The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg Analysis

The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg cover

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

QUESTIONS
  • 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.)

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My Shadow Is Pink by Scott Stuart Analysis

My Shadow Is Pink is a rhyming picture book by Australian author/illustrator Scott Stuart, perfect for Rainbow Storytime, or at any time in fact.

I’d encourage readers to compare and contrast this book with The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. The Crayons picture book is a mega bestseller, and I am therefore happy to hold it up as an example of gender messaging done badly, by creators (and publishers, and marketing teams) who clearly didn’t know what they were doing in the gender identity arena. Unfortunately, the creative team of The DayThe Crayons Quit do try to smash links between colour and gender… then end up reinforcing them. I’ll be generous and say it was by accident. I’ll be extra generous and point out that The Crayons (2016) is quite old now, in this rapidly changing aspect of culture.

In contrast, the creator of My Shadow Is Pink (2020) has secondary experience of gender expansiveness, observed in his own son. Stuart successfully achieves what others have tried and failed to do: to disentangle colour, clothing and play choices from gender. This is a vital first step in accepting variations on the gender binary.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SHADOWS

Elves catching the Shadow Goblin 1908 Theodor Kittelsen
Elves catching the Shadow Goblin 1908 by Theodor Kittelsen

The plot of My Shadow Is Pink makes use of the shadow as a separate part of oneself. Humans have long been thinking about the shadow and its motivations:

FOLLOW a shadow, it still flies you;
⁠Seem to fly it, it will pursue:
So court a mistress, she denies you;
⁠Let her alone, she will court you.
⁠Say, are not women truly, then,
⁠Styled but the shadows of us men?

At morn and even, shades are longest;
⁠At noon they are or short or none:
So men at weakest, they are strongest,
⁠But grant us perfect, they’re not known.
⁠Say, are not women truly, then,
⁠Styled but the shadows of us men?

The Shadow by Ben Johnson (from the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900)
Bring your lovelies out of the shadow, Woman and Home, May 1958
“Bring your lovelies out of the shadow”, Woman and Home, May 1958. Here, the shadow as separate entity is utilised in a humorous way by advertisers. But it does remind me of the current problematic marketing campaign being carried out by the British NHS, encouring women in a cutesy way to suddenly not have shame (around pubic hair and cervical test attendance), when everything else in the culture shames women for what’s under women’s clothes.
THE SHADOW IN THE HERO

In some cultures across history, the shadow-as-separate-being is an ancient and surprisingly fleshed-out idea. Though few of us these days give much thought to the shadow we cast, the idea of The Shadow In The Hero is well-known among writers. In The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote about various character archetypes in the mythic story. The ‘Shadow’ is the opponent, and represents the dark weakness in the hero, hence “Shadow In The Hero”. When heroes battle their opponents outwardly, they are actually battling their inner demons. Inner demons are the scariest demons of all.

Frank Cadogan Cowper - Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1920
Frank Cadogan Cowper – Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1920
THE HORROR SHADOW

Shadows, like personal weaknesses, are inherently scary. Film noir makes the most of this, but shadows are utilised in every genre. Chris Van Allsburg utilises shadows to ominous effect in his picture books, notably in The Garden of Abdul Asazi.

Filmmakers frequently use shadows because the human imagination conjures up what is most terrifying to each person. This is an intelligent method because if they had to create a monster, they would be isolating the audience that isn’t scared by that monster. It is a simple, yet high effective way to evoke fear.

“Shadows in Horror Films: Fear of the Unknown,” Brogan O’Callaghan (2017)

Because the shadow has an inherent scariness, the idea of this scariness transfers into a picture book and allows the author to leave most of the scary incidents off the page. In My Shadow Is Pink, it’s important to leave the worst things off the page, for the same reason the creators of Schitt’s Creek avoided homophobia in their show. There are too few stories celebrating gender difference without the trauma. However, exposing the most secret and unusual part of yourself is always scary. To use the metaphor of a shadow is an excellent way of conveying the scariness while avoiding the trauma.

SHADOWS IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Now to the concept of the coloured shadow. This is based on a very old, religious or supernatural idea: That your shadow is a part of you.

