When The Sky Is Like Lace (1975) is a picture book written by Elinor Lander Horwitz and illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000). If you read Wind in the Willows and wanted more otters, this one’s for you. (I’m not familiar with otters but I think these may be river otters rather than sea otters?)
Some picture book authors have the ability to tune into a childlike way of speaking. When The Sky Is Like Lace achieves that voice magnificently. For other picture book examples of childlike speech patterns, check out the work of Chris McKimmie, e.g. Good Morning, Mr Pancakes. Books like these are often described as ‘whimsical‘.
Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is a 1962 picture book written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Zolotow and Sendak were both giants of American picture book world. Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present was also a Caldecott Medal Honor Book, so it’s interesting to look through a contemporary lens and see how picture books have changed, or how reader responses have changed. The word which frequently crops up in consumer reviews of Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is ‘creepy’.
It’s wonderful, and probably necessary, for children to have the opportunity to do something nice for the adults in their lives. Children by their nature must constantly be on the receiving end of care, attention and gifts, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be a child and to do something you know is truly appreciated by those who normally take care of you.
Mr Rabbit seems to be more of a Pooka, as in the classic movie Harvey of the mid 20th century.
Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s 1944 play…The story centers on a man whose best friend is a pooka named Harvey, a 6 foot 3.5 inch tall invisible rabbit, and the ensuing debacle when the man’s sister tries to have him committed to a sanatorium.
I’m Gen X, so for me the massive rabbit friend in Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present reminds me of Donnie Darko.
The púca (Irish for spirit/ghost; plural púcaí), pooka, phouka is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore. Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could help or hinder rural and marine communities. Púcaí can have dark or white fur or hair. The creatures were said to be shape-changers, which could take the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. They may also take a human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail.
There was a time when massive rabbits were in fashion. The example below is an ‘Illustrated letter to Grace Orpen’ by William Orpen, undated. Fantasy rabbits have gotten a lot smaller in children’s stories, perhaps because massive rabbits are CREEPY.
This is a fairytale setting in a prelapsarian forest, where there is always enough food.
Noteworthy: the absence of blue. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a complete absence of blue in the palette, a decision clearly made by Maurice Sendak, who had plenty of opportunity to include some blue when the text talked about ‘blue’ grapes. He made them purple (close enough). Interestingly, blue as a concept is relatively recent. See for example reference to the ‘wine dark sea’ in Homer’s Odyssey. Sendak has ignored the concept of blue and gone in the reverse direction. Blue does not exist. Even the sky is greenish.
Why might an illustrator avoid blue? Blue tends to feel ominous. Even the warm tones can feel a bit scary.
The forest is a European forest, which explains why The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit don’t find a banana tree, but instead stumble across someone’s abandoned picnic. I’m not sure if it’s a common reading experience to wonder who abandoned their picnic like that, and whether they’re about to come back to find their banana missing, but that’s where my mind went.
CARNIVALESQUE STORY STRUCTURE OF MR RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT
Not all carnivalesque stories are paced like The Cat In The Hat, or like one of Madeline’s adventures. Sometimes fun doesn’t look like a carnival, complete with the flying trapeze. Sometimes it looks very much like this: A retreat into imagination, where the pay off is simply doing something nice for someone you love.
The pace of the book is entrancing, part suspenseful, part predictable, feels like sailing in a light summer breeze. I can see why children have loved this book for half a century.
One of the older covers of this book depicts the girl smiling at the ‘camera’.
[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”—show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.
Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
An Every Child is at Home
The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit start their story on a hill in the forest, but the the buildings of civilisation (home) are visible nearby.
The Little Girl wants to find the perfect gift for her mother. This is her idea of fun, and regardless of whether this character is a boy or girl, this is what gives the story a feminine sensibility. The female maturity formula is at work here, and so is our patriarchal culture in which girls are more likely to be encouraged to think about the needs of others than boys are. (This, after all, is at the heart of patriarchy.)
We still need more stories in which masculo-coded characters are the stars of stories like these.
Disappearance or backgrounding of the home authority figure
Adults in this story are physically absent but emotionally very present. The Little Girl spends the whole time apart from her mother thinking about her mother.
