Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Bye Bye Baby cover

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 a picture book called Bye Bye Baby by husband and wife team Janet and Allan Ahlberg. I’ve chosen Bye Bye Baby to contrast with yesterday’s completely un-ironic take on the classic Cinderella/journey/home-away-home/mythic structure story utilised by Emma Chichester Clark in Piper.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BYE BYE BABY

From the title you might mistake this for one of those simple picture books for literal actual babies, where the baby in the book says ‘Bye bye!’ to various people from the pram, or to animals at the zoo etc. That’s not what this is. Bye Bye Baby is a slightly weird story more in the vein of Boss Baby by Marla Frazee, in that you’ve got a baby who is a grown person in a baby bod. The narrative voice is knowing, telling us that this baby has no one to care for him, which was ‘very sad’. Fairytales start like this. We get a pathetic figure and we empathise with them due to their great misfortune.

The ironic tone is set from the ‘log line’: A sad tale with a happy ending. When we are told the story is sad, we know it’s not taking itself seriously. The log line also ruins the ending, but then, the ending wasn’t really ruined because the fairytale nature of this story tells us from the get-go that this tale will end happily.

The title ‘Bye Bye Baby’ must be a riff on ‘By and by he met a…’, which takes its structure from folk tales such as Chicken Licken, and utilised most famously by Frank L. Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Baby. Another orphan. There is a loooooong tradition of orphans in American children’s literature in particular.

There was once a baby who had no mummy. This baby lived in a house all by himself. He fed himself and bathed himself. He even changed his own nappy.

It was very sad.

Again we are told, “It was very sad.” This is a great example of telling not showing, to comic effect.

What’s wrong with Baby?

If you’re told what the character ‘needs’ that’s a clear sign it goes here.

Then, one night, when the baby was putting himself to bed, he thought, “I am too young to be doing this. I need a mummy!”

The baby is presented to us as very unfortunate, but we don’t really feel it. If you’re writing a story and you want the readers to feel sad about missing parents, you have to show the parents in action before getting rid of them. But when children are already orphaned at the beginning of a story, we may feel a bit sorry for them, but we don’t feel great sadness. We’re not supposed to feel great sadness until later in the story.

Bye Bye Baby put self to bed

Baby is actually pretty amazing. There’s something gleefully carnivalesque about seeing a baby do things for himself. The humour is ‘dog wears a hat’ brand of joke — babies in real life do not turn off their own alarm clocks and whatnot, so young readers will get a lot of pleasure out of that. I’m sure it’s empowering.

He’s still a baby, but.

The baby could not walk far without resting. He could not walk fast without falling over. But he kept going all the same.

WHAT DOES BABY WANT?

Bye Bye Baby road
When a character walks down a road in a scene like this, they’re probably embarking upon a mythical journey.

Baby wants to find his mummy, but actually any decent adults in want of a child will do. (There’s no mention of the father.)

This is very fairytale. In stories like Thumbelina and Melon Princess (from Japan), old people who long for children end up with children somehow or other. This story is told from the point of view of the child rather than starting with the old, childless person.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The characters Baby meets along the way are not baddies or monsters or villains, but they are in opposition to Baby because none of them are able to be his mummy.

Note that along his journey, Baby also meets a helper. The Old Uncle who will help him find his mummy.

WHAT’S BABY’S PLAN?

Baby asks everyone he meets on his journey if they are his mother, or if they wouldn’t mind functioning as such.

BIG BATTLE

The baby trips over and bumps his nose. Teddy does the same. They fall on the old hen.

Eventually he yells “I want my mummy!”

This is the Big Battle scene.

He says it again (in massive font) in a full-bleed double spread.

Making use of pathetic fallacy, it is even raining as baby cries his eyes out.

The tantrum is the Big Battle. Another picture book which makes use of a tantrum as a Big Battle is Z is for Moose.

WHAT DOES BABY LEARN?

It’s the narrative voice which appeals to me about this story, which is an otherwise run-of-the-mill journey into the big, wide world, written with classic mythic structure. The baby goes in search of parents. ‘By coincidence’ he runs into a woman who doesn’t have a baby, though she’s pushing an empty pram. ‘By coincidence’, baby meets a man who agrees readily to be his father.

The baby learns that even when your life is very sad, there can be a happy ending. This point is underscored with the story-within-a-story (a mise en abyme technique) in which the mummy reads Baby a sad story with a happy ending.

HOW WILL BABY’S LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

We can extrapolate that Baby will be happy from now on, living with the random woman he met on the street and the man who decided would step up as his father.

Just don’t start getting all weird about it and ask how the mother feels about some rando baby choosing her co-parent for her. Or why she was pushing an empty pram in the first place.

