Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson series are genius examples of funny, endearing, broad-audience picture books. There’s so much to learn. Today I take a deep dive into Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig.
Eugenia and Baby Lincoln may live next door to a pig, but that doesn’t stop them from living a gracious life. And the amiable Mercy Watson is equally determined to follow the delightful scent (and delicious taste) of the pansies her thoughtful neighbors are planting to beautify their yard. “Where have all the flowers gone?” shouts Eugenia, who is finally ready to take extreme measures —- and dial Animal Control! Has Mercy’s swine song come at last? Or will her well-pampered instincts keep her in buttered toast?
— marketing copy
Mercy’s appetite has got her into trouble again. When Eugenia Lincoln’s pansies go missing, Animal Control Officer Francine Poulet arrives on the scene. But as she soon discovers, not just anyone can think like a pig. Especially when that pig is porcine wonder Mercy Watson!
The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books.
STORYWORLD OF JEREMY FISHER
Jeremy Fisher lives in a part human, part animal dwelling, which looks like a regular house but with water slopping all around the corridors and larder. (Just this week I’ve had the washing machine overflow, which calls to mind Jeremy Fisher.)
Beatrix sold Jeremy Fisher partly on her beautiful scenery to compensate for the unappealing amphibian. So The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is one of Potter’s most beautiful books. The flora, the mountainous background with its misty aerial perspective and the reflections in the water are beautifully rendered. Jeremy Fisher himself is patterned in what looks (to the modern eye) like camo pants, but they’re actually his own skin.
SYMBOLISM OF WATER
Potter is making doubly symbolic use of the water. Consider bodies of water two separate realms in storytelling: The water’s surface and the water’s depths. The water surface functions more like a vast plain (a la the Wild West) whereas the depths are more like outer space — you never know what can come out of it. You can’t see things coming, either. Humans have a natural fear of the ocean, and the further down we go, the more gruesome the fish life appears to us.
STORY STRUCTURE OF JEREMY FISHER
Through my contemporary lens, Jeremy Fisher is sympathetic in his own right, even without the help of lush scenery. Potter did a great job of his body language and face. The illustration below succeeds in making him look super cute, don’t you think? It’s all in the tilt of the head and perhaps in the underbite jaw.
Jeremy’s Weakness is that he is a low down on the food chain. Potter depicts him as fully a part of it — Jeremy plans to eat minnows, which he catches with worms. He invites to dinner a creature who only eats salad. The reader is made fully cognisant of the food chain and Jeremy’s place within it. There’s nothing sentimental about these stories.
Potter makes Jeremy sympathetic with subtle injections of humour. For instance, his ‘boat’ looks ‘very like the other lily-leaves’. In fact it’s just a lily leaf, not a boat at all. So Jeremy thinks of himself as a human. I know when my dog does things that appear human, I find him very cute. (Curling up in my bean bag, making use of a blanket to keep warm, learning how to open the door etc.) This tends to compensate for the annoyance.
Jeremy Desires minnows (small fish) for his dinner. Ideally he wants to catch more than he needs so he can entertain his friends at his house. This is a likeable sort of desire — we can see Jeremy is a generous ‘person’. Like actual animals in the wild, his relationship with killing isn’t about power (with humans it’s often about power), but about sustenance.
Jeremy’s Opponents are the much larger fish who swim beneath his ‘boat’. They can eat him up at any time. (He seems remarkably relaxed, considering.)
Dig in the garden for worms
Take can of worms to the ‘boat’
Dangle worms in water on the end of a fishing line
Take minnows home to cook for dinner
He gets as far as 3.
The Battle is beautifully set up, because Potter’s unseen narrator (Potter herself) tells us before the dire moment that the situation would have been dire had he not been wearing his macintosh. This leads us to expect less than what happens: We think he’s going to get terribly splashed.
Plot revelation: In fact Jeremy’s almost eaten. He is only spat out because the big fish doesn’t like the taste of the macintosh. This would feel like a shock to the young reader.
Jeremy’s Self-revelation is that he’s not safe down near the water and he won’t be going fishing again.
But we’re given a nice cosy New Equilibrium, with the three friends enjoying a (disgusting) meal together around Jeremy’s dinner table. The original plan didn’t work out, but Jeremy came up with a modified menu.
Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.
Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.
*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.
Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).
But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books. Continue reading “Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter”
Beatrix Potter was already popular by the time she published The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911). The introduction to our 110th anniversary copy says the tale was created specifically to appeal to a new, American audience, with the inclusion of chipmunks.
Note also, crime stories appeal disproportionately to women — for whatever reason, this is a female genre. Beatrix Potter was the perfect candidate to create such a work.
Also, if you want to see what sort of sociopathic, philosophising white man Peter Rabbit turned into, go no further than Mr. Tod — the unexpectedly dark sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Potter wrote this mindfully and opens with direct address:
I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.
Actually, Potter did not use the word ‘nice’. What she wrote was this:
I am quite tired of masking goody goody books about nice people.
