Picturebook Endings

Picturebook endings are their own beast, due to the fact that picture books more than any other story are written for repeat reads.picturebook endings

Picture books without a twist at the end aren’t as much fun as those with a surprise ending that moves the story beyond the book.

– @taralazar

 

The so-called “open ending” that is gradually gaining more and more acceptance — first in young adult novels and then also in books for younger children — should be viewed as a modification of the linear code (in which a character goes on a journey, changes, then returns home).

– Maria Nikolajeva

For examples of contemporary picture books with open endings, see This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

The great challenge of picturebooks — which is also true of other stories but less so — is the need to create a story which stands up to not only being read twice,  but 100 times. Much of the re-readability of a picturebook comes from its conclusion.

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

THE IDEOLOGY OF PICTUREBOOK ENDINGS

How a narrative resolves, ‘ties up’ or ‘untangles’ (both metaphors are widespread), the complications of story is a recurrent concern among theorists, but is of special interest with children’s fiction. Here, the desire for closure, both in the specific sense of an achieved satisfying ending and in the more general sense of a final order and coherent significance, is characteristically a desire for fixed meanings, and is apparent in the socializing, didactic purposes of much children’s literature. There is an idea that young children require (that is both ‘demand’ and ‘need’) certainties about life rather than indeterminacies or uncertainties or unfixed boundaries. Even a genre such as fantasy, which might be expected to offer a site for a play of meanings and for resistances to fixed meanings, usually shows a strong impulse towards closure. … As readers we learn to look for some sense of completeness, both aesthetic and thematic, over and above the bringing of a series of events to a close. Aesthetic completeness is achieved in children’s literature through representation of symmetries, or movements from states of lack to states of plenitude.

Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens

PICTURE BOOKS AND THE CONCEPT OF THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

John Truby, in his book Anatomy of Story, writes about endings with a focus on film, but what he says about creating a ‘Never-Ending Story’ is particularly true for picturebooks.

You don’t create a never-ending story just by making it so good it’s unforgettable. The never-ending story happens only if you use special techniques embedded in the story structure.

He explains what he means by a ‘never-ending story’ by giving examples of stories which fail — stories which have limitations:

1. PREMATURE ENDINGS

This happens for three main reasons: early self-revelation, in which hero has a big insight, development stops, everything else is anti-climactic. Or the hero achieves his desire too quickly. Giving him a new desire doesn’t fix the problem, by the way, because then you’ve started a new story. Third, if your hero acts in an unbelievable way this can cause a premature ending because you’ve taken your reader out of the story.

2. ARBITARY ENDINGS

The story just stops. The reader will feel like the writer just got sick of writing, or reached the required 32 pages and had to quit.

3. CLOSED ENDINGS

This is the most common kind of false ending, and I suggest it’s the most common ending of popular picturebooks. ‘The hero accomplishes his goal, gains a simple self-revelation, and exists in a new equilibrium where everything is calm.’ Think of all those going to bed stories, which serve a purpose for young children. Or, if not bed, the child returns to the home after an adventure.

The thing is, ‘desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee he hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is always a living thing, its ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story.’

See also Natascha Biebow’s post on picture book endings, with a list of specific things you can do to create a sense of closure. Good if you’re currently stuck!

John Truby then offers tips on:

How to Create a Never-ending Story

You can ‘create an apparent equilibrium and then immediately shatter it with one more surprise. This reversal causes the audience to rethink all the characters and actions that have led them to this point…The audience mentally races back to the beginning of the story and reshuffles the same cards in a new combination.’ The movie example is Sixth Sense. We won’t be watching that the same the second time.

In other words, there’s a surprise ending. I make use of this technique in Hilda Bewildered. The limitation of this kind of plotting is that it is the most limited way of creating the never-ending story. ‘It gives you only one more cycle with the audience. The plot was not what they first thought. But now they know. There will be no more surprises.’ This is more a ‘twice-told tale’ than a never-ending story.

Truby recommends weaving a complex story tapestry using character, plot, theme, symbol, scene and dialogue. The permutations can seem infinite.

Tips to create an infinite story tapestry:

1. Hero fails to achieve her desire. Other characters come up with a new desire at the end of the story. This prevents the story from closing down and shows the audience that desire, even when it’s foolish or hopeless, never dies. I make use of this technique in Midnight Feast.

2. Give a surprising character change to an opponent or a minor character. This technique can lead the audience to see the story again with that person as the true hero.

3. Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings move to the foreground. Picturebooks lend themselves brilliantly to this technique, because detail and clues can be hidden in the illustrations, revealing themselves only after the story has been read. For an excellent example of this see Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner.