Appearance of an Ally in Fun
In this story, the rabbit is there from the start.
Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues.
Unusually for a carnivalesque story, Mr Rabbit has the authority. We can even see it in the names: little girl versus Mr. The rabbit is the authority when it comes to saying things like “You can’t give red”. Usually, carnivalesque rabbits who turn up out of the blue are a bit more fun than this guy.
Modern audiences tend to read this rabbit as creepy. Some readers find him less creepy when they code him as imaginary. For others it doesn’t help. Here’s a man-sized rabbit suggesting red underwear, leaning on a little girl, hanging out with her in the woods… Not questions that were significant (or raised) in the 1960s when this book was nominated for a Caldecott.
Rather than ‘building’, this carnivalesque story utilises a repeating structure. Red, yellow, green… The story functions pedagogically, teaching the difference between concrete and abstract nouns (obliquely), colours (for younger readers) and also to consider whether the receipient of a gift would like it. This is complex for young readers, who are inclined to give gifts they themselves would like. The little girl is practising theory of mind.
Although this story is repeating, there is still a build. Ther always is. Sometimes the build is subtle. The build here is in the amazingness of the gift. By the time they look up at the stars and consider giving the stars, the story is utilising a version of The Overview Effect. Many stories feature a contemplation of sky at this part of the narrative. This helps readers to connect the events of any given story to more universal themes. (Yes, it’s very literal.) And because we’re used to stories structured in this way, a glance up at the sky (or down from the sky in a low angle shot) helps to convey the sense of an ending.
Surprise! (for the reader)
On first read, I half expected the story to end with the appearance of the mother, and her pleasure at receiving the thoughtful gift. But the mother never appears. We are left to imagine how much the mother will appreciate the fruit basket.
The gag in this story is very minor:
“Happy birthday and happy basket of fruit to your mother.”
(Because it’s not usual to say ‘happy basket of fruit’.)
“Queen of the Falls” is a picture book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Some years ago, Van Allsburg gave a TED talk on this book and the history behind it. This post will focus on the storytelling techniques.
On Amazon, Chris Van Allsburg shared some of his roughs, when he thought the trim was going to be horizontal format. It’s interesting to see how different illustrators create drafts. Van Allsburg’s drafts look something closer to other illustrators’ finals. If Van Allsburg stuck with this rougher style of art, with the hand of the artist clearly evident, the mood of the book would be different. The realism of Van Allsburg’s final illustrators achieve a photographic realism which makes the story all the more harrowing.
DURATION — The drama plays out around the preparation for the event and pace slows down for the dangerous event itself. We don’t find out what Annie was like as a child or as a young woman via backstory, or even if she had children of her own. I find myself craving this information, trying to work her out, but this is a pleasant kind of unsatisfied craving, similar to a shadow which promises something sinister happening just off the page.
LOCATION — Niagara Falls, United States of America
MANMADE SPACES — We see a view of Annie’s charm school. I had to look up what a ‘charm school’ even is: As I’d deduced, it’s basically an American word for ‘finishing school’. It exists to teach children social graces. This juxtaposition is fascinating, because what Annie ends up doing is the opposite of what we might expect from the trope of the charm school ma’am: A stiff, unyielding, conservative woman who has no time for nonsense, frivolities and dare-devilry. Annie defies categorisation.
NATURAL SETTINGS — The Niagara Falls; magnificent waterfalls which attract many tourists. In English words don’t carry gender, but many things do carry symbolic gender. Waterfalls are generally gendered feminine. The illustrations below may partly explain why; the fall of water is reminiscent of a young woman’s cascading hair.
The Maid of the Mist is a sightseeing boat tour of Niagara Falls, and is also a feminisation of waterfalls.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Annie’s techinical knowledge was “modest at best” and the best vehicle she could think of was a barrel lined with pillows.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — As explained clearly in the book itself, older women were in a vulnerable economic position. No one was going to care for Annie in her old age. The life she could expect without income was no life worth living. Van Allsburg suggests on the page and in his talk that Annie could have done something else. I’m not quite so confident about that. Could she really have chosen to be a domestic laborer? The labour of a housewife or domestic servant in 1901 was hard, hard physical work, akin to the physical labouring job typically done by men today (with twice the upper body strength). A 62 year old woman was an elderly woman, who possibly needed her teeth fixing, who possibly needed better glasses, hearing aids, and didn’t have those advantages.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The most amazing thing to me (and clearly also to the author) is that Annie was the first to ever pull this stunt. Three men went down before (half a century before) and plunged to their deaths. Many who came after were younger, fitter and had the huge psychological advantage of knowing that it had been done before.