No, don’t do that. Let us accept this brand of weirdness, and the strong cultural preferencing of heterosexual coupledom. (This is a picture book from 1989.)

Piper by Emma Chichester Clark

Piper Emma Chichester Clark

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 a picture book called Piper by Emma Chichester Clark. Piper is a bit of a maudlin tale, and Piper the dog is similar to characters like Oliver (by Charles Dickens). He really doesn’t have great luck in life. But then he does! My daughter called this a ‘happy-sad’ story, which is her word for ‘bittersweet’. This is an entirely unironic take on the ‘unlucky character finds a new home’ tale, which I plan to contrast with a similar but ironic picture book tomorrow.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PIPER

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

This is Piper’s journey and Piper is clearly the main character. We can happily describe Piper as the hero, because he performs an heroic act and also because this is a mythic story. Main characters in mythic stories tend to be called heroes.

What is wrong with Piper?

Sometimes in children’s stories, the only thing wrong with a character is that they are vulnerable. Orphans are especially vulnerable. Piper is not exactly an orphan, but he is taken away from his mother and is therefore part of the orphan tradition of storytelling. Orphans are popular in children’s stories for a number of reasons, but mainly because it gets the protective parent out of the way. (All orphan stories owe something to Cinderella.)

Since he’s a dog, lack of ability to speak to humans is also a huge disadvantage.

WHAT DOES PIPER WANT?

Piper wants to find a new family and be happy with them.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The opponent is clearly the man who buys him, and expects him to chase/eat rabbits to protect the man’s garden. Later, even when Piper manages to run away, the man remains a constant threat, as he may at any time come to collect Piper, having paid for him.

WHAT’S PIPER’S PLAN?

Piper’s initial plan is to try and impress his new owner, but when that doesn’t work he’s at a loss. He has no substitute plan. From that point on, things happen to him.

Note that in stories, initial plans rarely work.

When things go belly-up, your main character doesn’t necessarily find a new plan right away, or at all. Alternatively, they might start with no plan because they like the status quo, but then they find one. In that case, they usually double down on that plan about halfway through the story.

Whether your main character has a plan right from the start or finds one partway through, characters do need plans. Otherwise they are not proactive, and readers don’t want to read stories about characters who just wait around. Characters with plans are also more likeable, so if you want to write a likeable main character, give them a desire and a plan early on. (Not all main characters need to be likeable, but it’s harder to write a good unlikeable one. You need to use lots of extra tricks.)

BIG BATTLE

I haven’t gone out of my way to collect mythic stories for this month’s exercise, which should give you some idea about the popularity of the ‘journey’ story.

In a plot with mythic structure, the main character will undergo a series of battles. Sure enough, Piper is hit by his new owner. Importantly, heroes on mythic journeys also meet characters who help them. These characters are often ‘mentors’. In this case, the rabbits repay Piper in kindness by bringing him lettuce, but note they can’t be of much use. That’s an important point about helper characters. They can offer emotional assistance and advice and sometimes they can provide objects which come in useful, but helpers can never solve the hero’s problems. It has to be the hero who gets him/herself out of bother, even if it’s entirely accidental. (As it is in this case!)

The Big Battle in an unironic mythic story is a near death experience. (Contrast Diary of a Wombat for an ironic take, in which Wombat is never in true danger.) The city setting provides lots of near death opportunities for dogs, who don’t know how to stay away from traffic. Therefore, Piper has a brush with death as he rescues an old lady from being hit badly by a car.

WHAT DOES PIPER LEARN?

When Piper is found injured under a bush he learns that humans can be kind as well as awful.

Kindness triumphs over evil. This is a simplistic message when you put it like this, but surprisingly popular in stories. I suppose we find it comforting. When you write out your own theme in a sentence like that, it’ll probably sound just as simple. That’s okay. It’s meant to. Just make sure you don’t say that sentence anywhere in the text. The theme has to be something readers discover for themselves.

HOW WILL PIPER’S LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Piper has found a new home with a kind old lady. Their similar injuries (both have a broken ‘arm’) symbolise how well matched they are.

But the story doesn’t end with Piper and the old lady relaxing on the couch in the old lady’s home. That would have been enough to complete a narrative, but Emma Chichester Clark has written a fairly run-of-the-mill mythic plot until this moment, and whenever you do that you’re best to add a little extra. In this case, the Villain isn’t dead. He’s been off-stage and is therefore still useful.

The final section of this story focuses on Piper’s enduring anxiety about whether the abusive owner will turn up to collect him. Eventually we learn that he won’t. This is a very happy ending for Piper, and instead of a home-away-home story, we have a very similar home-away-NEW home structure.