We see it in Ancient Egyptian culture. First, the Ancient Egyptians believed the soul comprised five separate parts:

  • The Ren: the name given to a person at birth. Egyptians believed it would live for as long as that name was spoken or the person remembered.
  • The Sheut: the person’s shadow or silhouette. Egyptians believed that the shadow contained part of the essence of the person.
  • The Ib: a metaphysical heart. To ancient Egyptians it was the focus of emotion, thought, will and intention. They understood it as the seat for the soul.
  • The Ba: personality. Everything that makes a person themselves.
  • The Ka: the vital fire or spark which distinguishes living people from dead (makes sense: warm living bodies vs. cold dead bodies).

A person’s shadow or silhouette, šwt (sheut), is always present. Because of this, Egyptians surmised that a shadow contains something of the person it represents. Through this association, statues of people and deities were sometimes referred to as shadows.

The shadow was … representative to Egyptians of a figure of death, or servant of Anubis, and was depicted graphically as a small human figure painted completely black. In some cases the šwt represented the impact a person had on the earth. Sometimes people (usually pharaohs) had a shadow box in which part of their šwt was stored.

Wikipedia

I heard Jodi Picoult speak succinctly about the Ancient Egyptians and souls in a Radio New Zealand interview she did promoting her new novel, The Book Of Two Ways.

John Bauer, (1882-1918), was a Swedish artist and illustrator, mainly of Scandinavian fairytales. The Prince Without A Shadow 1910
John Bauer, (1882-1918), was a Swedish artist and illustrator, mainly of Scandinavian fairytales. The Prince Without A Shadow 1910.
SHADOW WORK

In psychology and spirituality, “shadow work” is the practice of investigating parts of ourselves that we’d normally keep hidden. This often involves looking at what we perceive as our “negative,” “unattractive,” or “undesirable” impulses and traits. Shadow work is a concept popularised by Carl Jung.

Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.

Psychology and religion: West and East (ed. 1958), Carl Jung

STORY STRUCTURE OF MY SHADOW IS PINK

PARATEXT

My Shadow is Pink is a beautifully written rhyming story that touches on the subjects of gender identity, self acceptance, equality and diversity.

MARKETING COPY

SHORTCOMING

We all need to feel a part of something. When we feel different from our tribe, peer group or family, that can be a problem. “I cannot fit in when my shadow stands out.”

What I like about the set up of this story: The father is coded as ‘blue’, which contemporary readers will associate with ‘boys’. But then the entire family tree is described as blue. Since families don’t exist without women in them somewhere, this is a nice touch.

That said, I’d have liked to see some photos of women in the wall, to cement the idea that blue (the colour) is not a gender. (Later in the story, the father does bring out the photo album ‘of parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and others.) I wonder if there is a narrative reason why no women appear on the opening spread: Before his character arc, his misogyny means he dismisses and invisibilises women? By the way, there is no mother in this story, adding to the corpus of children’s stories with absent mothers. It’s interesting to think about why the mother may have been left out of this one.

DESIRE

At a plot level, the child wants to wear a dress to school despite being assigned male at birth.

At a psychological level, the child wants to both be themselves and also to “fit in”.

OPPONENT

There exist two distinct ways of fitting in. You can either pretend to be like everyone else, or everyone else can accept you for who you are. This particular story starts off with the father hoping to go down the first route. The father assures his child that this is “just a phase”.

Therefore, the child and the child’s father are in opposition. The father’s attitude is the dominant one in society. But it is impossible to repress that part of yourself which is elemental. In that story, this elemental part of the self is represented by the shadow.

PLAN

The child is too young to concoct plans and whatnot, but the five- or six-year-old version of a plan goes like this: I like to wear dresses, I will wear a dress to school.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

As is the case in many picture books, the battle comprises most of the story. We see the child looking sad and scared as they go out into the world (starting school) as a boy-coded kid in a dress.

To reiterate, I like that there’s no on-the-page insulting or bullying in this book. Sometimes parents are more fearful than they need to be, especially when it comes to Gen Z kids, who are the most accepting generation we’ve seen in memorable history. (Yes, you can thank their parents for that, and also probably ubiquity of the Internet.)

At the climax of My Shadow Is Pink, the child throws off the dress, determined never to wear it again. (We can assume bad things happened off the page.)

In the picture, the shadow is now separated from the child’s body; an abject rejection.