4. Add elements of texture–in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world–that become much more interesting once the audience has seen the plot surprises and the hero’s character change.

5. Create a relationship between the storyteller and the other characters that is fundamentally different once the viewer has seen the plot for the first time. Using an unreliable storyteller is one, but only one, way of doing this.

6. Make the moral argument ambiguous, or don’t show what the hero decides to do when he is confronted with his final moral choice. As soon as you move beyond the simple good versus evil moral argument, you force the audience to reevaluate the hero, the opponents, and all the minor characters to figure out what makes right action. By withholding the final choice, you force the audience to question the hero’s actions again and explore that choice in their own lives. Jon Klassen’s hat books are excellent examples of this type of storytelling.

Picturebook Study: Why the Black and White?

1. THE AIR OF UNCOMPROMISING DETACHMENT

While some picturebooks are in black and white for economic reasons, serious picture-book artists who choose to aavoid color in a medium noted for its use of color often have similar special points to make.

The obvious example is the work of Chris Van Allsburg. The black-and-white pictures in both The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and Jumanji evoke the feeling of black-and-white still photographs that have been slightly over-developed to emphasize their contrasts. They are uncompromisingly objective and detached–unlike the world we see subjectively with our own eyes simply because they are so much like photographs. Paradoxically, we commonly associate black and white with uncompromising truth, utter absence of subjective coloring: documentary. Van Allsburg’s pictures have the quality of documentary, of detached observation that shows exactly what there is to see without the frivolous intrusion of color, and they are unsettling simply because what we see so uncompromisingly is often magic and impossible.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

2. BLACK AND WHITE MAKES THINGS LOOK OLD, AND THEREFORE CLASSIC

The technology of photography has influenced picturebooks — and art in general — in a number of different ways.

One standout convention is that greyscale images make the reader think of the days before colour film was invented. This works even if the artwork is an illustration, not a photo. It works if the illustration is not even close to photo-realistic. The effect is made very clear when looking at these old images which have been realistically colorised. The effect is really quite stunning: We’re used to looking at wartime photos in black and white, which lends a comfortable distance to horrific world events. Yet when the same photos are colorised, the events seem much more recent and therefore have more impact.

Abandoned boy holding a stuffed toy animal. London 1945

The inverse works too. I recently watched The Last Picture Show, which was filmed in 1971 and therefore could have been shot in full colour, but the black and whiteness of it makes the town seem older. The story is set in the 1950s.

What about recently produced films set in the past? Why are more not set in black and white? Possibly it’s because in the digital age of film, cinematographers have ready access to coloured filters. A yellow hue cast over the background can lend an old-style look (as seen in Delicatessen, 1991).

screenshot from Delicatessen

I mention these films for adults because I’m not so sure the bulk of consumers and critics feel that ‘black and white’ is of any artistic use at all, let alone ‘appropriate for children’. Do adult gatekeepers accept the convention of black and white pictures in the stories they choose to buy for children?

Case study: After creating The Fanastic Flying Books Of Morris Lessmore, Moonbot Studios produced an app called The Numberlys, which baffled some reviewers because it was in black and white.

iPhone Screenshot 1
The Numberlys Screenshot

The opening of the app is gripping and quite dark (which makes sense given the inspiration), so it is unlikely to really capture the attention of pre-schoolers (I say this because as you’ll read later I have a hunch they are partly considered a key audience). It is in a black and white, slightly sepia tone and harks back to the type of animation that is aiming to appeal to both adults and children – though here it probably will be of greater interest to children of elementary school age and older.

review of The Numberlys from Wired

I sense the reviewer believes the youngest readers cannot be drawn in to a black and white/dark image. Is this something to do with physiology and the way humans have evolved to learn, or is it because two and three year olds have already learned from the culture that anything in bright colours is more likely to have been produced with them in mind? Perhaps this is what put the reviewer of Mac News World off the scent:

I must admit, I felt a bit duped by the description of the Numberlys app after I bought, downloaded and launched the app. I was expecting something bigger and longer that would appeal more to adults.

Was it the black and white look of the app which lead the reviewer to assume that The Numberlys was intended for an older audience?

Touch Arcade writes:

The story is told through beautiful black and white animated graphics which are clearly inspired by the classic sci-fi film Metropolis, but with a modern touch.

…thereby picking up that the black and white is influenced by work that has come before — in this case, the work of Fritz Lang. Will children appreciate any of this? The example of The Numberlys shows that regardless of what children themselves think, reviewers (and I guess adult consumers) are likely to assume that media produced in black and white will appeal to adult sensibilities. A black and white story for children, therefore, better make sure it lives up to the huge challenge of appealing to a dual audience of children and adults alike.