…it is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done.
Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites
Annie had no such reassurance, and although it’s impossible to know what was going on in the mind of someone who decided to do something I can’t imagine doing myself, I do suspect there was a suicidality to Annie’s decision.
Annie may also have been influenced by a strong belief in an interventionist God, and in an afterlife. She may have thought that she’d put God to the test; if she was meant to live, she would. If not, that was God’s plan. Perhaps.
An estimated 5,000 bodies were found at the foot of the falls between 1850 and 2011. On average, between 20 and 30 people die going over the falls each year. The majority of deaths are suicides—and most take place from the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, and many are not publicized by officials.
Of those who we assume attempted the navigate the falls without dying, there have been 13 fatalities and 17 survivals. To say nothing of injuries, this isn’t great odds.
STORY STRUCTURE OF QUEEN OF THE FALLS
Researching Mrs. Taylor’s life provided details that made it clear that her story was not one that fit into a conventional narrative of the determined underdog who triumphs over the challenges and obstacles placed before him or her, and emerges with admiration and rich rewards. Annie’s story was more complicated than that—and, to me, more interesting.
Chris Van Allsburg
Chris Van Allsburg himself has spoken frequently about his interest in the life of Annie Taylor and this provides some of the paratext.
The shape of the picture book is also significant:
My initial design for the book was horizontal, partly to accommodate longer text in a thirty-two-page format. I ultimately changed to a vertical shape when it became clear a forty-page format would allow for a more effective balance of text and pictures. (I was also persuaded by my colleagues at the publisher that a vertical format was more appropriate for a book about a monumental fall.)
Annie’s stunt, and the pragmatic way in which she went about preparations for it, paint the picture of a woman with a definitive, black-and-white, dualistic world view. Once she’d decided to do this, nothing would stop her. She would either live in abject poverty, or be wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. There was no in-between with Annie.
Writers are often told to give a character both a psychological and a moral shortcoming when writing. Van Allsburg decides that Annie was ‘proud’. Like Walter White in Breaking Bad, who ends up washing his students’ cars over summer, Annie is assumed to be too proud to do domestic work. But as I said, I think there’s more to it than that. Interestingly, when it comes time to get inside the barrel, Annie is described as ‘modest’ when she requires the men to turn away. ‘Modest’ is in some ways the inverse of ‘proud’. But perhaps you can be both. Also, sometimes ‘modest’ refers only to the wish not to display yourself in an exposing manner, which might be another outworking of ‘proud’.
Annie plans to end her poverty by tumbling over the Niagara Falls in a cushioned barrel then finding fame and fortune. Unfortunately her plan has a hole in it. Aside from the obvious threat of death, it is a strange decision to try and pass yourself off as 20 years younger. Surely it would have been more impressive had she revealed her true age. We are impressed by unusual combinations. The combination of a grandmotherly figure performing a stunt would have drawn the crowds. I feel she should have tried instead to pass herself off as 82 rather than 42.
But I can understand why she did it. Annie would not have felt invisible at the age of 42. She was running her charm school and had a place in the world. By pretending to the world that she was 42, she was proabably trying to reclaim some of the contentedness she felt at age 42.
Annie’s journey down the falls is clearly the climax of this story.
It’s interesting to note what Van Allsburg left out. What he did not include: That a cat was sent down in a barrel a few days previously, and survived. Kids like cats, cats do well in picture books; why would Chris Van Allsburg leave this interesting detail out?
Because it’s grim, I guess. They were sacrificing the cat.
SOVIET SPACE DOGS
During the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet space program used dogs for sub-orbital and orbital space flights to determine whether human spaceflight was feasible. In this period, the Soviet Union launched missions with passenger slots for at least 57 dogs. The number of dogs in space is smaller, as some dogs flew more than once. Most survived; the few that died were lost mostly through technical failures, according to the parameters of the test.
