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.
The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats was first published 1978, which makes it 40 years old. The Snowy Day is the most famous of Keats’ publications, but The Tripwas also successful, and subsequently adapted into a play. Although I have not seen the play, I can imagine how a set designer was enchanted by the peep show box element of this picture book. There are instructions in the back for how to make one.
As a Jewish American and son of immigrants, Keats was hugely influential in American children’s literature for including people of colour in his work.
Keats was influential for another, related reason: His love of the urban landscape. Picture books such as A Lion In The Meadow were far more popular in the 1960s and 70s. Pastoral arenas make for a pleasant childhood utopia, after all. It’s almost as if children’s storytellers couldn’t imagine a child being happy in the city. Yet many children do live in the city, and almost as many wouldn’t have it any other way.
For much more on the symbolism of city versus country, see this post.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TRIP
Like many fictional children, Louie has just moved to a new neighbourhood. This story is so popular because:
Every reader can identify with a character facing some big change. We’ve all had change in our lives. And if not, we all fear change somewhat.
In storytelling terms, this is the perfect plot because the child reader is now exploring Louie’s new world alongside Louie. This creates immediate character empathy.
It also provides the author/illustrator with a reason for explaining this new setting. Everything is new to the child, and everything is noteworthy.
Louie’s weakness is that he is new, anxious and doesn’t know anybody in his new neighbourhood.
Surface desire: Louie wants to have a bit of fun making a peep show box, because he doesn’t feel sufficiently confident to go outside.
Deeper desire: Louie wants to connect with people.
In a story like this, in which the child is too scared to really do anything or go anywhere, what does a writer do about the opposition?
Well, it very often comes from the child’s imagination. That’s the very thing keeping them from moving in the first place.
The opponents are the scary creatures Louie makes inside his peep show box.
To amuse himself with a peep show box. Though I doubt Louie meant to do this consciously, what he’s doing — in effect — is creating miniature versions of his old friends then disguising them as monsters so that the costume can subsequently come off, revealing scary things to be benign after all.
He flies back to his old neighbourhood in his imagination, as a way to transition himself from his old place to this new place a bit more slowly than has been forced upon him. I was thinking about the symbolism of flight, and how Keats was using that. But I don’t believe flight is the significant symbol here — it’s photography. I wrote about photography in young adult literature here, but the peep show box serves in this picture book in the same way.
Also, part of me thinks this story is about how kids are basically the same wherever you go — the trick or treaters of this new neighbourhood might as well be the same friends he has back home. This is an interesting concept, and it’s probably my own interpretation rather than Keats’ intent, but I do think kids of this age are adaptable. If they’re good at making friends in one environment, they’ll most likely find the same kind of comrades if they’re transplanted.
Louie meets the monsters head on. They chase him down a street. At first he seems to be trapped, but…
… then he recognises his friends who are dressed up.
The revelation for the reader is that it is Halloween. The revelation for Louie is that things may look scary on the outside are not at all scary when you really look at them closely (or get to know them).
Ergo: He realises that if he gets to know the kids in his new neighbourhood, they won’t be scary to him.
Louie goes outside to join the new neighbourhood kids, and we extrapolate that he will make friends with them.
A Lion In The Meadow by Margaret Mary is a picture book first published in 1969. In some ways this picture book feels dated, but in other ways not at all. This story is interesting as an example of an ironically funny self-revelation. Continue reading “A Lion In The Meadow by Margaret Mahy”
The Nightfish is an Australian picture book written and illustrated by Helen McCosker. Published in 2006, this children’s story makes a good counterpoint to There’s A Sea In My Bedroom(1984). In Margaret Wild’s 1984 story, a boy takes a shell home with him from the beach and — as a child of the eighties I can tell you — no one thought twice about taking souvenirs from nature. Our current generation of children are more environmentally aware. Now they have at least bumped up against the idea of ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. This change of societal attitude is reflected in their picture books: If you take something from nature you must return it, otherwise you’ll upset the environmental balance and all hell will break loose.
There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984) is a classic Australian picture book, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated in realistic fantasy style by Jane Tanner.
Margaret Wild is a well-known Australian author whose subject material ranches from melancholic to funny. I have previously blogged about Harry and Hopper and Chatterbox. Jane Tanner is also a well-known Australian illustrator, and also a writer and editor.