 3. A BLACK AND WHITE IMAGE TYPICALLY CONVEYS EMOTIONS BETTER THAN A COLOUR ONE

Filmmaker IQ has a post on the reasons why we might still choose to desaturate an image, and this is one of them.

In a portrait with strong lighting, a calm face can suddenly look menacing, or vice versa. In this case, the lack of colour means that colour can’t interfere with the tonal contrast. The best example of this is the entire art noir movement.

Virgil Finlay
Virgil Finlay

Perry Nodelman continues with his example of Chris Van Allsburg, and the contrast one can achieve via black and white:

Furthermore, the heavy contrasts of these pictures emphasize the patterns created by the various shapes and so do the black lines that outline each shape, so that the relationships o these shapes on the flat surface of the page are as significant as the relationships of the figures the shapes represent in the three-dimensional picture space. As a result, and as happens in photographs with high contrast, the often intense action the pictures depict is slowed down, held by the patterns; like still pictures of people caught in moments of fast action, the pictures depends to a great extent on these paradoxical relationships between what is depicted and the photographic techniques used to depict it–between our expectations of documentary truth and our perception of magic, between activity and stopped time.

MODERN ALTERNATIVES TO BLACK AND WHITE IN PICTUREBOOKS

There is nothing wrong with black and white as an artistic decision. But is there a ‘hybrid’ decision that can be made about colour, one which will satisfy the artistic goals of a limited palette as well as consumer expectation that children need colour?

Yellow Filters

In the digital era, illustrators can put a yellow tint on a picture and it immediately looks a bit old, but not too old (in which case black and white is good). I have no idea whether ‘yellow’ meant ‘aged’ before that crappy film did the rounds in the seventies, but there you have it. (See Delicatessen, above.)

It will be interesting to see how further developments in technology influence colour choice in art. With everyone sticking filters on things, the filters themselves are sure to come and go. Perhaps when we look back at the twenty-teens, we’ll see ‘iPhone filter’ stamped all over our family shots. So why do we do this? Perhaps photography got too good. Maybe we like the overexposed look, because one thing black and white early photography was very good at was adding a touch of glamour. And who needs every blemish magnified with a 50 megapixel camera?

Limited Palette

If you want to create a retro-looking illustration, you can also limit your palette to the few colours that were available to printing houses way back when. Many older illustrations are red and black simply because the publishing houses couldn’t afford a wider range.

1928 Willys-Knight | Flickr - Photo Sharing!
1928 Willys-Knight

 

 

The Personalisation Of Product

The Little Boy Who Lost His Name Screenshot

Lost My Name, a charming tale of a child on a quest to find their missing name, sold an astonishing 132,616 copies, knocking Julia Donaldson off the top spot for the first time in eight years.

The Guardian

Of all the things it’s possible to do with digital books, one of them is ‘Put Me In The Story’ functionality. Readers can:

  • Take pictures of themselves, then superimpose their own faces on a character’s body
  • Use their own names in place of a generic character name
  • Include their own family members in the story
  • Choose the make up of their family unit
  • Photographs of local setting as background
  • Personalised intratext, for example with the town’s name changed to that of the reader

The list goes on. Some of these personalisations are easier to implement than others, naturally.

Digital Book World asks whether the personalisation of digital stories is likely to become mainstream, or will it continue to be ‘niche’?

Also through my feed this morning is another article on dolls marketed at girls, a topic which has been interesting me ever since I gave birth to a daughter: Even more terrible things are happening to the American Girl doll brand than you thought. I’m not American so I don’t have any sort of history with American Girl dolls, but the article tells me that whereas once these dolls were good role models, girls are now stuck with ‘the dolls they deserve’. Now you can buy a doll in your child’s own image:

Maybe we get the dolls we deserve. After all, the redirection [since Mattel took over the brand] has been to shape them in our own image. You can wear what Saige (yes, SAIGE) is wearing. Saige, in turn, will have no more adventure than is readily available to you. You can indulge in a spa day! A spa day, with Saige. No more trekking across the prairie or dealing with wartime rationing. … Sure, maybe you picked your first American Girl doll because she resembled you – actually a lot has been written on this – but the whole point was to give you an entry point to history. Felicity or Samantha or Addy reminded you that, during the Civil War and the Revolutionary War and all the fascinating important times of history, there were Girls Almost But Not Quite Like You. You could see yourself in history! You could engage with the biggest moments of the past! … Now — actual stories are being replaced with bland, featureless faces. The My American Girls have spawned a series of books where you fill in the blanks of her adventures. For instance, in “Bound For Snow,” “Readers can imagine themselves as the main character of this interactive story, a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime.” Yes, what a stretch of the imagination it is to pretend to be a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime. “She’s teaching Honey the golden retriever how to pull a dog sled, but the pup just doesn’t seem to be getting the hang of it.” How tough to put yourself in her shoes. A golden retriever? But you’ve got a chocolate Lab! What a great exercise.