The word ‘abject’ is key here. This story is about abjection in Julia Kristeva’s sense of the word, explained in her 1980 work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.

ANAGNORISIS

The (hoped-for) revelation to the reader: If a big, manly man like this kid’s dad can wear a dress, then dresses, pageantry, kikis and all forms of camp expression are not the same thing as gender identity and sexual orientation. Ergo, pageantry should be for everyone.

Camp: A preference for reversal and rejection of sincerity….camp involves both a sense of doubleness — things are not merely what they seem to the naive viewer … camp involves  a preference for reversal — the very bad now reinterpreted as good.

The double page spread which happens at this point in the story, with the spot illustrations of various people with various shadows is what makes this story shine. Until this point, the author/illustrator has had little choice but to run with the culturally dominant view that blue is connected to masculinity and pink is connected to femininity. At this point he subverts it, successfully with:

  • A masculo- coded character with a cis-coloured shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (businessman and painting)
  • A femme- coded character with a cis-coloured shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (fixing cars and cheerleading)
  • A masculo- coded character with a masculo-coded shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (weight-lifting and dancing)

The message on the verso is clear: Cis people don’t need to limit their passions in order to prove to the world that they’re cis.

On the recto side of the page we have another two examples, and in the mix:

  • A cis girl who likes girls

Until this point, the story has been about gender expression, and possibly about gender identity. Now the story sneaks in some gay acceptance, which is very nicely done.

ON OFF-THE-PAGE CHARACTER ARCS

This is an example of a story in which the parent has the character arc, not the kid. The kid was always fine. The father started out scared of his kid’s identity, then morphs into the perfect, supportive parent.

I’ve started to notice something about stories structured in this way:

The first is that they do work. There’s something really heartwarming about seeing a burly father change. This conects to my theory about heartwarming stories about kindness: The less kind the character in the first place, the more heartwarming an audience will find their change of attitude. We absolutely crave stories about characters who ‘come good’. The bigger the character arc, the better we like it.

Here’s the strange thing: In such stories, the storyteller is under zero obligation to show why the unkind character changed their mind. We simply would not accept this if the father of this story were the focalising character. We’d go, hang on, why the sudden change of heart?

This is a feature of all forms of storytelling, not just of children’s picture books. Another example can be found in episode one of the TV series Lovecraft Country. A woman is required to stay at home for safety while her husband goes off on a trip to write a guide book for Black travellers. It is established at the beginning of the story that it is the wife who does a lot of the work of writing. She asks, “Why can’t I go with you?” Because safety, explains the husband, who ends up taking another woman along with him — a woman who nearly loses her life. But as episode one closes, we see the husband pick up the phone from a hotel room and tell his wife that she should join him next time. We haven’t been shown why he has had a change of heart.

So why does this work? Why do readers simply accept the father’s off-stage character arc without asking, “why”? I posit two reasons:

  1. The character arc happens off-stage. We therefore assume things have been ticking over with the dad — things we simply don’t know about. Maybe he’s been on the Internet reading up about LGBTQI+ issues. Maybe someone’s had a quiet word with him. Maybe he remembered a time in his own youth when he wore a dress and got teased and realises now that this was wrong… Any number of things could’ve happened, but the reader doesn’t need to know about them.
  2. We were always on the less empowered character’s side, right from the get-go. In My Shadow Is Pink we don’t need reasons for the dad’s character change explicated, because it was obvious from the start that the father was in the wrong, the kid was in the right, so it was a natural progression that the father would join us all on the right side, ie. the side of the viewpoint character. In Lovecraft Country, a modern audience with modern views on gender equality will be on the side of the wife who is required to stay at home despite doing the bulk of the writing work. This is why we accept character arcs when they happen from ‘wrong’ to ‘correct’ even when we don’t see the thing that spurred the shift in thinking. Whenever someone agrees with us in real life, we don’t need to know why, right? We only need to know their thought processes when they disagree.

In any case, here is a real world father who underwent the same character arc as this fictional father, explaining his epiphany:

“And that was when it hit me. My daughter was equating being good with being someone else.” This is a real world example of an epiphany about a mask. So many fictional stories are also about the removal of a mask.