There’s A Sea In My Bedroom sticks firmly to the ocean surface. Wait until* David gets seaweed — or worse — tangled around his ankles, and steps on a blue bottle. Then he might get a bit suspicious about what the sea really is all about… but best to stick to paddling for now.
*David probably turned 40 this year, if he was six in the pictures.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM
David was frightened of the sea.
It’s right there in the opening sentence. Some advocate ‘showing not telling’ but in a picture book for very young readers, you often get both. First we’re told, then we’re shown. The image of the rough sea — and nothing else — is really quite scary actually.
Because this is a picture book, and you’ll have read plenty of picture books if you’re here at this blog, you will know from the very first line that this is a story about overcoming one’s fear of the sea.
An aversion to the sea is not in itself a desire, so Margaret Wild is sure to put something in that he’d rather be doing instead. David loves to collect shells, and he is quite happy doing this.
Tip for picture book authors: If your main character is afraid of something, give them a proxy desire, not directly related to the aversion. This will help the reader to feel like this is a complete and rounded story. But it does more than that: It lets us know that this is not a wholly pathetic character.
You could argue that the father is David’s opponent. Dad gives David the conch shell and tells him — cruelly! — that the sea can be heard inside the shell. David then takes the shell home, and his greatest fear is inside his bedroom now.
At home in his room, alone with the ‘magical’ shell, David goes on a carnivalesque adventure into a sea which invades his bedroom and fills it up. But this is not a scary situation, this is fun.
The proxy for the Battlescene is when his parents come in to find him writhing around on the carpet, in some sort of imaginary play. I suspect the young reader might expect a telling-off, because presumably David is meant to be in bed trying to get some sleep.
A soft growly, friendly sea.
When David explains to his parents that the imaginary sea was friendly, he can transfer that positive emotion to the real sea.
Now David is able to enjoy swimming at the beach as well as collecting shells. He has learned that the sea is friendly.
(I’d argue that the sea is not particularly friendly in Australia, but that message is not helpful in a picture book.)
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Where The Wild Things Are is the archetypal picture book about a boy who goes on an imaginary adventure at sea, though this one starts at the beach and ends there, too. And There’s A Sea In My Bedroom is designed to help children overcome a very specific fear, whereas Wild Things is more a mood piece about bad feelings in general. We don’t even know what it is exactly that leaves Max in such a bad mood.
The Polar Express also makes use of the trope in which a child returns from an imaginary (not imaginary) adventure to find evidence of the trip in the form of something material. I’m not a fan of this trope, because I feel intuitively that it encourages magical thinking. (There’s a line between enjoying magical fiction and actively discouraging reason.) In There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, the talisman is a small pile of sand, which works really well for a reader like me, because the sand probably came out of the shell, or his shoe or wherever. There’s absolutely a real storyworld reason for a pile of sand to be in his bedroom. A young reader can be helped to understand that, too, unlike in The Polar Express.
The most hilarious thing about President Squid is that it is not about President Trump. Well, of course it’s about Trump and all of his kind, but as the author told Betsy Bird in an interview, it was already written and in the publishing pipeline before Trump even began his campaign. Reynolds wrote it around 2013/2014 with an election year book in mind.
Yet you can’t get a book that is MORE about President Trump.
Mister Dog, written by Margaret Wise Brown, was first published by Little Golden Books in 1952. This was the last book published in Wise Brown’s lifetime before she died age 42.
Garth Brown illustrated the text in his distinctive Garth Brown style.
The story is about a dog with the stand-out gag that he ‘belongs to himself’. This is reflected in his vaguely recursive (but ultimately nonsensical) name: Crispin’s Crispian*. I believe this was the name of Wise Brown’s own dog, and that the dog ran the show. It makes sense that the author thought of her dog as an individual with his own mind. By all accounts, the author herself refused to be constrained.
*Crispin and Crispian are also meant to be the twin patron saints of certain workmen like cobblers, curriers and tannery workers. I think she probably chose this name because it sounds poetic, not because it makes sense. (Crispin’s Crispin makes sense.)
The Little Golden Books series was launched in 1942, just as the second world war ended. Children needed to hunker down with cosy stories (along with their parents). Scuff The Tugboat was one of the earlier publications of this highly successful franchise, first printed in 1946, and the epitome of ‘cosy’. Now you can buy an edition with a big 75th Birthday Celebrations on the front.