Less has been written about the personalisation of digital books, but I feel the same sarcastic tone could equally be applied. Throughout the entire history of human storytelling haven’t children been able to empathise with characters in a story without needing to literally see their own faces in it? Is this really such a struggle? Are we applauding narcissism?

Personally, I am struggling with some cognitive dissonance when it comes to the personalisation of digital books. Because my thoughts are unformed, here they are in bullet point format:

  • Yes, children do need to ‘see themselves’ in picturebooks. This is exactly why I have a problem with the disproportionate number of white boys represented in literature.
  • The personalisation trend may be one response to accusations of symbolic annihilation of PoC and female characters.
  • Regarding picturebooks and illustrated texts, some kinds of art styles are already perfectly good at allowing readers to see themselves in the characters. I’m talking about the simplistic style of art in which faces, while very expressive, are reminiscent of a smiley emoticon, and can therefore represent almost any character. Other art styles (such as mine, in Midnight Feast) are more detailed, and the character looks like ‘a certain individual’ rather than the everygirl. It is harder for a reader to see themselves in such a character.
  • But how similar must a character look to a reader in order for the reader to empathise?
  • Might it not be a very good thing if white children were empathising with PoC characters, and boys were more frequently given the opportunity to put themselves in the place of girls, and not just ‘tomboy’ characters — I mean boys putting themselves in the minds of girls doing girl things?
  • Is an interactive personalised story inherently metafictive, in that the reader is constantly reminded that they are not in fact living inside the pages of a story, but looking in at a rather gimmicky storytelling technique? Might this instead have the opposite effect to that intended ie. a vicarious, immersive, empathetic experience?

I have no answers, only suspicions:

  • There’s a slight danger that the personalisation of stories might absolve publishers from offering genuine diversity in main characters.
  • Some stories suit personalisation better than other types of stories.
  • Personalisation may suit some ages better than others — culturally we have a lot more tolerance for egocentricity in preschoolers than in, say, teens.

Related Articles:

Things Possible With Digital Stories Which Are Not So Possible With Paper Stories

The little boy/girl who lost his/her name

The Ideal Word Count

All the news this morning is the sale of Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City On Fire, for close to two million dollars. Every headline makes a point of pointing out that the novel is 900 pages. What’s that about? We seem to like everything else big… houses, cars, sandwiches, but when it comes to books, we get skittish.

The Novel: Does Size Matter? from Publisher’s Weekly

What about picturebooks for older readers? Is there an ideal page count? An ideal number of words averaged on each page?

Picture book texts must be presented on no more than two A4 sheets. If a picture book is any longer than this, it is not a picture book.

Omnibus Books Australia, an imprint of Scholastic

The new digital era may welcome variations in time, but for now the ‘correct’ word count is 400 and the ‘correct’ number of pages is 32.

The ‘correct’ target age-range for a picture book is under three, three to six, or six to nine.

So True

“I think you have to be a poet to write a good children’s book. Especially a picture book … I actually go long periods between books. Sometimes I’ll just find any way at all in the world to avoid writing a book. I think it’s because I think every single word is so important; I find it daunting to write. And so I couldn’t do it every day.

Cynthia Rylant, NPR

Norton’s Hut by John Marsden

Norton's Hut John Marsden

Norton’s Hut is an out-of-print Australian picture book, the second picture book written by John Marsden, and illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe.

When a young group of hikers gets lost in a blinding snow storm they find shelter in an abandoned hut. Inside the hut they find a man who ignores them and by morning has disappeared. After they are rescued, they question whether the strange events really occurred.

The following notes are from Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 04: Author and Illustrator Devices presented by David Beagley, La Trobe University, podcast available on iTunes U.

We often forget the tricks and techniques of illustrators, focusing only on the text. The reader must actively decode the sequence of elements to make meaning, whether those are letters or illustrations. Pictures in a picture book work similarly to words in a sentence. They follow a sequence: It has a vocabulary, a grammar. (Illustrated books use illustrations to illustrate a single point at that moment — it’s not a sequence.) So the grammar of pictures needs to be decoded. Text, on the other hand, can also have a visual effect, e.g. different shades of colour for shouting or whispering, variation in font size.