NEW SITUATION

The advice this father gives to his child: “stand up with your shadow and yell THIS IS ME!” If the advice ended there, I’d criticise it for being insufficiently nuanced. But this is followed with “And some they will love you… and some they will not.. But those that do love you, they’ll love you a lot”.

This is the perfect way to end a book about gender identity in a world where trans rights are clearly still very much needing to be fought for.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Although this story is specifically about the acceptance of gender non-conformity, the message has a wider application: We must all accept ourselves, no matter who we are. It’s great to see a specifically gender non-conformity example added to what is already a massive corpus of ‘Be Yourself’ picture books of the non-controversial Elmer variety, about a fantasy elephant with patchwork skin.

RESONANCE

I hope that one day, a picture book such as My Shadow is Pink becomes wholly unnecessary, considered a strange artefact from a bigoted past. But for now, affirming stories such as My Shadow Is Pink are sorely needed, and I’m delighted that this one exists.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

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A Woggle of Witches by Adrienne Adams Analysis

A Woggle of Witches is a picture book written and illustrated by American storyteller Adrienne (“Dean”) Adams in 1971. In total, Adams wrote six of her own books; mostly they illustrated for other writers.

Adrienne Adams was a prolific illustrator through the 1960s and beyond, and a two-time winner of a Caldecott Medal (1960 and 1962). Adams was born in Arkansas in 1906 and grew up in Oklahoma. They studied in Missouri.

Adrienne Adams worked with tempera, gouache, watercolor, and colored pencils. Black is a distinguishing and important part of her palette, the colour which basically told the whole story.. Unlike many illustrators, Adams handled the chromatic separation, regarded for being a mundane but necessary process. Adams was as particular about the printed process as Beatrix Potter, and acknowledged that what came out in print was always a gamble.
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The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979) was the first picture book by American author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, who himself admits astonishment at the book’s immediate success. This was helped by reviews in America-wide publications. Such attention has always been unusual for children’s stories, and perhaps says something about how this story appeals to all ages. Like Australia’s Shaun Tan, the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg work as coffee table displays, and you could easily hang these illustrations on a wall as fine art.

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Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne Analysis

Have you ever wanted to go back and redo old work? A Walk In The Park is one of Anthony Browne’s earliest picture books — his second published after Through The Magic Mirror. Twenty years later (in 1998), Browne decided to redo this book in Postmodern style. Now it is called Voices In The Park. In the earlier title, postmodern elements are nascently evident. Look closely and you’ll find minor elements that don’t quite fit the scene. The earlier version has a single voice. The updated book contains four separate voices in first person and is far more surreal.

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On Rhyming Picturebooks and Children’s Poetry Analysis

Examine the work of rhyming masters like Jane Yolen, Jack Prelutsky, Karma Wilson, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Corey Rosen Schwartz.

Tara Lazar, How To Write Children’s Picturebooks

“If it’s going to rhyme, it’s just terribly important that there’s some repeated phrase, some sort of chorus-y bit.”

Julia Donaldson, The Guardian interview

In 1991 an editor in the children’s department at Methuen contacted Donaldson to ask if she would be interested in turning one of her BBC songs into a book. A Squash and a Squeeze was published in 1993, when Donaldson was 44. It was not expected to be a big seller. For one thing, it was in rhyme, which publishers at the time largely avoided because of difficulties with translation. “In order for a picture book to be profitable, you more or less have to glue some foreign editions on, so you can do a bigger print run,” Donaldson said.

“It was a rule we held to be self-evident that you couldn’t afford to do rhyming books,” [Kate] Wilson, who then worked in Methuen’s rights department, told me, somewhat sheepishly. (The book has since sold more than 1.5m copies, and Donaldson’s work has been translated into more than 50 languages.) Today, a significant proportion of picture books are written in verse, somewhat to Donaldson’s bemusement. “I think there’s far too many rhyming books. And a lot of them – I don’t want to sound vain or anything – a lot of them make me cringe.”

Julia Donaldson, The Guardian interview
https://twitter.com/kthorning/status/1354274917949255688?s=20
The book From Cover To Cover by Kathleen T Horning is recommended in this thread, because it has a section on rhyming and rhyme adjacent devices.

What poets do is to encourage our inclination to credit the prompting of our intuitive being. They help us to say in the recesses of ourselves… ‘Yes, I know something like that, too. Yes, that’s right. Thank you for putting words on it and making it more or less official’.

Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, Faber, 1998

“I fucking hate guys who quote poetry to girls. Since we are being honest. Also, wisdom is a better fat than the vast majority of kisses. Wisdom is certainly a better fate than kissing douches who only read poetry so they can use it to get in girls’ pants.”

from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Duke Bunthorne is a character from an opera called Patience. Bunthorne is a poet who frolics around saying poetic things, followed by a hoard of women. [This reminds me of the eerie and inappropriate Canadian-born lecturer of poetry I had at university, who would approach young women in the library, sidle up closely and start reciting poetry at them creepily. He then tricked us all in the poetry exam by letting an entire lecture theatre full of people believe the exam would involve the interpretation of poetry, when in fact we were tested on how well we’d memorised, line for line, the poems of dead white men. We all failed and were all graded up, all of this doing nothing more than demonstrating one of the huge limitations of exams.]

Bunthorne’s lines are a parody of poets who despair at a world in which nothing is special. But there is nothing mysterious about poetry. It uses the same words that we use when making shopping lists or having conversations about football.

Iona Opie and her husband did a lot of work collecting rhymes and games and verse and the literature of play. They focus on the oral tradition.

Beagley mentions a number of good books but I can’t catch them from the podcast. He also mentions a particularly good website by poet Lorraine Marwood. Look especially at the vodcasts in which she works with secondary and primary school aged students.

What is poetry?

In Australia, the bush ballad is distinctive. (The Man From Snowy River is perhaps the most famous example.)

Nursery rhymes can be political parodies, such as Humpty Dumpty. So poetry can parse from one area of the community to another, ending up as a children’s poem.

Tongue twisters are for play.

Most school children and most adults as well have an aversion to poetry. Where does the yuck response come from? Many teachers present poetry to children in an inept way, misunderstanding children’s use and appreciation of poetic forms. What causes the strong reaction to the concept of poetry? Is it technical or about the meaning of the poems?

I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

Robert Frost

Poetry’s Form and Structure

Sound, especially end-rhyme, has been popular of late but this wasn’t always the case. Alliteration was a more popular poetic technique several centuries ago. Onomatopoeia describes words such as ‘bang’ and ‘slosh’, which are meant to sound like the real-world sound. In blank verse, the enjambment becomes important (where the lines end). Then you’ve got assonance and consonance and different types of rhymes.  Because of the stress-timed nature of English, the meter is important. Or the number of syllables. A haiku is the poetic equivalent of taking a photograph. Or the number of lines might be the defining thing, e.g. a sonnet, the limerick.

Other literary devices in poems have to do with meaning, particularly the metaphor. Similes, allusions are other examples. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a good example of metaphor, simile and allusion. The allusion is Biblical — King David is from the Old Testament, the Book of Samuel. Rhythm, rhyme and structure help poems to be memorable.

Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm.

Jim Harrison

These techniques compress far more meaning into a short space than would otherwise be possible.

The Difference Between Prose and Poetry

Poetic techniques convey impression, emotion, feeling, idea and other abstractions from meaning, rather than instruction and shopping-list type information. Poets aim to use as few words as possible to convey the most. “The best words in the best order.” G.K. Chesterton said that the aim of prose is for the words to mean what they say, but the aim of poetic words is for them to mean what they do not say. However, writers of prose still have poetic techniques available to them.

The Poetry of A.A. Milne

Disobedience: The last verse is meant to be whispered.

Happiness: A lovely structure of sound and that’s the point of it.

Vespers: Is a breakaway from the other poems. This is a very adult, gushy view of childhood and children were forced to learn it. Parents are just as much an audience of children’s lit as the children, but the meaning is only intended for them. This contrasts with the ‘hoppity hop’ poem which exists as language play.

Other Important Poems

Some poems are very sensual, making use of all the senses. For example Fog by Carl Saunders. There are no harsh consonants, and instead is full of consonants which can be said continuously such as the sibilant ‘sss’, but no plosives. Eleanor Farjeon’s The Tide In The River is similar in this respect: soft sounds repeated, long ‘i’, almost like a nursery rhyme. It also uses the adult image of the tide turning.