A notable exception is Laika, the first dog to be sent into orbit, whose death during the 3 November, 1957 Sputnik 2 mission was expected from its outset.
Sad as these stories are, picture books do cover the topic of animals sacrificed for the sake of science.
There is probably a narrative reason why Chris Van Allsburg did not include the cat. A cat in a picture book is as important as a human character. Readers will be as anxious about the cat as they are about the woman, leading to a double climax in which the first survival inevitably saps emotion away from the second.
Sure, she survived. But she was somewhat injured, and I wonder if she lived with some pain for the rest of her life. (Get injured at that age and it’s likely.) So even her ‘survival’ wasn’t binary; she could have broken her neck, sustained significant head injury and lived out the rest of her life incapacitated rather than dead. I’d be interested to know if she considered that inbetween possibility.
Then as now, you need a platform and a fanbase before you can turn stunts into cash.
By creating this book, Chris Van Allsburg has made many people aware of a character from American history which we would never have known about otherwise.
There’s a much wider issue here worth delving into. It applies here in Australia as much as in America; the historical figures we celebrate are white and they are men. As often as not, the ‘adventures’ of these men were as stupid as they were brave.
Other types of braveries from other demographics are less celebrated, if not entirely forgotten.
Annie’s fall from the top of Niagara Falls is nonetheless the sort of bravery you’d find in young men. We don’t celebrate the bravery of a woman giving breach birth in the Australian Outback in 1901, but to my mind, the forgotten woman is equally ‘brave’.
The Poky Little Puppy is a classic Little Golden Book by Texas writer Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustav Tenngren. This story was one of the first 12 Little Golden Books, first published in 1942, a big year in general for the world. Parents were wanting something light and playful for themselves and for their children, no doubt. 40 years later, The Poky Little Puppy was one of my favourite books as a preschooler and when I told my mother this, she said it had been my Auntie Sue’s absolute favourite as well. Fast forward another 30 years and my own kid loved it.
What I’d like to know is this: Can we put into words what makes The Poky Little Puppy such a popular picture book, so enduring it spans at least three generations (so far)? I know we’re not the only family this applies to; The Poky Little Puppy is the tentpole Little Golden Book which helps to sell other (also popular) Little Golden Books:
The Poky Little Puppy itself is a descendent of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, whichin turn is a descendent of 3000 years of mythic adventures starring (mainly) boys embarking upon adventures then returning home changed. The Poky Little Puppy is the cosy equivalent, for preschoolers, with no real opposition. As we shall see, any potential scariness of this adventure has been stripped away.
Although I won’t get into the language aspects here, The Poky Little Puppy is, above everything, a beautiful thing to read aloud. You can’t not read it in a kind of sing-song voice pitched at preschoolers. The text also contain parts which are likely to become catch phrases, used outside the reading of this book:
In the 1980s it was far more common for kids to be sent out of the house because their mothers were sick of them (and it was almost always the mothers doing the caregiving). “Get out of the house, you kids! I don’t want to see you again til dinnertime!” The mother in this story is a little kinder than that, but I’m reminded of the vibe.
So the kids go to a wasteland which just so happens to have a fantasy portal in the shape of a tunnel. The tunnel appears to be manmade. Tunnels are an inherently scary feature of the urbanised landscape. Stephen King made the most of this in the 1980s with IT (you know, with the clown and the red balloon.) Australia’s own Paul Jennings also wrote a tunnel/sewer story. See “There’s No Such Thing” in his Unbelievable collection.
The tunnel/sewer is, symbolically, the man-made equivalent of the forest cave. It makes sense that humans have developed a fear of caves. Wild creatures tend to sleep in there, and if not wild creatures, perhaps other humans. Humans have always been the most dangerous ‘creatures’ to humans. We’re called super predators for a reason.
There’s a strong Narnia vibe to this one, though I guess all portal fantasies which start in the normal world and land kids in a wooded area are going to remind me of Narnia. On top of that, we’ve got the boy who is turned into stone, a trope utilised by C.S. Lewis, and which can be found in fairytales much older than C.S. Lewis.