  • The cover of Norton’s Hut depicts a lonely, tiny hut. The weather contrasts with the window light. We know what time of day it is by the light in the sky. Gouldthorpe illustrates in a photorealistic way.  Illustrator Gouldthorpe is from Tasmania, though this book is not set in Tasmania. The cover gives clues, but whether the clues are accurate, we’ll have to read the book to see. Covers can be red herrings.
What Is A Red Herring?

Red herrings are false leads intended to keep the sleuth and the reader guessing, or send them off-course, making the big reveal more surprising.

This is a technique required in mysteries of all kinds.

  • The peritext can also contain specific elements to place the story. In picture books we often need the peritext because there’s nothing in the story to tell us, for example, that it is set in a concentration camp. Title pages are a part of the story itself.
  • The end papers in Norton’s Hut are a black and white depiction of a snow landscape.
  • On page one we see someone tramping. The POV positions the reader as if we are walking behind; we are one of them. “We caught our first glimpse of the hut late afternoon…” There are two pictures, one laid over top of the other. This is a montage effect often seen with photographs. You stick a lot of photos together to get a full panorama. This is for two slightly different effects: First it’s time-lapsed. It’s also to position you in relation to the characters. You’ve looking down on them. The reader gets the idea of the passing of time, the difficulty. The reader is encouraged to make judgement about the characters. What about the bird? It’s a crow or a raven, often used in literature, particularly old lit going back centuries, as a symbol of death, more specifically of battlefields. Why not a rosella or an orange belly parrot? The beautiful birds that we have through those eastern ranges of Victoria are not in the picture. The crow looks down on the group. This is particular use of form and structure and symbolism, where the picture gives suggestions. This POV gives an idea of the vastness of the landscape, and the loneliness of the group. The girl indicates something to the group and the reader is encouraged to turn the page. Now it changes hugely. A couple of things are emphasised. We continue this photo sequence as if it’s been put in a scrapbook. Wide angle shot, middle distance, close up. It’s now stormy. Was the girl pointing at the hut, at the sky, at the map? “Beyond the distant governors the clouds churned…” The words create an emotional/visual effect of storming and froth on the water. Overlapping of the pictures indicate sequence of action: things are moving quicker. Now they’re going down the hill. But they’re also disappearing. There’s an urgency to quick, catch up to them!
  • The next page is a good example of framing: Pointing out the thing that matters by having everything else around it focused on it. On the first (title?) page it is clearly the window with the light.
  • Next we go inside the hut. “We knocked and opened…” This sentence makes good use of commas, inserting hesitancy. This page makes use of lighting effect. Inside is the fire, to illuminate characters. We get side-lighting, looking down at them from the ceiling and up at them from the floor and how they’re silhouetted by the light. When we can’t see the face of the character (due to lighting) this seems ominous. The sentence with commas is followed by a tumbling type of long sentence. The words and pictures work together to change the pace and emotions of the characters. There is contrast in the words and contrast in the pictures. This is trying to make us think of something in particular. With half a face, just a nose and a cheek, this is all we’re going to see of this character’s face. We get the full face shots of the hikers, but this is all we see of him. Framing around the fireplace. “Outside, mist and cold and cloud flooded over the peak.” But the words explain that inside, they’re warm. So there’s contrast between inside and outside. The words carry more than just their dictionary meaning: Poetic devices: alliteration and other repetition of sound, repetition by use of similar meaning words, words with onomatopoeic resonance, metaphor “the terror of gust”, “snow stung at the door”.
  • The pictures get more claustrophobic: inside sleeping bags, inside the hut, enclosed by the white frame.
  • The illustrations reflect the influence of cinema. Closer and closer and closer views. Individual close ups of characters. The slow, wide-angle pan. This story uses a lot of cinema technique.
  • “In the morning the man had gone, but we…stayed three days trapped inside the hut.” What’s the mystery? Again time lapse photography is used to depict the passing of time. There is a series of photos again showing the lapse of time. They’re looking out the window, and they’ve found things to do: Braiding hair, looking out the window, brushing teeth. We also have the idea of scrapbooking and diaries.
  • The red herring: There are clues in each picture to the resolution of the story. You only see them when you go back from the end of the story and realise what those clues are. Some are red-herrings and some scream out, ‘This is what the story’s about.’ But the reader doesn’t know on first reading.
  • The final image reflects the first: We’ve returned to the sweeping vista — freedom at last. There’s been a change in colour from the yellows and browns to the sky-blues. There’s been a change in tension — a release after the storm. Continuing the release of tension, the characters do a lot of hiking — a lot more action. Again there is the time-lapse technique, and a POV which puts the reader in relation to the characters again.
  • But looking back, the characters can’t find the hut. The reader’s eye is drawn to where the hut ought to be, with the characters gazing. There’s even a little photo superimposed over the top of it — a telescope view, pulling it out from where it is in the scene to highlight that bit.
  • “We camped that night by clinker’s cold lake…”  This story is open-ended, no resolution, yet you’re given a resolution. Red herrings: ‘Christmas 1955’. The shadow puppetry that they’re doing — a wolf. The little match game could almost be a swastika. (But neither of these last two things have anything to do with the story.) The reader contributes as much to the story as the illustrator and writer. The story that you enjoy may not necessarily be the same story that other people are getting. Don’t ever assume there is only one story in any given book. There are as many stories as there are people to read it.