Analysis of poetry can draw our attention right away from its beauty. Having said that, you do need to understand the technicalities of a poet’s craft. [This might destroy the poems you study but will help you to appreciate the poems you don’t. It’s a trade-off.]

Beagley then goes on to ruin a war poem. [haha]

Many wonderful poets are writing for children in the UK. However, if you go searching for children’s poetry in a UK library or bookshop, you’ll find it on a shelf labelled ‘Children’s Poetry and Joke Books’. Children deserve access to the same range of subjects and styles as adults. What public art gallery would fill its children’s’ section with cartoons only? Yes we love cartoons, yes we love humour, but perhaps adult insecurity (about poetry we don’t immediately ‘get’) has narrowed this market to a sub-genre of joke books.” 

Manchester Children’s Book Festival

The following are notes from David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U.

Hehe

Poetry is spread through cultures all throughout the world. But children’s poetry is not necessarily a distinct thing — it goes hand in hand with cultures which consider the child different from the adult. What exactly is it that distinguishes children’s poetry from the rest of society’s poetry?

Of all the things I wish I were I wish I were a sparrow

Spoetry

Spoetry is a poem comprising phrases from your spam email folder.

Here’s one from me:

GOOD DAY MY DEAR FRIEND
Black Friday is coming! Prepare yourself!
You’ll never find THIS on a shelf.
USE IT FOR THE CHILDREN.

References

Websites useful for finding poems

Poemhunter.com 

Searchpoetry.com is a search engine

Those two allow you to search by poet’s name/titles/individual lines. Many of the poems are out of copyright, so older poems.

Bartleby reprints texts out of copyright — old encyclopedias, magazines, classic poems etc.

What Makes For Good Poetry?

Rebecca Lukens (of A Critical Handbook Of Children’s Literature): Simple rhyming and construction of words into a pattern may have a long history, but this is not poetry. Greeting card limericks, advertising jingles etc. are not poems. They are verse, they are games, rhymes, wordplay… but not poetry. Lukens says that poetry as a definition has very specific boundaries. T.S. Eliot also took up this issue: If you’re just playing with structure then you’re not writing poetry. There must be sensitivity of thought that is worth conveying to others. While Lukens does make a case for a continuum, with ‘doggerel’ at one end and ‘high art’ at the other, Eliot is very particular. He says poetry is only at the high art end. Eliot’s own poetry fits at that end — it’s easy to wonder what the hell his poems are about, until you’ve really studied it. That sort of poetry was very popular in the 20th century.

Is this an elitist view? Is this why for a lot of people poetry is meaningless, to be avoided like the plague? You get meaning a lot more quickly from a novel or a movie, or even dance.

According to Lukens and Eliot’s definition of poetry, verse is inferior to poetry.

Poems need to say something about our state of living/human beings/the natural world which adds to our sense of living. What’s more important in poetry: How something is said or what is actually said? It’s insulting to children to say that poetry has to be some elevated form and that they need something different and that children’s verse is somehow inferior.

See Give Them Wings, ed. Maurice Saxby

So those are two opposing views about what makes poetry.

Very often, children’s first introduction to literature (constructed literary works) is rhyme — Round and round the garden, This little piggy etc. Even when the child does not understand the words, they learn the rhythm, they learn that it is comforting, they learn about their relationships with the important people in their lives.

Although nursery rhymes are passed orally from generation to generation, someone must have constructed them. But we have no idea who. (Though we do know who wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – Jane Taylor.)

After a while the child starts to memorise these rhymes and join in. It becomes a shared activity. Actions accompany the rhymes (e.g. Incy Wincy Spider).  This is children’s literature. So how can one say that this is lesser literature than T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets? To the child, this is the complete, greatest thing. Mastering the movements that go along with rhymes is a major achievement.

The very first Simpsons cartoon (a Tracy Ulman show skit) depicts Homer and Marge saying goodnight to the three children. ‘Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.’ Lisa is mortified, wondering about the bedbugs. ‘Rock a bye baby…. when the bough breaks the cradle will fall….’ Maggie is imagining herself falling from the top of the tree. Homer and Marge go off to bed and say to each other ‘Aren’t we wonderful parents.’ This skit shows that if children actually understood the words in some famous sayings and lullabies, they’d probably be disturbed. It’s not about the words, it’s about the rhythm and song.