The publishers made her change it.
I wonder if, by 1912, Potter had become weary of people’s assessment of her work. Even today, I feel Beatrix Potter is mischaracterised as a spinster who wrote cosy tales about bunnies dressed in coats. But you’d only believe that if you hadn’t actually read any of her stories. More recent made-for-TV bowdlerisations don’t help. Is the opening to Mr. Tod a note to the people who underestimate her darkness?
Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.
If Potter were alive today, I can guess what she’d say to people who insist people — women in particular — write likeable characters as role models for children. I think she’d tell them where to stick their opinions.
The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter is a story of utopian, idealised capitalism, first published 1909. This is how we’d all like capitalism to work — small local businesses provide goods and services; those friends providing the best goods and services win out, those ill-suited to small business find other, more suitable occupations. All is fair and just. Continue reading “The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter”
“The Headless Bust” is the sequel to “The Haunted Tea-Cosy”, which I tried to decipher the other day (with limited success). This one is actually a little easier to understand and we are basically given a pass for not understanding it anyway:
‘Who were these people? Why did they
Appear to us along the way?’
‘But then again, why should we care?’
It’s quelque chose d’un grand mystère.’ (something of a bit mystery)
Gorey taps into the absurd to save us from it.
— Jane Langton
WHY LANCELOT BROWN?
The book is dedicated to Lancelot Brown, a landscape designer who lived in the 1700s. He was paid royal figures for his landscaping work (while the actual gardeners were paid very little, I expect).
This is him. He does have a mischievous, interesting face. I can see why Gorey may have been taken by him. Because otherwise, honestly, why?
This makes me want to write a picture book and dedicate it to some random historical figure for absurdist reasons. This feels like a joke on literary analysts, who like to decipher reasons behind everything that appears in a book. Well, I’m not falling for that.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HEADLESS BUST
Once again, the story opens and closes with fruit cake. The standout feature of the fruit cake is that it is rock solid. The main character is a scrooge (we know from the previous story) and has been hoarding it for ten years.
The story opens like this:
‘Twas hours and hours after dawn
Ere (before) the last guest was fin’lly gone. ça va, hélas (alas), from bad to worse;
Adieu to prose, allô to verse.
This opening doesn’t mention the fruit cake but I assume that is what Edmund Gravel holds in his hand. The Bahhumbug ‘calls attention to’ some ‘fact’ — the fact that the story has now switched from prose to verse? And this is apparently the cause of Gravel’s ‘unraveling’, in which he goes with the insect creature into a parallel universe and meets all kinds of different people.
From here on in, each page is a bit like a limerick — different rhyme scheme, but a series of short, humorous character sketches in rhyme. My interpretation is that Gravel has just hosted a party which went on far too long and now he’s dreaming of people, perhaps remembering awkward interactions he’s had with them, being a natural hermit.
He is dozing off when a fly turns up, to complement his imaginary Bahhumbug, then a cloud (perhaps a shroud) and whisks them away to some ‘provincial town’ (showing that Edward prides himself on being urban and sophisticated). I’m reminded of The Wizard of Oz, but anything including a fly and dream sequences is going to remind us of Kafka. The French words make it at once sound a little erudite (beau monde, meaning fashionable society, and so on) while also distancing English speakers from the text — this is exotic stuff.
So that’s the fantasy portal by which Gravel lands on foreign turf: a shroud which might be just a woolly cloud.
REAL VERSUS TRUE
‘Initial, dash cannot conceal
The fact that everything is real,
But whether it is also true
Is left entirely up to you.’
What’s the difference between ‘real’ and ‘true’? This is the sort of question philosophers get caught up in. The question requires a definition of ‘truth’, most often described as that which is both empirical and logical. People on Quora have attempted to define a difference; but it comes down mostly to context.
I think Gorey is asking this question to make us think the story is deep. He knew darn well this is not a philosophical piece so much as a humorous one. Surely?
Then again, let’s go to the subtitle of this story: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium.
It’s easy to forget now — I was a young adult — everyone was talking about the new millennium back in 1999. It was a period of great reflection, and also trepidation. Which millennium did Gorey believe to be ‘False’? Was it the one just ending or the one just beginning? Sadly, he didn’t stick around for much of it. He died in April 2000.
Perhaps the ticking over of an entire 1000 years was a solemn reminder of the fact that we can never go back. Once a millennium is over, it’s almost as if it never existed. It remains true, but it is no longer real. Only the here and now can ever be really ‘real’. Everything exists in memory or in imagination.
Turns out I fell for it after all.
At midpoint, the main pair find themselves wandering around in the fog, not knowing what’s happening or what they’re doing there, which makes them our viewpoint characters since we have no idea, either.
Then they are standing on a miniature island, barely big enough for the two of them. The background is negative space. Except for the legs of the fly, hovering above, almost completely out of range of the ‘camera’. Or maybe it’s not the fly at all? It almost looks like the sun’s rays.