Authors and illustrators make very deliberate choices. Would this story have worked if Gouldthorpe had used cartoon/comic characters, or little animals rather than humans? Probably not as well. The photorealism allows the reader to place ourselves in this situation. Picture books for older readers such as this one include intertextuality (cinema references) and explores sophisticated emotion. When reading a picture book, read the whole book. Don’t just read the words. As readers grow older it is presumed that words become more dominant than pictures. As we get older we want more from our books. We find them in words, but also in pictures.

The Picturebooks Of Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg is an American writer and illustrator. You’ve probably heard of Jumanji and The Polar Express, which have been adapted for film. Have you read the others?

THE STRANGER BY CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG (1986)

The Stranger is a page turner of a picture book which asks more questions than it answers, and reminds me of the Australian picture book written and illustrated by Shaun Tan in which an ‘exchange student’ arrives, strange things happen, and then he departs. This is a story with a similar plot, asking different questions.

The drama begins on the very first page when a little girl’s father runs over a man on the road. At first he thinks he’s hit a deer, then he is worried he’s killed a man, but the man seems to have little wrong with him other than being struck by amnesia and rendered speechless.

It soon becomes apparent to the reader that there are supernatural elements in this story: The doctor’s thermometer is ‘broken’ (not registering life heat at all); the visitor has a way with rabbits, and is highly interested in the flock of birds flying across the sky.

When the stranger leaves, however, the reader is not told why and we never find out if this is a dead man who seems alive, if he has magical powers which stop the trees from turning orange, where he came from or where he is going. There are just enough strange things in the illustrations to really make the reader work hard. For one thing, the stranger looks very much like the little girl’s father. They wear similar clothes. This may partly be because the stranger has borrowed the father’s clothes, but even their face and hair is the same. The stranger is a lot happier than the father, dancing and singing and taking time to sit with her on the grass looking at the sky. Perhaps this is a little girl imagining what her father could be like (but isn’t), or perhaps this farmer father has had a very good year crops wise, due to the weather (part of the story), and the little girl has constructed her own story about the newly exuberant father who suddenly seems to be in a wonderful humour.

The illustrations are coloured pencil, with a variety of sketching techniques: the trees look pointillist, and the sky is drawn with long, continuous lines. The colour overlaid upon colour invite the eye to linger. The autumn colours of the surrounding farmlands are an important part of the plot and are rendered beautifully.

Not only is colour striking in this book; page design is beautiful too.

We first meet the little girl looking through the door from her position sitting at the bottom of the stairs. This puts the young reader in the little girl’s position, looking through a doorway, not quite knowing what’s going on, and identifying first and foremost not with the adults but with the young character.

After the visitor has departed, we see a birds’-eye-view of the father, mother and girl as they stand on their front lawn, wondering where he has gone. This point of view suggests that the visitor has flown upwards, into the sky and therefore into some supernatural world, and the viewer now sees the family from his perspective. As the story draws to a close, so too, do the family get smaller and further away.

This is a wonderful story and one of my favourites, designed especially for readers who are happy with ambiguity in picture books.

BEN’S DREAM BY CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG (1982)

The two child protagonists are a little older than most characters in picture books. A boy and girl walk home from school together before each going to their own houses to complete a geography assignment. Finding his parents out, Ben falls asleep in a chair and dreams his house has turned into a boat in a giant sea. The words end and the black and white linocut illustrations continue to tell the story, as Ben floats past various famous world landmarks. He is woken abruptly by his friend Margaret who has come to ask him to join her in a game of baseball. This is where the words begin again. She tells him that she has had an amazing dream and it turns out they’ve had the same dream.

