Bennett went to school a long time before the 1980s, which is when this play is set. He writes in his 2004 diaries of some issues faced when depicting a modern(ish) school.

First he had to take out a gymnasium scene, because by the 1980s sixth formers wouldn’t have been enrolled in physical education.

LOCKERS

As part of his research, Bennett visited the London Nautical School to avoid outdated clangers.

My main impression is how burdened the boys are, humping all their possessions with them wherever they go so that they’re slung round with coats, togs, books and bags, none of them seemingly having their own locker or desk.

This is true in my experience too (both as student and teacher). Students (at least outside America? don’t tend to have allocated lockers anymore. This was to do with theft and vandalism, and no doubt also to do with the tendency for students to leave uneaten food in their lockers, to rot the wood and attract rodents.

The students at our local high school can rent a locker, which costs ten bucks per term. I wondered who paid that (parents, I guess) and according to the local high school girl I know, they’re popular for storing jackets in. It is terribly uncool to wear a jacket around here, but some parents make kids take them anyway. Once at school, the jackets/coats are shoved into the lockers and that’s where they stay.

If you’re wondering how the local youth keep warm, short answer they don’t, but the slightly longer answer is that they wear two jumpers instead.

I wonder how many schools still have lockers, compared to how many fictional students still have lockers. In American school dramas we always see scenes involving lockers. The lockers themselves are often used as a plot device, with plantings of drugs and offensive graffiti emblazoned across them, and love notes pushed through the cracks, and timid boys being locked inside… In fact, everything I know about lockers comes from fiction:

Now, it is possible to slip a note into a locked locker through the vents. Even, with some pushing, a pencil. Once, Tiny Cooper slipped a Happy Bunny book into my locker. But I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine how Jane, who, after all, is not the world’s strongest individual, managed to stuff an entire winter coat through the tiny slits in my locker.

from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

But I have no idea how many North American schools still provide lockers for their students. (Perhaps one of you will enlighten me.) In New Zealand, as in England (like Bennett observed), most students lump around a bag full of textbooks all day. This can’t be good for the back. I think at some schools parents are starting to complain about this, and lockers may be making a comeback.

SARCASM

Bennett writes:

Nicholas Hytner has shown the script of The History Boys to one of his former teachers at Manchester Grammar School, who says that teaching these days is so circumscribed that many traditional tools of the trade are now impermissible. Sarcasm, for instance, is out, pupils are never touched and there are often viewing panels in the doors.

Each of these observations is very true, and it does frustrate me when I see sarcastic dialogue from teachers in modern fictional schools. We were taught firmly at teachers’ college that sarcasm is a no-no — and the objection doesn’t just come from above; today’s students detect sarcasm in a second, and will pull you up on it. I remember filling in for another teacher, turning up to anarchy and saying, ‘Some quiet would be nice.’

One of the students was listening, at least. She turned to me and said, ‘Watch the sarcasm, Miss.’

And if I hadn’t been so busy with the humdrum, time-consuming and dreary job of calling a class of unknown students to attention, I might have delivered a lesson on what ‘sarcasm’ actually means, and how it compares to ‘understatement’ but this was a maths lesson. (I also remember later in the hour being asked how to do quadratic equations, and I was of no help whatsoever with that.)

Yet authors of fictional teachers are still making heavy use of sarcasm in lessons, and this lacks authenticity to me… Which is problematic if authenticity is what they are going for.

PHYSICAL CONTACT

Regarding the touchy issue of touching, in every school you’ll probably find at one point in staff history:

  • a teacher who gets away with quite a bit of physical contact because they have a wonderful rapport with all of their students, and it never gets them into trouble
  • at least one teacher who crosses the line, and who seems to get a certain titillation out of mildly through wildly inappropriate touching of students. This is my own experience of schools.

But most teachers never, ever touch students, not even in kindness. So when I see a teacher in a fictional drama touching a student, even on the shoulder, even to gain attention, I notice.

I also notice when a teacher keeps a student behind after class for a talking to. Even if this is innocent — like ‘Where’s your homework?’ — I always think how unlikely it is, that a teacher would keep a student behind after class. Teachers know to keep their classroom doors open, and when speaking to an individual student, keep their friends along too, or just outside the door, within earshot. Isn’t every modern teacher ever-aware of fictional claims of sexual abuse and harassment? Even fictional characters? I get the impression that authors of fictional teachers underestimate this unfortunate and lingering anxiety.