Is it meant to be ‘read’ or is it meant to be ‘said’? This is the question that defines children’s literature.

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is a very old poetry game. Probably the best known version these days comes via Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s book published by Walker Books. Publishing can fix a piece of children’s literature into one well-known form, whereas before publishing, rhymes evolved in the playground.

THE IMPACT OF TV

People who study playground lore have found that, despite worries, TV hasn’t replaced rhymes, chasing, skipping and singing games etc., instead, T.V. has simply added content.

It’s unlikely TV or screens would ever lead to the demise of this kind of play, because playground rhymes offer a safeish space to use taboo language. [Demonstrated in the Australian book series edited by Peter and Virginia Ferguson Durkin.) The rhymes might be about putting someone else down/teasing, or deflates authority and establishes hierarchies. There’s a lot about inclusion and exclusion.

There is quite deliberate parody e.g. Felicia Hemans looking back on the Battle of the Nile, writing the poem Casabianca. The poem was a very didactic one about dying nobly. So the poem had its words replaced in the playground. [We did the same at school with the New Zealand national anthem: Hear our voices tweet tweet tweet/God defend the toilet seat. I remember the joyous terror of singing this in assembly, looking at the teachers trying to work out who was singing it.]

Shirley Hughes’ book is full of things that adults would like, and compared to what the children are using in the playground, it’s not especially memorable.

Walter De La Mare’s poems are deceptively simple and have therefore mainly been published for children. As I Was Walking is a good example of a serious poem which has been hijacked (personalised) by children.

WORDPLAY

Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Spike Milligan all wrote poems which made playthings out of words. Some of the words from these famous poets have since entered the English language. (Lear’s ‘chortle’, for instance.)

Sound is very important. Rhyme helps new generations of children to remember the chants.

Related: How To Enjoy Poetry from Brainpickings

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FURTHER READING

Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917 by Angela Sorby (2005)

When I’m writing, I’m more conscious of the sound, actually, than the meaning. I know what the rhythm of the sentence is going to be before I know what the words are going to be in it. … Silence? Yes. Pneumatic drills? Fine. Traffic noise? No problem. But music is an absolute killer. So I have to have silence, so I can hear the rhythm.

Philip Pullman: Rules of writing from man behind His Dark Materials

When he wrote poems, he felt as free as the Passaic River as it rushed to the falls. Willie’s notebooks filled up, one after another. Willie’s words gave him freedom and peace, but he also knew he needed to earn a living. So he went off to medical school and became a doctor — one of the busiest men in town! Yet he never stopped writing poetry. In this picture book biography of William Carlos Williams, Jen Bryant’s engaging prose and Melissa Sweet’s stunning mixed-media illustrations celebrate the amazing man who found a way to earn a living and to honor his calling to be a poet.

Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.

Kevin Barry
Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header illustration: Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969), “Farmer in the Dell”.

The Annotated Night Before Christmas

“The Night Before Christmas” is an alternative title of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (controversially) by a guy called Clement Clarke Moore. The poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and only later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837, the start of the Victorian era. A Dutch migrant called Henry Livingston might be the true author. We don’t know.

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The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg Picturebook Analysis

The Widow's Broom Chris Van Allsburg cover

“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.

Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.

THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM

This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.

A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.

[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books

Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)

Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting - 1882 Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)
Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting – 1882 Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)
Ketchup Rag, by Irene M Giblin (1910)
Ketchup Rag, by Irene M Giblin (1910)

When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.

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Gift Idea: A picture book inside a cardboard box

J.C. LEYENDECKER (1874-1951)TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS 1936

It’s often said that children love boxes more than they love the expensive presents that came inside them. That’s certainly been true at this house. The large boxes are especially popular. Large boxes can be turned into huts or reading nooks. Small boxes have a wide variety of uses.

If you’re planning on saving that box to give as a gift, here are a few picture books which sing the praises of boxes.