Van Allsburg makes use of various children’s storytelling techniques in this one: Absent adults (there’s a note in the illustration to say the mother has gone shopping), dreaming to enter a strange world in which anything can happen, and an ending which suggests the story wasn’t just a dream; it was something more and some unnamed magic must have been involved.

This story would be an excellent way to introduce children to some famous landmarks.

JUST A DREAM BY CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG (1990)

Just a Dream is a story with an environmental message, one that has evolved a bit since 1990, I feel.

A boy is interested in futuristic dramas on the television, but doesn’t bother separating his rubbish. He puts the wrong rubbish in the wrong rubbish bin because he’s keen to get back to his show. That very afternoon he has already littered on the street and walked past a neighbour girl, who is watering the tree she got for her birthday. Walter scoffs at this, but something must have happened inside his head, because that night he is plagued with bad dreams about a terrible future. Each time he wakes up and dozes off again he seems to be woken by a worse one. In the morning he feels so guilt-ridden that he goes outside and places the rubbish bag in the correct bin. He has his birthday party a few days later and has requested a tree.

This book is unusual in that it does not end with a picture — it ends with a wall of words which explain the previous picture — two trees growing in a futuristic utopian world. The text explains that these are the trees planted by the two children in the story, only many years later, after they have cared for the world. I only wish this message had been conveyed in a more subtle way — perhaps the trees could have had plaques on them or something.

The overt message in this story is that if we go through the right motions of planting trees in our backyards and sorting the rubbish, then everything’s going to be okay. I do think that’s what it felt like back in 1990, but I’d be interested to know how the author/illustrator’s views have changed since then, if at all, in a world where ‘recycling’ really means ‘down cycling’, is in itself energy intensive, and when planting a tree in the yard goes only so far towards combating climate change.

THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK BY CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG (1984)

This is a collection of pictures which do not form a sequential narrative in their own right, each one telling its own story. This would be a wonderful way to inspire a class of students who are about to embark on a creative writing exercise.

THE POLAR EXPRESS BY CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG (1985)

The Polar Express Book Cover

The Polar Express was adapted for film.

As an adult viewer I find the film adaptation a little drawn out in an attempt to create something highly commercial out of a much-loved children’s book, but I feel this would have been better as a short film of about 20 minutes, like the adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo.

The reason the book works so well is because it manages the reader’s emotions so well. We feel the excitement of the boy as the Polar Express turns up at his house. We feel his pride when he is the one picked to receive the first gift of the year. We especially feel his disappointment when he learns that he has lost the bell through the hole in his pocket. This disappointment is conveyed perfectly by the boy who hangs his head and the concerned and consoling children who surround him on the train.

It’s at this point in the story we wonder if this is all a dream. But Van Allsburg likes to play with the reader in this sense. The next morning there is a bell waiting for him under the tree, with a note from Santa to fix the hole in his pants. The parents think the bell is broken because it doesn’t make a sound, but the children think it makes the most beautiful sound in the world. This part of the plot seems especially ingenious, playing on natural human hearing loss, in which only people under 20 can hear the highest pitches, with our hearing range gradually narrowing with age. In this case, the message is that imagination gradually narrows with age, and the final page is a reminder that we can keep our minds open if we try hard enough.

THE WRECK OF THE ZEPHYR BY CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG (1983)

This story is framed by a young boy speaking to an old man on the beach, next to the wreck of a small boat. The boy wonders how it came to be there and the old man spins a fantastic story about a boy who flew it above the clouds before crashing down and breaking a bone. A slightly sophisticated reader should infer that the old man telling the story was the boy, though adult readers will probably infer that this old man’s gone a bit loco or is making up a story to a naive younger audience.

FURTHER READING

Chris Van Allsburg Biography

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi: What are you doing with Alan’s hat? from We Read It Like This

Who does the nurturing work in children’s books?

“Mothers in the books were more likely than fathers to perform almost every nurturing behavior, including verbal and physical expressions of love, encouraging, praising and listening,” the researchers write. Similarly, mothers outperformed fathers on every care-giving behavior.

Gender stereotypes plague children’s picture books, from Salon

Mothers often appear at the beginnings of hero tales. They preside over the home which the hero leaves when he sets out on his quest, remaining there when he has gone. Sometimes they reappear at the end of the story to welcome him home. These mothers are invariably good, nurturing, sometimes almost saintly. They are the presiding spirits of the domestic sphere…The stereotype of the gentle mother content with her role in the home is, of course, not restricted to hero tales. It is widespread in advertising and it abounds in children’s literature of all kinds, functioning as a powerful tool of social conditioning. In 1992 a random selection of 282 children’s picture books published since 1970 revealed that 62 per cent of the mothers in these books were depicted in a purely homemaking role, with another 29 per cent in an indeterminate role. Only 9 per cent were shown in professional or professional/home-making roles, despite the fact that 1986 Bureau of Statistics figures showed that almost half the married mothers in Australia were employed. Interestingly, 36 percent of the home-making woemn in these books were depicted wearing aprons. Earlier studies had shown this badge of domestic servitude to be rampant in children’s picture books and while this study revealed some lessening of the phenomenon it was still quietly flourishing.

– Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan, referencing The image of mothers in contemporary children’s picture books by Gillian Tunstall

I was called a misogynist because I was reducing women to mothers. ‘Reducing women to mothers’ – now there is possibly the most anti-women statement I’ve heard.

— Steven Moffat

 

This is not surprising when the general message is still that parenting is for women. Even large media outlets such as CNN are busting out with headlines such as The 7 kids’ health myths every mom should ignorewhich manages to ignore theh fact that dads might also need to ignore health myths, because dads are parents too. Salon has been interested in this issue for a while now, and also published a piece called: The Times thinks dads are just baby sitters. A flipside of this attitude is that women and men feel as though they are judged differently on their parenting skills: You know there’s still a double-standard for fathers and mothers when a man who can change a diaper is hailed as a hero from The Guardian. Australia is currently talking a lot about parenting in the lead up to the election, but it’s being framed as a women’s issue. Apparently French fathers don’t change nappies.

The links could go on and on.

Back to picture books, I was already aware of these issues when I wrote and illustrated Midnight Feast, and it was a deliberate decision to have Roya and Afya’s father involved in the bedtime routine. As the evening of the Midnight Feast progresses, it was a deliberate decision on my part to have the mother step down. While the father suggests party games, the mother reads her own book and talks on the phone. I ended up mindful of the fact that as the mother, this character would be judged more harshly unless she reappeared at bedtime the following night, saying ‘Goodnight’ alongside the father.

I still look at Midnight Feast and see a gendered society in action: It is the father who asks the mother about food, assuming that women are responsible for the household catering. In the morning, it is the father who is dressed in a dress-shirt and tie, presumably off to a middle-class job.

I considered reversing that, too. And now I’d like to explain why I didn’t: Because in the limited space of a picturebook, illustrators need to rely on certain stereotypes, or risk confusing the reader. The father’s necktie is designed to represent middle-class employment. This is important to the storyline because the message is that hunger may eventually affect even the middle classes of rich countries. Sometimes women wear uniforms to work — there’s no doubt I could have had the mother hungry, asking the father for food. I could have had the mother dressed in a work uniform with the father making the sandwiches for his daughters. And I’m looking forward to the day when I can do this without even thinking of it as a transgressive act against gender norms.

Small steps in the transgressive direction. I think we should all aim for that.

Related: Does Biology Determine Gender Roles? New Study Says It’s a Numbers Game from Dads and Families

 

Skeuomorphism: What is it?

Here’s an infographic.

Skeuomorphism is one of those words you keep hearing, once you’ve learnt what it means. I’m even starting to hear it outside tech blogs: Has Morality Become A Skeuomorph? from The Society Pages.

It’s oft-talked about in app world because developers each decide how much an app needs to emulate the real world. For storyapps, one form of skeuomorphism is in the page-turn. There’s no real need for digital books to emulate the turning page — technically an entire story could exist on a single screen. But we’re at a time in history when most readers are well-adapted to print books, in which the transition to digital needs to feel intuitive to that cohort. Hence the ‘page turn’ icon.

We made use of a page-turn icon in The Artifacts. The button looks like a dog-eared page. That was at the end of 2011.

After a year and a half, certain conventions have started to emerge, and right now the dog-eared page icon indicates the user needs to swipe in order to get to the next page. We don’t like the swipe to turn because younger readers tend to find it difficult to do. Also, swipe to turn the page limits the touch-interactivity possible on each page, with hotspots limited to the centre of the screen.

skeumorphic page turn dog ear button

So with Midnight Feast we’ve decided to use an arrow, which looks unambiguously like a button. We hope no one will have trouble working out how to turn the page, even users new to touchscreen devices. We shall see.

Arrow Page Turn Button

We’ve also played a bit with the types of page transitions available in Cocos 2D, and we’re making use of a ‘wavy’ transition to get from ‘real life’ storybook pages into ‘imaginative’ pages. This doesn’t look at all like the paper page turn of a print book.

It will be interesting to see how digital storybooks continue to look less and less like printed matter as the years roll by.

Related: Here’s a pretty cool skeumorphic page turn.