But after this emotional journey to the inner soul, the trio meet a few more characters.
What does QRV stand for? I Googled it. In amateur radio it means ‘Are you ready?’ This could make sense. Gorey could be asking, ‘Are you ready for the new millennium?’ But honestly, that’s a stretch. What on earth does it mean?
My favourite character sketch is the following:
In Wiggly Blog a certain X–,
Who looked to be of neither sex,
Was charged with gross indecency
Which everyone could plainly see.
The picture is of a person wearing a kerchief on their head, knotted at the side to perhaps form pigtails (feminine), or perhaps it’s just a kerchief.
I like this page because I have wondered how Edward Gorey might have identified had he been born 80 years later than he was. As it is, he goes on record as saying he identified with neither gender himself; these days kids are exposed to a much broader range of categories and a gender spectrum rather than a gender binary. I suspect this figure is Edward himself.
Which leads me to think every single one of these characters functions as a facet of Gorey himself.
The following morning, Gravel and the Bahhumbug are back at Gravel’s house (it seems the Bahhumbug is living there with him now) and they’re faced with the task of cleaning up after last night’s party.
They discuss their adventure and conclude it’s not something one can explain. A complete cheese dream. The final page suggests this party was an End of Year Party and now they realise they’re in a new century, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ve been thrown there whether they like it or not, as if into a scary, absurdist dream.
Is the fruit cake meant to represent something? That gets sent off to ‘Havens for the Indigent’ where they use it to scrub floors and keep doors open. Perhaps, if anything, it stands for bad feelings in general. Gravel and his Bahhumbug have let go of something and will start afresh.
ILLUSTRATIONS IN THE HEADLESS BUST
Here’s an example:
Reversing at a tango tea
In Snogg’s Casino-not-on-Sea
L– tripped and cried, ‘I am afraid
They tampered with the marmalade.’
In each illustration of each character sketch, Gravel, the fly and the Bahhumbug appear alongside the new person (with the exception of Miss M, who has disappeared after requesting from them a pineapple ice cream.
When is this story set? The first story seemed to be set in the time of A Christmas Carol but then again, Gorey did funny things with time even in that book (exemplified by the ten-year-old fruit cake).
The bewildered men appear in long fur coats and top hats, or plus-fours and golfing shoes, the clueless women in hobble skirts and turbans with aigrettes, or flapper ensembles with fluttering veils.
— Jane Langton
An aigrette is a headdress consisting of a white egret’s feather or other decoration such as a spray of gems. I never knew what they were called, thanks, Edward. When I see these I think of the 1920s, but fashion of the 1920s was a new take on fashion from around 1900. So I don’t think these characters are flappers.
A comparison between Mo Willems’ Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus! and another from the same series, The Pigeon Wants A Puppy, highlights certain shared comedy writing techniques found in both.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Directly addressing the young reader
A main character who eventually tries to trick the reader
A battle scene featuring a tantrum
A circular ending
STORY STRUCTURE OF DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS!
Pigeon is only a pigeon and is not to be trusted doing human things (even though he or she speaks English).
This weakness is connected to pigeon’s Desire, which is to drive a bus.
The adult Opponent within the world of the story is the bus driver who, before the title page, has told the reader that he’s just popping out for a few moments — could the reader please not let the pigeon drive the bus while he’s away?
This is funny in its own right because it suggests the pigeon has previously done just this. And the thought bubble coming out of pigeon’s head on the front papers suggests memory, not just wishes, in light of this fact.
But with the bus driver gone, Willems turns the reader into Pigeon’s Opposition, as is the case in Pigeon Wants A Puppy. In this story, the pigeon pleads with the reader and the reader (hopefully) is on side with the authority figure and knows not to say yes.
Pigeon’s plan is to make a case with the reader:
They will be careful.
They have a cousin who drives a bus. We extrapolate that Pigeon would therefore be excellent at it.
A sob story: “I never get to do anything!”
Next, Pigeon tries to trick the reader into playing a ‘game’ which is presumably driving the bus for real.
Finally, ending this sequence, four ‘pages’ per page, each with a new reason for letting Pigeon drive the bus speeds up the pace and suggests Pigeon goes on and on about this for ages.
Pigeon throws a tantrum. Pigeon also threw a tantrum in The Pigeon Wants A Puppy. Big letters are scrawled across the page. Feathers float off (which kind of look like droplets of sweat — because I have anthropomorphised Pigeon).
We never know exactly what Pigeon is thinking after that because the ‘speech bubble’ is an angry scribble. But Pigeon looks resigned and downcast. Pigeon has the revelation that this is not going to happen.
This is confirmed when the bus driver returns and Pigeon has still not had a go at the wheel.
But this is another circular plot and once the bus drives off, a big, red truck comes along. Pigeon decides they would like to drive that. No words are used for this — just another thought bubble. This time, Pigeon stands on the other side of the page (the right side). This creates a visual ending to THIS particular story.