  • The Man Who Loved Boxes by Stephen Michael King
  • My Cat Likes To Hide In Boxes by Lynley Dodd, of Hairy Maclary fame.
  • Clancy and Millie and the Very Fine House by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood
  • The Terrible Suitcase by Emma Allen and Freya Blackwood 
  • I Am A Bear by Jean Francois Dumont
  • Little Bear in Space by Elsa Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak (1957)
  • Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

BOX: HENRY BROWN MAILS HIMSELF TO FREEDOM

Henry Brown wrote that long before he came to be known as Box, he “entered the world a slave.” He was put to work as a child and passed down from one generation to the next — as property. When he was an adult, his wife and children were sold away from him out of spite. Henry Brown watched as his family left bound in chains, headed to the deeper South. What more could be taken from him? But then hope — and help — came in the form of the Underground Railroad. Escape!

In stanzas of six lines each, each line representing one side of a box, celebrated poet Carole Boston Weatherford powerfully narrates Henry Brown’s story of how he came to send himself in a box from slavery to freedom.

I AM A BEAR BY JEAN-FRANCOIS DUMONT

A homeless bear lives in a city full of people who are repulsed by him.

When a young girl smiles at the bear one day, he realizes that a friend might make his life a little better. A remarkably effective portrait of human prejudice from multiple angles, and a beautiful tale of compassion and friendship.

EVELYN DEL REY IS MOVING AWAY BY MEG MEDINA AND SONIA SANCHEZ

A big truck with its mouth wide open is parked at the curb, ready to gobble up Evelyn’s mirror with the stickers around the edge . . . and the sofa that we bounce on to get to the moon.

Evelyn Del Rey is Daniela’s best friend. They do everything together and even live in twin apartments across the street from each other: Daniela with her mami and hamster, and Evelyn with her mami, papi, and cat. But not after today–not after Evelyn moves away. Until then, the girls play amid the moving boxes until it’s time to say goodbye, making promises to keep in touch, because they know that their friendship will always be special. The tenderness of Meg Medina’s beautifully written story about friendship and change is balanced by Sonia Sánchez’s colorful and vibrant depictions of the girls’ urban neighborhood.

PICTURE US IN THE LIGHT BY KELLY LOY GILBERT

Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.

Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.

When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.

Our app, The Artifacts by us, Slap Happy Larry, also features a box, though unfortunately you can’t gift an app inside a box.

Terrance the turtle was born without a shell, so he uses a cardboard box instead. Terrance loves his box. It keeps him dry on soggy days, safe from snooping strangers, and is big enough to cozy up with a friend. But when another turtle points out that Terrance’s shell is, well, weird, he begins to wonder whether there might be a better shell out there…

Eventually, and through much trial and error, Terrance learns that there’s nothing wrong with being different–especially when it comes to being yourself.

Cardboardia The Other Side of the Box

A group of friends must use their ingenuity to save a parallel world that can only be accessed through cardboard boxes in this series starter from Black Sand Beach author Richard Fairgray and Lucy Campagnolo.

When Mac, Masie, and Bird find mysterious tokens in their cereal boxes, they’re transported to Cardboardia, a magical land made of paper and cardboard. In this parallel universe to ours, creativity thrives: Every time a box of anything is created in our world, a replica appears there, bringing residents art supplies, food, books, and more.

But an evil presence is slowly moving in, threatening to wipe all art and beauty from this paper paradise. It’s no mistake that the three friends have been transported through their cardboard portals. Each has a special talent they never knew existed. And only when they figure out to harness them together will they be able to stop the destruction.

Header painting: J.C. LEYENDECKER (1874-1951) TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, 1936

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel Analysis

Owl At Home is a 1975 picture book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book comprises five very short early reader stories about a kind, anxious and lonely owl. These owl stories, along with the frog and toad stories come from the second phase of Lobel’s creative career, in which he tapped into his own emotions and acknowledged he was writing “adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories”.

In the classroom, Lobel’s picture book would make a good companion to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “To The Moon“. Owl At Home would also make a good introduction to discussions about the theme of loneliness, present in a great many works.

Owl lives by himself in a regular Western-style dream house (with the upstairs, the hearth, and everything you’d expect to see in a picture book dream house). Although published in the 1970s, there’s nothing 70s about this dream house — there are 1800s/early 1900s details, such as the candle beside the bed. (There doesn’t seem to be electricity.) Picture books set in this era feel atemporal to a modern audience. I’m not sure if this house is in fact inside a tree, because we don’t get an establishing shot.

Owl at Home (1975) black and white
Owl at Home (1975) black and white
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