Some people call these ‘found family’ stories. They tend to be heartwarming.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

Father Christmas Raymond Briggs

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Earlier in the month I looked at a wordless picture book, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Father Christmas, a seasonal picture book by the same author-illustrator. It’s not Christmas here, but it’s never wintry at Christmas Down Under. I prefer to read wintry books in our actual winter. This is just as much a winter tale as it is a Christmas one. Father Christmas is also a very British tale. You’ll soon see why.

At first glance, this picture book also seems to break the main rules of storytelling. It works because it is short. Father Christmas is partly making use of a comedic structure rather than classic dramatic structure.

STORY STRUCTURE OF FATHER CHRISTMAS

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Father Christmas.

What’s wrong with him?

Sometimes the foreign translations of a picture book give you extra clues about the story. The Japanese title means ‘Father Christmas The Cold-blooded Creature’ (or ‘Person who feels the cold easily’). The Japanese publishers put the thing that’s wrong with him right there in the title. More specifically, this is his weakness. He doesn’t like the cold. But I’d say his weakness is a little different.This is not your usual Jolly Santa, the guy most kids are exposed to — the man who lives to give. This Father Christmas’s weakness is that he’s grumpy by nature.  Or is it really a weakness? Is he really that grumpy?

This is a comment on a specific cultural milieu — this old man is proficient in the art of grumbling. He is cranky as a matter of habit, not because he has all that much to complain about. This is grumbling almost as a mantra to self, a reminded that although things may be terrible now, they may get better later. Father Christmas is grumbling to no one in particular, but he is drawing us in with his grumbling. We are invited to grumble along with him as a form of phatic communion. At the end of the story he has broken the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader, so we know we were supposed to hear him grumbling. He was inviting us to feel the cold with him, creating the weather as the mutual enemy to bring two characters (him and us) closer together.

This feels very British to me.

WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS WANT?

Father Christmas wakes up dreaming of a summer beach so we know right away that he wants to be on holiday somewhere. Sure enough, in another book in the series, Raymond Briggs takes him off on holiday. I haven’t read that one, though I’ve no doubt he grumbles about everything while on holiday, too.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

His opponent is the cold weather. Father Christmas expends a lot of energy just keeping warm — tending to the fire, looking after the animals (who can’t be out in the elements), filling his belly with hot cups of tea.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

goodbye cat goodbye dog

We already know what Father Christmas does at Christmas time because this is a well-known cultural narrative. He delivers presents to children all around the world. We watch him do this, but Raymond Briggs’ new spin on it: Father Christmas considers this work, just like anyone else doing shift work on a freezing cold night would feel like they are doing work.

BIG BATTLE

As you can see already, this is another mythic structure, in which the main character goes on a journey. This is not your classic mythic structure, however. Father Christmas is a modified version of that — known as a home-away-home story. A character leaves home, has an adventure, then returns home again. This home-away-home story usually takes place over a single day, and the child (or childlike) character usually goes to sleep at the end.

In general, a series of minor battles end in a big one. But sometimes, when there’s no fight or argument or near-death experience, the story includes something that stands-in for a battle.

In Diary of a Wombat, Jackie French used the ‘accumulation’ technique, where several objects pile up/come together.

Raymond Briggs uses a variation on that. After visiting a number of ordinary houses to deliver presents, including a caravan which he has trouble getting into, Father Christmas visits the Palace of Westminster, presumably to deliver presents to the most important children in the land. We have an accumulation effect going on, but it isn’t a piling up of objects. Instead, it goes from ‘ordinary to extraordinary’, or ‘ordinary to grand’. This stands in for the big battle scene, which exists to let us know the journey is coming to an end.

WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS LEARN?

Nothing. Because this story is comedic, not dramatic. Father Christmas is the ultimate recurring character. He appears year after year and never changes. Therefore it makes sense if he doesn’t change. It also makes sense if he’s a bit grumpy about that. Which is the gag.

However, the story still works as a complete story. Why?

In lieu of a character arc, in which Father Christmas learns something, we see Father Christmas on an emotional arc. When Santa gets up he’s grumpy because there’s so much work ahead of him. But over the course of his day he overcomes many small hardships, stopping in between to enjoy his snacks. Finally at the end he is happy to be home, but before bed he’s unhappy again, because he knows he’ll have to do it all again next year. The unrelenting nature of work would appeal to adults more than to children, I’m guessing. This story therefore appeals to a dual audience. Young readers also know what it’s like to do something they don’t want to do, and everyone (in most parts of the world) knows what it feels like to be uncomfortably cold.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

It won’t, but Father Christmas is home safe in bed, which is enough to close the story on. It’s not original, but it works, time and time again.

 

FURTHER NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE

Did you pick up the main ways in which this story is not typical dramatic structure?