BEFORE THE BELL

So often in American dramas the bell rings; students snap their books shut, stand up, walk out.

I have never seen this scenario (except with one teacher who, it was widely acknowledged, had major problems controlling her classes).

What usually happens is this:

1. The teacher is keeping an eye on the clock about every five minutes. (You don’t see this much in dramatised classrooms either.) The teacher is often more cognizant of the end of class than the students, and it is the teacher who orchestrates the wind-up of a lesson.

2. About ten minutes before the end, a good teacher will ask the class to contribute to a recap of the day’s learning material. There’s usually some boring admin stuff, like homework, but I can forgive a scriptwriter for leaving that stuff out.

3. A tidy teacher will ask students to pick up any litter on the floor, and if it’s the last lesson of the day, the chairs will go up onto the desks. (Can you think of a single time you’ve seen this on the screen?)

4. If students start packing up before they are requested, any teacher with middling management skills still knows to put the kybosh on that, or else students soon learn that they can pack up a good 20 mins before the end of each class and big struggle for position near the exit, ready to burst out the door with the first tinkle of the bell. Any teacher who lets this happen is not on top of things.

So why, in fiction, do students pack up and leave taking their cue from the bell, not their teachers, with ‘good’ teachers shouting over top of the ruckus in order to finish their sentence?

STUDENT CENTERED LESSONS

In modern classrooms, students have far more to say than in the classrooms of yesteryear. The teacher is no longer a lecturer; rather a facilitator. Students are frequently divided into groups, set to work on a task (often on a computer), then present to their peers.

What I see in fictional classrooms: The teacher yaks. Students listen. This is a particularly vexing scenario when the class is supposed to be ‘difficult’.

I can tell you for a fact, modern students have little tolerance for lengthy lectures. There are still lessons during which teachers do a goodly proportion of the talking, but they are not met with the bright and alert faces which are seen so often on TV and movies. What you definitely get during a high school lecture lesson is a teacher who is telling Amy to stop talking, Corey to refrain from tapping the desk with his pencil, Riley to quit rustling with whatever is in that plastic bag yadda yadda yadda.

The most realistic depiction of a fictional classroom that I have seen is Summer Heights High (Australia), closely followed by Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby (New Zealand). Matt Lucas as Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate’s ‘am I bovvered’ are also scarily accurate. That, of course, is exactly why they’re funny. These are all parodies, yet they achieve a realism that serious drama can’t seem to match.

These depictions get a bit closer to what really happens in a modern high school lesson, at least in Australia, NZ and England. The Catherine Tate sketch is scarily accurate… A VERY similar thing happened when I went to teach English to the English with a New Zealand accent. I almost think Catherine Tate was a fly on the wall that day, especially since my main sparring partner was called Lauren.

FURTHER READING

High School Hierarchy in YA Fiction

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

How To Structure Any (Western-style) Story

Combining my study of film, novels, children’s literature and lyrical short stories, I’ve come up with a nine part story structure.

Other cultures historically carve up stories differently. For instance, East Asian audiences expect different things from story, and also differ in the amount of work they expect to put in.

Not all stories are ‘Complete Narratives’. Mood pieces, character sketches, experimental short stories (such as those by Lydia Davis and descriptions of setting/paintings have more in common with poetry, which become complete narratives only at Step Nine, when the audience completes the arc in an imaginative, collaborative process.

Reading is very creative—it’s not just a passive thing. I write a story; it goes out into the world; somebody reads it and, by reading it, completes it.

Margaret Mahy, New Zealand children’s author
Continue reading “How To Structure Any (Western-style) Story”

Tuurngait: An award winning short film

An Inuit child wanders away from his village, fascinated by a wild bird. His father follow his trail, dertermined to find him before he gets lost on the ice floe.

6 minutes)

The title of the short film makes us of unusual font. This is reminiscent of the Inuikitut syllabary.