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at another wordless picture book, this time by Shirley Hughes: Up and Up, from 1979.
STORY STRUCTURE OF UP AND UP
Up and Up is a carnivalesque portalfantasy, and the portal is the huge chocolate egg.
The story opens with the following wonderfully detailed Where’s Wally-esque opening spread, with foreshadowing of the big balloon partially hidden behind a tree:
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
The girl in Up and Up doesn’t have a name, though she may be one of the characters from another Shirley Hughes book. Hughes’s characters all have a similarity to them. Children are drawn like sprightly little old people, somehow.
When characters in children’s books don’t have a name, this turns them by default into The Every Child.
WHAT DOES SHE WANT?
The girl wants to fly like a bird. We see this from the opening spread. A bird flies past; she stands up to watch it leave. At first we don’t know if she’s just interested in bird watching or perhaps feather-collecting, but the following spread cements that wish.
Her natural opponent is gravity, but gravity does not make for an especially interesting opponent. We can’t care about gravity — whether it wins or loses. Gravity just is.
Like many children who go off on carnivalesque adventures, her parents don’t pay attention to her. I guess this is a universal feeling children have, no matter how much time parents have.
Her main human opponent is introduced a bit later — the old man with the telescope, who is the most hellbent on bringing her down. He’s a mad scientist archetype, and so keen to arrest her that he even uses his hot air balloon which he has in his backyard.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Shirley Hughes utilises the rule of threes during the opening sequence, giving the girl three separate plans to fly like a bird.
Run and leap (trips and falls)
Make wings out of paper and jump off a ladder. (I have personally done this as a kid, though I didn’t have enough faith to actually make the leap!)
Inflate balloons and float up into the sky. (Gets stuck on a twig.) At this point the story has already crossed over into fantasy realm. First, the girl blows up the balloons with her breath, but these are behaving like helium balloons. Second, there’s no way 9 balloons would lift a girl up into a tree.
All of her plans fail so she goes home in a grumpy mood. She’s standing in her entrance hall when something amazing happens. A massive chocolate egg is dropped off by the postie.
The ‘portal’ takes the girl back into the mundane world rather than into a parallel world. The chocolate egg is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, and to be honest I’d never even realised any connection between my chocolate eggs at Easter and the fact that eggs normally house baby birds.
Ideally, you want your character to move through the passageway slowly. A passageway is a special world unto itself; it should be filled with things and inhabitants that are both strange and organic to your story. Let your character linger there. Your audience will love you for it. The passageway to another world is one of the most popular of all story techniques. Come up with a unique one, and your story is halfway there.
— Notes from John Truby, TheAnatomy of Story
Though these pictures are simple black and white line drawings, I imagine this is the part in ‘Wizard of Oz’ where everything turns technicolour (or perhaps the colour has been seeping in since the balloons fantasy page). What follows is maybe a dream, or maybe it’s real within the world of the picture book. Picture book fantasies generally work like that — they can often be interpreted as the young child’s inner world fantasy.
The Big Battlein this story is preceded by a chase sequence in which people on the ground are chasing the girl to see this amazing spectacle. There’s a large dose of showing off involved here — the wish fulfilment in this fantasy is ‘everyone looks at how amazing I am and I am briefly the centre of attention’.
So we can predict she will defeat the old man chasing her. It’s all part of her own fantasy of being a hero.
You know from the beginning if a character is going to have a self-revelation because there will be something wrong with them. They might not appreciate someone, or they might be lonely, or they might not treat their friends well. In those stories, the character will almost certainly have changed by the end.
But in a carnivalesque story the point is to escape the mundane world and have fun for a while. That’s it. The carnivalesque story structure has more in common with comic structure than with dramatic structure. Though more ‘fun’ than ‘funny’, there is nothing to be learned except ‘that was really fun’ or ‘so that’s what fun looks like’.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The point of a carnivalesque story is that it will actually be the same as before… with one small difference. Now the girl knows what it is to have real, unfettered fun. The scene at the end where she’s eating a boiled egg and toast shows the mundane nature of her everyday life. (Boiled eggs are quite often used in fiction to show ‘ordinary’, though less so these days. I think kids are eating fewer boiled eggs in general.)