  1. The only opponent is the weather. Usually there is a human opponent, or a monster as well.
  2. The main character doesn’t learn anything.
  3. His life won’t be any different from before. He’s basically an automaton.

This is because the story is a comedy. Here’s the thing about comedic structure: It only sustains its audience for 5-10 minutes before we tire of it. That’s why comedic structure can work in picture books. They’re short. When Father Christmas was adapted into a short film, and by short I mean over 20 minutes, the script writers wisely decided to combine two of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas books. There is simply not enough in this picture book to sustain 20 minutes’ worth of entertainment.

Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Diary of a Wombat cover

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. Yesterday I analysed the structure of an Australian bush ballad. Today I stay in Australia, with the modern picture book classic Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.

Like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Diary of a Wombat is a parody of a diary. We expect that if someone has taken the trouble to write something down then it must be something important. But wombats don’t really do much and have little to report. Jackie French could have anthropomorphised the wombat and taken her off on an adventure to save the world, but this wombat is inspired by the wombats around French’s own house. Bruce Whatley illustrates animals in a mostly realistic style, with only a few modifications to make the facial expressions more human, making the pairing perfect.

Tuesday Diary of a Wombat

STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WOMBAT

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The wombat.

Unusually for a children’s book, the wombat is female yet has not been given any typically feminine markers, such as a big pink bow. This is partly to do with the realistic style of art. (There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in wombats — you can’t easily tell the sex of a wombat unless you’re an expert.) I wonder if you assumed the wombat was male until “For Pete’s sake! Give her some carrots!” A study by Janet McCabe told us that unless animal characters are given obvious female markers then we tend to read them as male.

The wombat hasn’t been given a name. Often this is because a character stands in for a group. In this case, she stands for your typical wombat, doing typical wombatty things.

A standout feature of the wombat is the distinctive round bottom, which may be why Bruce Whatley chose to depict the wombat from behind in a number of illustrations. This is surprisingly uncommon for picture books, in which we’re more likely to see ‘posed for a photo‘ characters. Bruce Whatley doesn’t vary the top-bottom angle of the wombat, keeping to one-point perspective throughout, without making use of high/low angles. This allows the reader to remain right alongside the wombat as an equal at all times. His choice to depict the wombat in various cardinal directions may partly be to do with the need to vary each illustration from the others. But when wombat sits and stars at the boarded-up door, we really feel her petulant patience for carrots, even though we can’t see her face.

The choice is masterful.

Diary of a Wombat back view

What is wrong with her?

Since our main character a wombat she is unable to communicate what she wants to the humans. This is one of the reasons animals are so common in picture books. They are like young children, also unable to communicate what they need in words.

She is also capricious and according to typical human work ethic, she’s comically lazy.

This is an oblivious character who doesn’t see the havoc she wreaks behind her. She doesn’t realise the humans filled up her hole because they didn’t want a hole. Unlike Peter Rabbit, she doesn’t realise the carrots in the garden have been planted there by someone and that she thieved them. She thinks she happened upon them.

WHAT DOES SHE WANT?

The wombat has simple needs and lives in a wombat utopia — a rural human environment with a large supply of carrots growing in the garden, good soil for digging holes and everything else she could possibly want. The wombat’s stand-out feature is that she wants for nothing. But for narrative drive, a story requires that the main character want something.

Jackie French has fulfilled this story step by giving our wombat the strong desire for carrots. Not only that, she is endlessly greedy for carrots and even when given carrots, she still wants more. This desire drives most of the story but, comically, she eventually has enough of carrots and decides she wants rolled oats instead. This is where her main weakness comes in: she is unable to tell the humans that she now wants rolled oats.

By the way, comic characters often have insatiable appetites. In a comedy ensemble you’ll usually get one who is obsessed with food.

  • In Kath and Kim, Kim is always eating. (Sharon stress eats as well.)
  • In Seinfeld it’s Kramer who is always going to Jerry’s for cereal and whatnot. He is shown to be a fruit connoisseur, and in another episode the big gag is that Kramer could have won a lot of money after being scalded by hot coffee, but he is delighted with a lifetime’s supply of free coffees instead.
  • In The Simpsons, Homer is the character who represents the stomach.