QUESTIONS FOR YOUNG VIEWERS

  1. Where is this short film set? How can you tell?
  2. Describe how the boy’s (Nanuk’s) clothing differs from the clothing of his father. What does this contrast represent?
  3. There is no dialogue throughout this story, yet the viewer understands something of Nanuk’s character through his body language and facial expressions. What sort of character is Nanuk?
  4. Describe how the father’s body language and facial expressions contrast with those of his son.
  5. The lighting outside is blue and bright. Describe the lighting and atmosphere inside the hut.
  6. The Tuurngait is a creature in Inuit mythology, but the Wikipedia entry points out that this form of ‘mythology’ is slightly different from other definitions. Explain in your own words.
  7. Why does Nanuk follow the bird?
  8. In fantasy fiction there is often a ‘portal’, in which the main character enters a magical realm. In this case the portal is hidden under the ice floe, accessed via a break in the ice. Think of other fantasy stories you have read. What else is used as a ‘portal’?
  9. As Nanuk enters the reflective icy cave, the viewer sees a kaleidoscopic effect, with multiple birds and multiple Nanuks. What is the significance of this?
  10. Inside the cave, what kind of sound effects are used to portray an eerie environment?
  11. The cave becomes scarier and scarier. How has the color scheme changed?
  12. In the spooky under-ice-floe world, animals are gigantic. In fantasy, size is often exaggerated as a technique. What is the effect of this technique? And can you think of any other stories in which large animals featured?
  13. At the end, the huge bear morphs into an image of the father. Why?
Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Picturebook Study: Colour Analysis

Colour is a language. Take the illustrations below, both of Venice. The first is a more typical depiction of Venice by Georges Dorival. Dorival was creating a travel poster, so of course he wanted Venice to look welcoming.

Georges Dorival (1879 - 1968) 1921 travel poster illustration for Venice
Georges Dorival (1879 – 1968) 1921 travel poster illustration for Venice

The second illustration is by John Piper for Death In Venice 2. This is a fare less typical choice of colour for depicting Venice, and the atmosphere is now completely different.

John Piper - Death in Venice II from 1973 for the novel by Thomas Mann
John Piper – Death in Venice II from 1973 for the novel by Thomas Mann

This third example is difference again.

Guido Borelli is an Italian artist from an artistic family ‘Venice at Dusk'
Guido Borelli is an Italian artist from an artistic family ‘Venice at Dusk’

Naturally, in picture books too, colour has a language of its own.

THE IDEATIONAL ROLE OF COLOUR

In its most basic role, colour is used by illustrators to represent the hue of things as we think they most often appear in the world. Despite the link to veridical reality, there is still a reliance upon archetypes. Not all cows are black and white, not by a long shot. Yet the cow as illustrated on your milk carton is probably black and white, because this is how we think of cows.

The following retro picture book (from 1962) is an excellent exhibit of how picture book illustrators depict ‘the colour of things’ in an unmarked way.

THE TEXTUAL ROLE OF COLOUR

  • The same colour might be used over and over to create a meaningful imagistic pattern, like the colour red in the film Sixth Sense (a ‘colour motif‘).
  • Colour may be used contrastively to highlight or foreground some element within a composition to make it especially salient to the viewer. Anthony Browne might use a square of light coming through a doorway to segregate one character from another, for example segregating daughter from father in Gorilla.

THE INTERPERSONAL ROLE OF COLOUR

This is about the emotional effect colour has on the viewer and refers to the visceral response we have, independent of the actual story being told. Other useful words are: ambience, mood, atmosphere.

A picture book filled with bright, light colours might feel childlike and joyous.

A picture book rendered in monochrome might make us feel melancholy or reflective or sombre.

Sepia tones put us in mind of an historicised story.

Colour and texture can be either infused or defused (I’ve also heard the term ‘diffused’ or we might say ‘drained’.)

Lighting effects can make a picture seem either dramatised (e.g. arte noir) or flat (by removing any aerial perspective).

by-Theodore-G.-Haupt-1902-1990-1931
by Theodore G. Haupt (1902-1990) 1931

We can speak in terms of vibrancy, which is another term for saturation (lots of colour, or tending more towards monochrome). Vibrancy creates excitement whereas muted colours create gentle, restrained feelings, or perhaps flat feelings. Note that ‘muted’ can refer to either light or dark images. Rosie’s Walk is muted but light, whereas Wolves In The Walls is muted but dark.

Vibrancy/saturation is tied directly to the variable of ‘value’ — the lights and darks — imagine the illustration blocked out in grey scale. That’s its value. (Illustrators often do a values sketch first, and digital illustrators often work by setting down the values and only adding colour on separate layers after all the value details have been finalised. This allows hue and vibrancy to be changed easily at any stage of the publishing process.)

We can speak in terms of warmth, according to how yellow/blue a picture is.

Warm colours and cool colours can signal the temperature of the environment but also the emotion of the characters, or both.