Anthony Browne’s fantasy world offers nothing by way of explanation. We are never told what, how or who turned the boy into stone. Readers are left to create that part of the story for ourselves. Anthony Browne’s books expect the reader to craft at least half of the narrative, which is part of the Surrealist, postmodern experience.
As you read Anthony Browne’s books, look carefully at the skyline. In this story, as well as in Zoo, Browne lines the horizon with industrial buildings to convey a fearful, repressed emotion in the young characters. In this particular story, the skyline buildings change as the characters start to view them differently.
The painting below is by a Russian artist, and features a similar line of industrial buildings between landscape and sky.
Over The Shop is a wordless picturebook by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Qin Leng, published 2021. Here’s something we all owe to the trans community: By pushing the conventional and arbitrary rules of gender, all of us are more free to be who we are. This picturebook is a celebration of these hardwon freedoms.
Western picture books are read from left to right. This affects the layout of a page, and the direction of character movement. Generally, characters also move through a picture book from left to right. When embarking upon a journey they will look to the right.
When characters come up against a hurdle, in an unmarked scene, that hurdle will be positioned to the right.
Below, Wombat from Diary of a Wombat isn’t getting what she wants (carrots). But she is determined to keep trying for them until she gets what she wants. Therefore, the door is positioned to her right.
Illustrators can deliberately subvert this expectation. In Outside Over There, the mother and the dog are paying no attention to Ida. Ida is off on her own adventure. At first, Ida is also looking left, not watching out for what crops up from the right. (ie. the goblins who switch her little sister.) But as she gets involved in the fantasy adventure she faces right.
The inverse rules of directionality apply to books read from right to left, as in Japan.
Header illustration: From ‘The walls came tumbling down’ by Dave Hill, illustrated by Jim Roberts and Art Kirchoff. Concordia, Arch Books 1967, I’ll help you hide.
Jumanji is a 1981 picture book written and illustrated by American storyteller Chris Van Allsburg. You may be familiar with the 1995 film adaptation starring Robin Williams.
Chris Van Allsburg has said that this story started with imagery. He wanted to put unexpected things together, such as a rhino in a living room. He describes the effect on readers as ‘cognitive dissonance’.
Cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.
Another descriptor for the Jumanji variety of art is Surrealism. Artists have been juxtaposing unfamiliar objects for many years. The Surrealist art movement began around 1920, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and the unconscious. Freud’s personal favourite Surrealist painter was Spanish painter Salvador Dalí.
Contemporary artists continue to work in Surrealist style. Check out the paintings of Vladimir Kush below, who also places unexpected things togethe, creating a new world:
The Stranger (1986) is the seventh picture book written and illustrated by popular American storyteller Chris Van Allsburg.
This picture book provokes as many questions as it answers, and reminds me of the Australian picture book written and illustrated by Shaun Tan in which a tiny ‘exchange student’ arrives in an Australian home, he admires his new surroundings, and then he departs. The Stranger utilises a similar plot, though it asks us to consider different things. Eric asks us to question what we consider normal about our own culture. The Stranger encourages us to take a closer look at our surroundings, and in aid of that, teaches audiences to close-read a text. This picture book is therefore popular with teachers working on inference skills.
The inciting incident happens on the first page when a young girl’s father runs over a man on the road. At first the father thinks he’s hit a deer, then he is worried he’s killed a human. The pictures reveal that the stranger and the father look almost identical; the man has come face to face with his own mortality, and that’s just for starters.
Running someone over on the highway, meeting yourself face to face… this feels like the fodder of American urban legend; many of those are set on highways. The story gets even more urban-legendy when the doctor’s broken thermometer suggests the man may be a ghost.
PRE-TEACHING THE STRANGER
When you were little did you used to think objects (or toys) were alive?
In stories, what is it called when an object comes to life?
List stories about strangers who come into the house. Did the strangers of these stories turn out to be good, bad or somewhere inbetween?
What is the difference between anthropomorphism and personification?
Both personification and anthropomorphization assert intangible human characteristics. anthropomorphization imposes physical or tangible human characteristics onto the subject to suggest an embodiment of the human form.
(See here for more on anthropomorphism and personification.)