Characters are also funny if we can laugh at their stupidity. The obliviousness of the wombat means that Jackie French created her loosely  based upon the classic Dolt character. There are many different comedy character archetypes. Here are a few more.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The human family are in opposition to the wombat not because the humans are trying to get rid of her, but because they have different goals which cannot coexist:

  • Family wants a front door, wombat wants to gain their attention so chews the nice front door.
  • Family wants carrots for dinner so grows carrots in garden; wombat digs them up.
  • Family buys carrots from shop; wombat sits in back seat of car and eats them out of the bag.
  • Family wants a nice garden bed; wombat wants to dig holes where garden bed is.
  • Family wants to dry washing on the line; wombat doesn’t want things dangling onto her nose, so chews washing on line.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

With a lazy, roly-poly character like this wombat, you aren’t going to get a complicated plan. The plan is simple: to walk to the family’s front door and make a nuisance of oneself until food is provided.

The family’s plan is to work around the  mischief of the wombat, filling in holes once they’re dug, buying more carrots once the home store is depleted.

BIG BATTLE

Though it’s not obvious at first sight, Diary of a Wombat has a mythic structure. Rather, this is a parody of a classic story with a mythic structure. In myths, a hero goes on a very difficult journey to achieve a goal, meets lots of challenges along the way and finally gets what he wants (or not, in a tragedy). The hero then either returns home a changed person or finds a new home wherever he ends up.

The journey of the wombat is down the garden path to the front door. Sure enough, she meets obstacles along the way, but these obstacles are no more fearsome than a bush or a pair of wet pants which tickle her nose. Her ‘big battles’ are therefore ironic.

Okay, so until now I’ve been saying the same things, which are general rules but rules can be broken. So far I’ve told you that in a story with mythic structure the battles increase in intensity until one massive life-and-death battle. This is seen clearly in the Solla Sollew picture book by Dr. Seuss, which is why I included it in this series.

Jackie French shows us that there doesn’t need to be any big battle. In fact, in a parody, where nothing much happens by design, the story wouldn’t cope with one.

So what did the author do instead, to lead us gently towards a conclusion? She used a trick I’m going to call ‘accumulation’. This is exactly what it sounds like — various things from the story come together. By ‘things’, most often I mean ‘objects’. Another (really obvious) example of an ‘accumulation battle’ occurs in Stuck by Oliver Jeffers in which a boy gets something stuck in a tree. He keeps throwing more and more things into the tree hoping to get the other things down. The story gets more and more ridiculous as the things accumulate in the tree.

In Diary of a Wombat, the gag doesn’t rely on the accumulation plot, so it’s much more subtle. You can see it in the line, ‘Demanded oats AND carrots’. Oats and carrots have been the important twin desire lines throughout the story and they come together at the end.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Wombat learns that if she makes a big enough nuisance of herself then the humans will give her exactly what she wants.

The reader learns, comically, that animals can train humans, not just the other way around!

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this mythic journey the wombat finds a new home, even closer to the humans than before, burrowed under the house.

We can extrapolate that things will continue as they did before, but this time the wombat’s life is even more convenient as she doesn’t even have to walk up the garden path to get fed.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

  • I’ve already mentioned Stuck by Oliver Jeffers as another example of an accumulation plot. Another example of an accumulation plot is Let’s Go For A Drive! an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems. In this early reader, two characters collect all sorts of things they’ll need for a drive. These things pile up on the floor. They eventually realise they haven’t got a car so they have to play make believe instead.
  • Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins has other subtle similarities. The hen in Rosie’s Walk (Rosie) is unaware that a fox is trying to catch her. She walks happily through a farm. Rosie’s Walk has been heavily influential as a story in which the text says something completely different from the pictures. Jackie French’s wombat is similarly oblivious, though her life is not in danger. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a big gap between the pictures and the text. The text is first ‘person’, from the wombat’s point of view, but only the reader knows how much of a nuisance she’s being to the humans she lives with.

 

The Chicken Book by Garth Williams

The Chicken Book cover

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at a story so simple you’d wonder how it could include all seven steps. Yet it does, between words and pictures. Today’s picture book is The Chicken Book by Garth Williams, first published in 1946.

This makes The Chicken Book an example of literature which emerged between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, when the publishing industry very much took a back seat to other world events. Namely, Garth Williams wrote and illustrated The Chicken Book at the end of the second World War.

The ideology of this story is more typical of the pre-war period. Child characters from the first golden age were self-sufficient, free-range and healthy and robust. The chicks (child stand ins) are not like that at first, but are chided accordingly and end up self-sufficient by the end. It’s basically a celebration of Puritan work ethic. During the wars, there was no room for anyone to take it easy. It was all hands to the pump. Women were seconded to do ‘men’s jobs’ (and didn’t easily retire to the home once the war was over, either.) With mothers out working in bullet factories and whatnot, the war era child was required to pull their own weight within the family. These chicks are wartime chicks.

Garth Williams is a standout illustrator of American children’s books. He illustrated Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web, so his work is still widely seen. His father was a cartoonist and his mother was a landscape painter, so it’s no surprise he combined those interests and ended up in children’s books. He also studied architecture, and brought his drafting skills into his illustrative work. The Chicken Book is one of his first works from a prolific career, and the first as both writer and illustrator.