Garth Williams

And here’s something not seen in digital art software: we can also speak in terms of ‘familiarity‘. Familiar illustrations will have more colour differentiation whereas ‘removed’ illustrations will have less. A ‘familiar’ ambience is made up of lots of ‘colour differentiation’. (Lots of different colours.) The reason it’s called ‘familiar’ is because the real world is also made up of lots of different colours, and we are familiar with the real world.

Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke - Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969) drinking driving
Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969)

When illustrators make use of a reduced palette they are making the conscious decision to move readers away from the familiar and into the strange. There will be a reason for wanting to move us away from reality and it’s just a matter of working out what that reason is when analysing an illustration.

This removal from reality needn’t be in the literal sense — it might be figurative.

Vibrancy, warmth and familiarity are all simultaneously active — they don’t cancel each other out.

An opposite of the ‘familiar’ colour scheme might be described as ‘saudade‘, from Portuguese. Saudade describes a feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia. (Saudade Pinterest Boards)

A mixture of familiar and saudade colour palettes in the same book can show the difference between, say, characters who are enjoying life and a part of their environment and those who are removed. (As an example see Anthony Browne’s Piggyback — the father is depicted in vibrant colours while the mother is removed. Another is Cooke and Oxenbury’s So Much.)

In picture books you often see a foreground without background setting — a part of the scene has been pulled out and placed upon a blank (often white) background. This is done to draw the reader’s attention to the emotion in the picture rather than to encourage a focus on the ambience.

Splashes of colour within generally dark pictures usually mean something in the story, too. For example, a bright splash of colour that runs through a book might foreshadow a happy ending.

Another kind of colour contrast used in picture books: A coloured frame or margin that carries the ambience. Try dividing the picture into parts according to light and dark, in shadow or in light, warm or cool, and see how the composition looks now.

White margins don’t mean much in picture books because they’re neutral but black margins do have an effect. We’re less inclined to react emotionally to a picture when framed in black. (Art students are told to avoid black straight out of the tube altogether, presumably for this reason.)

When a children’s picture book is entirely black and white the decision has been made to forego the opportunity for ambience, or at least downplay it. Even in black and white pictures you still get the full continuum between simple black and white line drawings with no ambience to drawings that include shading, hatching and dotting to create texture and then there are those that emphasise lighting effects to create a greater sense of atmosphere. (These last kind have infused ambience rather than ‘defused’. Another word for ‘defused’ is ‘flat’.)

Notes are from Reading Visual Narratives (2013) by Painter, Martin and Unsworth

FURTHER READING

  • Here’s a very nice resource for anyone who would like to know about the History and Science of Colour Temperature, at a website called Filmmaker IQ.
  • Film School Rejects shared a program which averages the colour of films and comes out with a single hue. It would be interesting to apply this to picture books. Meantime, there are plans to use it on Disney films.
  • The colours of hospital codes make for interesting insight into universal colour symbolism
Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Is it possible to elicit a love of reading in children?

George Goodwin Kilburne - A Peaceful Read 1869

Anyone who sends their kid to piano lessons or any other kind of lesson has probably wondered this: At what point will I allow my kid to give up this pursuit if they’re not enjoying it, or actively resisting?

Time Ideas has an interesting article about the science of interest (which I didn’t know was a thing).

As researcher Suzanne Hidi notes, “Teachers often think that students either have, or do not have, interest, and might not recognize that they could make a significant contribution to the development of students’ academic interest.”

In fact, research suggests that well-developed personal interests always begin with an external “trigger”—seeing a play, reading a book, hearing someone talk—and that well-designed environments can make such a triggering more likely.

The main things I picked up from this article:

  1. Be friendly, chatty, engaging
  2. Model interest by being interested yourself
  3. We tend to prioritise intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivators, but in reality, successful people are driven by both

Related

Literacy Test Scores Do Not Equal A Love Of Reading

Many believe that if boys liked reading more, their literacy test scores would surely increase.  Table 1-4 does not support that belief.

see more in the article Girls, Boys and Reading

The entire article is well worth a read if you’ve ever wondered about why there is an increasing gender gap between boys and girls when assessed for reading comprehension. Spoiler alert: There are no clear-cut answers — only speculation.

The interesting thing about this particular article: pointing out that we don’t naturally assume students from countries with good maths scores enjoy maths, but we do apply that same logic to reading, in which it is assumed that enjoyment of reading equals being good at it.