The less we know about the man himself, the better we can enjoy his legacy. There is a surprising number of people who’ve made outstanding work for children yet in their personal lives were hardly upstanding citizens. Obituaries contain the glowing bits, so here’s a link to that, from 1996.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHICKEN BOOK

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

There is an entire brood of main characters in this picture book, but they are all identical. They are siblings and they look the same. They behave the same. For story purposes, this book has one main character — a chicken.

The other question to ask here: What is wrong with them?

They’re a bit lazy, or haven’t yet learned to do for themselves.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

They all want food. Sure, they each want something slightly different — one even wants a piece of gravel for some reason. But basically they want something to peck and munch.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

If The Chicken Book were a longer story an outside opponent would be necessary, but this is one of those super short narratives which gets away with ‘the main character is their own biggest enemy’.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Since these chicks are by their nature passive, they have no plan. That’s the entire problem. They literally just stand there and do nothing.

When your main character has no plan, someone else in the story has to make a plan for them. (It’s the mother who makes the plan.)

BIG BATTLE

Because Garth Williams places his ‘camera’ near the ground, when the mother hen turns up she’s formidable. When she tells the chicks to go ahead and scratch it feels like a telling off — at least, that’s how it felt as child reader. The Big Battle is the mother glaring at the chicks while standing over them.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When the chicks scratch they immediately find their hearts’ desire.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

This phase is omitted from the story because we can extrapolate on our own: We know that the chicks will keep scratching and finding good things to eat.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST THE CHICKEN BOOK

After The Fall is another example of a main character whose biggest opponent is themselves, although in Dan Santat’s book, Humpty’s anxiety is almost turned into a separate entity.

England’s Enid Blyton is an example of a children’s author who was writing and publishing prolifically all through this world war period of the 20th century. Notably, Enid Blyton makes no direct reference to war, anywhere. For her, writing was an escape, and her stories provided an escape for her young readers equally. In The Chicken Book, America’s Garth Williams has created a utopian version of an American farm, in which food is plentiful if only you know how to look for it.

You might also compare the original printing with a later one from the 1970s, in which printing technologies now allowed mass printing of highly coloured double spreads. My version, printed in the 1970s, is the full-coloured version. Printing technologies have made further advances since then.

with an odd little shrug

The Chicken Book with an odd little shrug

 

 

After The Fall by Dan Santat Story Tips

After the Fall cover

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Today as case study let’s look at Dan Santat’s After The Fall, a metaphorical picture book with a very simple storyline and a strong message. Still, this isn’t a didactic (preachy) message. Why not? Because it’s metaphorical. If you have a strong message you sure can put it in your story, but you can’t tell readers directly — you have to allow them to put two and two together. (Hopefully they’ll make four.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF AFTER THE FALL

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The main character is a well-known figure from the world of nursery rhymes. Even if modern kids aren’t being read the classic nursery rhymes (due to there being so many other things to read), Humpty Dumpty will still be familiar because of things like the Shrek franchise.

WHAT DOES HUMPTY DUMPTY WANT?

After The Fall opening page

Have you ever wondered WHY Humpty Dumpty wanted to sit on that wall? I hadn’t. I just figured he liked it up there.

To convert a short nursery rhyme into a full story, Dan Santat had to think a bit deeper. He knew there had to be a reason why Humpty Dumpty was sitting up on that wall. “I loved being close to the birds.” (Read: He wants to be close to birds.)

Heavy symbolism alert: Birds and flight are used often in literature to symbolise freedom (along with other things). Here they symbolise freedom from fears and anxieties. (Read: He wants to be free, like birds.)

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Normally, the general rule is that the main character’s main opponent can’t be themselves. This doesn’t make for a great dramatic arc, mostly. This is true for longer stories.

But it works here for two reasons:

  1. Very short works like picture books can break a few rules because they don’t have the problem of a saggy, boring middle.
  2. Humpty’s anxiety is so strong that it really is a formidable opponent. (I just realised I wrote that sentence as if Anxiety is an opponent in its own right.) Dan Santat has talked widely about the very personal story behind this picture book, like at Publisher’s Weekly.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Humpty’s plan is to avoid the scary thing. That’s pretty common in main characters, especially when those characters are pretty ordinary people just like you and me. They don’t have any reason to believe they can overcome adversity, so they sit around hoping they won’t have to. We can identify with this.

But fictional characters who plan ‘to do nothing and hope it goes away’… well, that NEVER happens.

Otherwise there’s no story. Well, maybe there’s an ironic, shaggy dog kind of a gag:

Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall.