While students who enjoy reading probably are good at it, that doesn’t account for another cohort: students who are good at it but don’t read that often, or students who read often for school but don’t particularly enjoy it.

Header painting: George Goodwin Kilburne – A Peaceful Read 1869

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Writing Activity: Describe A Bedroom

Pets for Peter, 1950, Aurelius Battaglia, Italian American Children's Book Illustrator

Lectrology, the study of the bed and its surroundings, can be extremely useful and tell you a great deal about the owner, even if it’s only that they are a very knowing and savvy installations artist.

Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

Each of us has three lives: public, private and secret. We are rarely afforded glimpses into the bedrooms of other people, a room which, in the West, bridges the private and secret selves.

CANOPY BEDS

Canopy beds can be cosy, or anything but.

The Little Golden Funny Book, pictures by J.P.Miller, 1950
The Little Golden Funny Book, pictures by J.P.Miller, 1950

But fiction lets us all the way in. In fiction, the bedroom can be a representation — perhaps ironic — of a character’s inner world.

EXAMPLE ONE: THE SPARTAN BEDROOM

Alice Munro is master at describing the ordinary, and so she shows us here, in her descriptions of bedrooms described as ‘Spartan’ or as bachelor pads.

My father slept in what had been a pantry, off the kitchen. He had an iron bed and a broken-backed chair he kept his stack of old National Geographics on, to read when he couldn’t sleep. He turned the ceiling light off and on by a cord tied to the bed-frame. This whole arrangement seemed to me quite natural and proper for the man of the house, the father. He should sleep like a sentry with a coarse blanket for cover and an unhousebroken smell about him, of engines and tobacco. Reading and wakeful till all hours and alert all through his sleep.

Alice Munro, “Queenie

The ceiling of [Delphine’s] room sloped steeply on either side of a dormer window. There was a single bed, a sink, a chair, a bureau. On the chair a hot plate with a kettle on it. On the bureau a crowded array of makeup, combs and pills, a tin of teabags and a tin of hot chocolate powder. The bedspread was of thin tan-and-white striped seersucker, like the ones on the guest beds.

Alice Munro, “Trespasses

He stood aside for Robin to enter the big front room, which had no rug on the wide painted floorboards and no curtains, only shades, on the windows. There was a hi-fi system taking up a good deal of space along one wall, and a sofa along the wall opposite, of the sort that would pull out to make a bed. A couple of canvas chairs, and a bookcase with books on one shelf and magazines on the others, tidily stacked. No pictures or cushions or ornaments in sight. A bachelor’s room, with everything deliberate and necessary and proclaiming a certain austere satisfaction. Very different from the only other bachelor premises Robin was familiar with—Willard Grieg’s, which seemed more like a forlorn encampment established casually in the middle of his dead parents’ furniture.

Alice Munro, “Tricks

The room was almost square, perhaps a little longer than it was wide, with only
one window that filled almost the entire far wall. So far, completely blank and
empty, it was expectant, almost curious, and Natalie, standing timidly just inside
the door, in the walls opposite the window, looked at the bare walls with joy; it
was, precisely, a new start.

Shirley Jackson, “Hangsaman”
ANALYSIS

Square, one windowed, blank and empty, Natalie’s space is not quite the lavish palace setting one might hope for in a new start. Yet, this clinical style space is perfect for the girl “standing timidly” right at the threshold. Natalie’s apprehensive joy is mirrored in the room, personified in its “expectant, almost curious” reaction to its new owner. The space’s barrenness can be filled with Natalie’s belongings, thoughts, and feelings.

Repeatedly, Natalie’s “joy” comes from staring at the bare walls, and a projected potential. Newness creates safety. Though the walls are tan, the ceiling decorated “in the proper institutional bad taste, so uninspired as to be almost colorless, and the dark-brown woodwork and the smallness of the room made it seem cell-like and dismal” with one single bulb hanging over Natalie’s head, her impression is of comfort.

Though the “bad taste” and “uninspired” decor should be confining and “dismal,” Natalie’s first gaze into the room leaves her feeling satisfied and content. Her new space gives the impression of “setting her in a sort of package, compact and square and air and water-proof, a precise, unadulterated, fresh start…a new clean box to live in”.

This insular, sectioned off aesthetic equivalent of a jail cell instills contentment in entrapment. Natalie’s previous life in her stifled suburban space becomes a distanced version of her self (and, by extension, trauma) escaped through creating a sense of new and explorable setting.

The other side to Natalie’s expectations is a sense of dread that the room enforces. Not only does Natalie have her ideas for the room, but it is as if the room has always been waiting for her entry.

Its personified expectancy and curiosity lead into its “setting her in a sort of package,” coming alive to meet its new occupant. The room is as sentient as its new owner. […]

The struggle between what belongs in and out manifests in Jackson’s attention to smalL architectural symbols. Doors are a means to access the space in between, a threshold that creates the eerie connection between reality and non reality.

“Homespun” Horror: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Doubling by Hannah Phillips

EXAMPLE TWO: THE TECHNICOLOUR BEDROOM

She woke in the night with the vibrating pink lights of the restaurant sign across the street flashing through her window, illuminating the other teacher’s Mexican doodads. Pots of cacti, dangling cat’s eyes, blankets with stripes the color of dried blood. All that drunken insight, that exhilaration, cast out of her like vomit. Aside from that, she was not hungover. She could wallow in lakes of alcohol, it seemed, and wake up dry as cardboard, flattened. Her life gone. A commonplace calamity. The truth was that she was still drunk, though feeling dead sober.

Alice Munro, “Fiction

EXAMPLE THREE: THE ATTIC BEDROOM

Upstairs in her strange little room Harry dropped her pack on the floor, pleased to be up there, still hearing family voices but not having to answer them. Though the attic was called Harry’s room, it as not really a romm at all, simply a floor laid over the ceiling joists and insultation, a space fitted in under the pointed “A” of the roof. Its dormer window looked out to sea across curved wands of bougainvillaea, and she shared the space with boxes of Christmas decorations. A little mirror without a frame hung on a nail in one of the diagonals that supported the iron roof. She could see tents, ground sheets, rolls of wallpaper left over from previous home improvements, and many other spare things that just might be needed some day. Here at night, over many years, the house had groaned and murmured to her…

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

EXAMPLE FOUR: THE FOREST BEDROOM

The forest is symbolically rich for storytellers, multivalent in its associations — a place of refuge and a place of terror at once. The forest is basically the subconscious. That is how it functions in fairytale.

The bedroom from Beauty and the Beast (1945) is interesting because Beauty’s bedroom spills over into the forest. This is a story which delves into the deep subconscious. (The text below has been auto translated from French.) For ane xample of forest as bedroom in Sleeping Beauty see 12 Films Inspired by the Art of Gustave Doré.

The bedroom without walls, blending with surrounding landscape has been utilised by contemporary picture book illustrators, for instance Anthony Browne in Just A Dream. (In that post I offer other examples.) There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild blends a child’s bedroom with the sea.

EXAMPLE FIVE: A MESSY BEDROOM

Can you think of one from your own life?

EXAMPLE SIX: A BOY’S BEDROOM

Robert McCloskey wrote and illustrated Homer Price, published in 1943
Balotje En De Beren 2004
Balotje En De Beren 2004

EXAMPLE SEVEN: A SCANDINAVIAN NOOK BEDROOM

The illustration below is by English-Australian writer/illustrator Inga Moore and is set on a ship, but the bed is very similar to those in Scandinavian cottages.

Inga Moore illustration of Captain Cat

In English they’re called Scandinavian box beds.

Omar Rayyan - Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale bedroom
Omar Rayyan – Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale
Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1956 beds
Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1956.

The Bed: Laurie Taylor explores the social history of the bed and considers the chequered fortunes of the twin versus double bed at the Thinking Allowed podcast (BBC 4).

Richard Hollingdale – A Bedtime Story 1878
Illustrations for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' painted in the 1950s by Soviet artist Andrey Sokolov
Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ painted in the 1950s by Soviet artist Andrey Sokolov
Original 1931 Judge magazine with Dr. Suess illustrations 1931 bedroom
Original 1931 Judge magazine with Dr. Suess illustrations 1931
Albert Rutherston, The Confessions of Claude, (1901)
Albert Rutherston, The Confessions of Claude, (1901), based on a domestic drama novel by Émile Zola.

BEDROOMS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

A typical home-away-home children’s story takes place over the course of a single day, and ends when the child is tucked safely into bed at night. No surprise, then, that Western children’s books feature many examples of illustrated bedrooms.

Note that tucking a child into their own bed at night is a specifically Western thing to do. Many non-Western children co-sleep with their parents until adolescence.

A character’s room can contribute to characterisation… Setting is frequently used to symbolize the character’s moods as well as power position. The bright sunny morning in the beginning of Anne of Green Gables corresponds to her hopeful expectations. A change of setting can parallel the change in the character’s frame of mind. A storm can symbolize the turmoil in the character’s psyche.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva

1. How is Asaf’s new bedroom different from his old one?

2. Describe the colour symbolism.

Mouse's House - written by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry (1949)
Mouse’s House – written by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry (1949)
Katie Country Mouse Goes to London by Philip Mendoza
Katie Country Mouse Goes to London by Philip Mendoza
"How to treat a rooster" by Alexey Krylov Illustrator Vladimir Lubarsky
“How to treat a rooster” by Alexey Krylov Illustrator Vladimir Lubarsky
Zdenek Miller (Czech) mole series 1957-2002
Zdenek Miller (Czech) mole series 1957-2002
Richard Scarry (1919-1994), American author and illustrator. The bunny book, 1955
Richard Scarry (1919-1994), American author and illustrator. The bunny book, 1955
What Do People Do All Day (1968) by Richard Scarry
What Do People Do All Day (1968) by Richard Scarry
The Surprise Picnic 1976 John S. Goodall bedroom
The Surprise Picnic 1976 John S. Goodall
Lullaby, Illustrator Yuri Vasnetsov
Lullaby, Illustrator Yuri Vasnetsov
Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever bed pram
Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever
Mumfie. Illustrations by Katherine Tozer
Mumfie. Illustrations by Katherine Tozer
Tom Vroman, 1964
Tom Vroman, 1964
From Lucy and Tom From A to X B is for Books before bed by Shirley Hughes
Elisabeth Brozowska, Isidore L'Hippopotame, 1969
Elisabeth Brozowska, Isidore L’Hippopotame, 1969
Eddie Elephant Written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle. Volland Sunny Book Series. Chicago P.F. Volland, 1921
Eddie Elephant Written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle. Volland Sunny Book Series. Chicago P.F. Volland, 1921
Marco Somà
Marco Somà
Yevgeny Meshkov's illustrations for The Cat and the Whale. These ones were for the 1964 Filmoscope release 2
Yevgeny Meshkov’s illustrations for The Cat and the Whale. These ones were for the 1964 Filmoscope release 2
Christian Roux
French postcard 1913 cat in bed
French postcard 1913 cat in bed
Arthur Rackham 1905 bedroom
Arthur Rackham 1905

CHILDREN’S BEDROOMS IN FINE ART

Walter Frederick Osborne (1859 – 1903)
Elizabeth Shippen Green, Candle Light, 1908 bedroom
Elizabeth Shippen Green, Candle Light, 1908 bedroom
Bubbling Love Of Fun! Art by Roy Frederic Spreter pillow fight bedroom
Bubbling Love Of Fun! Art by Roy Frederic Spreter
Edward Radford (British, 1831 - 1920) The Song of the Shirt 1887 bedroom
Edward Radford (British, 1831 – 1920) The Song of the Shirt 1887
Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1853 – 1919), “Lisbeth with Gold Tulip,” 1894

SEE ALSO

CRADLE TRICK: A sub-category of the “bed-trick,” this is a folk motif in which the position of a cradle in a dark room leads one character to climb into bed with the wrong sexual partner. It appears prominently in Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale.” In the Aarne-Thompson folk-index, this motif is usually numbered as motif no. 1363.

Literary Terms and Definitions

A Study of Beds and Bedrooms

Teenage Bedroom is a Tumblr with photos of … well, it’s pretty self-explanatory. What vibe do you get from each of these bedrooms? Can you associate any with characters from novels you have read?

Rolled over: why did married couples stop sleeping in twin beds? A new cultural history shows that until the 1950s, forward-thinking couples regarded sharing a bed as old-fashioned and unhealthy from The Guardian

In the Year of the Virus is an innovative graphic comic book inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic. The story revolves around several characters affected — and infected —- by the viral outbreak. The text by award-winning writer Felix Cheong, adapted beautifully by artist Eko, examines our humanity as our lives are upended and ended.

This is a ground-breaking work that marries text with artwork and aptly captures the wild swings of emotion we all felt after the pandemic hit and the lockdown began.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Header illustration: Pets for Peter, 1950, Aurelius Battaglia, Italian American Children’s Book Illustrator