He decided not to sit on walls.

So he didn’t.

The End

(Comedic arc is different from dramatic arc. We’re talking about dramatic arc here, folks.)

Humpty’s world becomes very grey and dull. The supermarket/cereal aisle scene shows that. But Dan Santat doesn’t dwell on that period of Humpty’s life. One double spread is enough to get the message across. Notice how the cereal boxes are bright and colourful, but Humpty’s state of mind makes everything he sees (at his eye level) dull and grey. Even the titles of the cereals look rubbish down low. This totally benign cereal display reminds him of the wall. Ladders, and all that. (Notice he’s looking at the ladder and frowning.) This picture says so much.

After the Fall supermarket page

Next, Humpty catches sight of a paper plane so he decides to make those because it’s kind of like being close to birds again, even though he is anxious about getting paper cuts (and does get paper cuts). This isn’t as good as being up there with the birds, but it’s a little bit like that.

All of this is a way of saying: You might not be able to do the REALLY scary thing, but if you do something a little scary you can build on that and eventually the scary things seem less scary.

BIG BATTLE

The Big Battle for Humpty is when he tackles that wall again. It’s all in the hands — there’s a close up of the hand, reaching up to grasp onto the higher rung.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When he’s up on that wall he realises it’s awesome being with those birds again.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Humpty has overcome his fear of falling from the wall, and feels a huge weight lifted from his life.

Is he up there flying with the birds? There are three small white dots in the sky and any one of them could be Humpty flying.

The Really Ugly Duckling by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Earlier this week I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole to show how this classic story structure can be turned upside down, ironically. Today ‘s story is The Really Ugly Duckling.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a metafictional picture book from 1992, by Jon Scieska and illustrated by Lane Smith. It’s a collection of very short stories, but I’m only going to look at one. Like other tales in the book, The Really Ugly Duckling is a re-visioning of the classic fairy tale The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. To get the gag, the reader is meant to know the original tale, otherwise it’s not so funny.

The Really Ugly Duckling shows writers can break the rules of narrative and create surprise. In this case, Jon Scieszka omits the bit that normally comes after the Big Battle. The fancy word for this part is ‘denouement’. In seven step story structure, the denouement is the final two steps.

If you aren’t going to write the last two steps, you need a good reason, other than, ‘I got sick of this story and called it quits’. Usually, these stories with an abrupt ending aim to make the reader laugh.

There are terms to describe these kinds of stories.

  • If the story ends right before the big battle, it’s called a Bolivian Army ending. (The name comes from classic movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We never get to see the main characters die.)
  • If someone’s been spinning a long-winded, really boring story with lots of pointless detail and then refuses to finishes it off to make you groan, it’s called a Shaggy Dog story. These stories are pretty good and hold your attention. They’re designed to disappoint.
  • A Shaggy Dog story is also known as the Feghoot. A feghoot is described as a short-short story (300 words on average, although 500-word examples exist), ending in a pun or a punchline that is pretty obviously the only reason for the story’s existence. The telling detail in a Feghoot is the groan emitted by the reader/listener when he hits the punchline. A Shaggy Dog tale is more likely to be known as a Feghoot if it’s in written form.
  • Related to the Shaggy Dog story is the Shaggy Frog story. Unlike the Shaggy Dog story, the Shaggy Frog story goes absolutely nowhere.

The Really Ugly Duckling is too short to be a Shaggy Dog story, and there’s no expectation of a big battle, so it’s none of those exactly. Instead it simply has No Ending. If there’s a subcategory, it’s Aborted Arc. In other words, there’s no character arc. We expect one, of course, but it has been abandoned.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE REALLY UGLY DUCKLING

Continue reading “The Really Ugly Duckling by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith”

We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen

We Found A Hat cover

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Yesterday I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. Today’s picture book is We Found A Hat, which is similar to Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. In both stories, a dream sequence flings the two characters into space, bringing the story to an end.

We Found A Hat is the third of Jon Klassen’s Hat Trilogy of picture books — each has a different cast of characters, but all feature a hat in some way. In all of these books, the hat is a highly desirable object. The desirability of the hat is taken to an absurd degree, and I wonder if it’s because owning a hat makes these talking animals feel more sophisticated (more human).

In We Found A Hat, Klassen makes full use of classic ‘Three Act Structure’, dividing his very short book into three parts. Dividing a picture book into parts is funny in itself, because the partitions originally existed so the audience could take a break. These days, writers often make use of three act structure when plotting a story. (I prefer the 7-part structure, as you’ll see below.)

The others in the hat series are This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back. All are equally great, though We Found A Hat is more about friendship and less violent.

In each book, the picture-text dynamic implies that the hat’s rightful owner does violence to the thief at the end. This tale is both more ambiguous and less action-oriented.

Kirkus review

STORY STRUCTURE OF WE FOUND A HAT

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Like Sam and Dave, the two tortoises* in We Found A Hat are pretty much the same. Klassen goes further: they are in fact identical, which is part of the gag. (If the hat looks good on one of them, it’ll look good on the other.)

*I have no idea if they’re turtles or tortoises. But they live in the desert. I’m calling them tortoises.

What is wrong with the tortoises?

In this minimalist, unchanging environment, the appearance of a dropped cowboy hat is a big deal. A bigger deal than it should be. They’ve both going to have to get over this hat. Klassen withholds this information until later, but it will be revealed that one tortoise has more trouble than the other suppressing his desires.

This Rogue Tortoise becomes The Main Character.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

We Found A Hat is a great example of a story in which two opponents want the same thing, when only one of them can have it. (Because there is only one to be had.)

Klassen puts an ironic distance between the pictures and the text. To us, the tortoises do not look good in the hat.

Klassen’s artwork, spare and sly, tells a different story. The hat does not look good. It looks silly, as if the turtle’s head were stuck in a plastic bucket.

Publishers Weekly review

This endears me to the tortoises. It’s super cute that they think they look good in the hat.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Since both tortoises want the one hat, they are each other’s enemy.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

At first the tortoises do the right thing. They leave the hat where they found it, because if one of them takes it, the other will be jealous. This will lead to a breakdown of their relationship.

Next, they try to not to think about the hat. They admire the sunset. (They presumably do this every evening, because there’s not much in the landscape. They probably have the same conversation, too.)

we are watching the sunset

Eventually, in Part Two, one tortoise Breaks Bad and we see him making plans to retrieve the hat while the other is asleep. In true comedic style, although the other tortoise is ‘asleep’, s/he is still able to talk coherently, about being asleep. This is an example of irony.

BIG BATTLE

what are you dreaming about

The Rogue Tortoise’s big battle is an entirely psychological one. In Jon Klassen picture books it’s vital to read the eyes. The eyes carry most of the information about character. When Rogue Tortoise reaches the hat, s/he feels guilty. The other tortoise has said that in her dream they are both wearing the hat. This makes Rogue Tortoise feel super guilty and he changes his mind about taking it for himself.

Many of the readers of We Found A Hat will have already read the earlier hat books. I feel like Jon Klassen deliberately subverts expectations by providing us with a gentle ending. (You expected violence, didn’t you?)

Readers who think they know what’s coming will be wrong: the conclusion doesn’t involve sharing, peacemaking, or violence. Instead, Klassen considers the instant at which a decision to act can break either way, depending on who’s tempted and whether anyone else is watching. In contrast to the first two books, which relied on a certain conspiratorial menace, this one ends with a moment of grace and a sky full of stars.

Publishers weekly review

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Rogue Tortoise learns that he can overcome strong desires if he really wants to.

This change of heart is symbolised by the dream he has, which matches his friend’s dream — they are both dreaming of a scenario in which they each have their own identical hat. They fly into the starry, desert sky, newly free of pesky desires.

All three stories are about justice. It’s just that justice doesn’t always mean the same thing.

Publishers weekly review

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

It won’t.

Which is the point.

At least, the circumstances are the same as ever. No one has a fancy new hat.

BUT! Rogue Tortoise has wrestled internally with a strong desire and overcome that desire in favour of maintaining a good relationship. So I guess that relationship is slightly stronger than before.

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss

Green Eggs And Ham

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at another Dr Seuss early reader, Green Eggs and Ham.

Green Eggs and Ham is buddy comedy from the late 1950s with aspects of the carnivalesque. It also makes use of a mythic journey to beef up the word count and ends in a clear character arc.

Hard to believe, but this book was banned in China, for promoting Marxism. (They lifted the ban after Dr Seuss died.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF GREEN EGGS AND HAM

If Green Eggs and Ham were a movie and not an early reader, it would be called an ‘odd couple’ or ‘buddy comedy’ film. Continue reading “Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss”

I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew

solla solew

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss.

Solla Sollew is plotted using classic mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, changes a little along the way, meets a variety of friends and foes (and some who are both), ends up in a big battle and then either returns home or finds a new one. Yesterday I looked closely at The Gruffalo, which is also mythic structure but less obviously so. The day before I looked closely at The Gingerbread Man, which is pretty classic mythic structure except Gingerbread Man never meets any helpers along the way (and spoiler alert, he doesn’t live to learn anything from his journey). I figure it’s time to present a solid, classical mythic structure picture book with all of the most basic elements.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW

Continue reading “I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew”