How does the binding of a book affect reader expectations? What about the size?
The actual individual appearance of of individual books is just as obvious an example of how prior expectations control our responses to stories; it influences our attitude to the stories the books contain before we even begin to read them. We expect more distinctive literature from hardcover books with textured, one-color cover and more conventionally popular material from books with luridly colored plastic coatings. We tend to think differently about paper-covered books and ones with hard covers, and as a result we respond differently to the same story in different formats; what might seem forbidding and respectable in hardcover often seems disposable and unthreatening in soft.
The size of a book also influences our response to it. We tend to expect rambunctious, energetic stories like the ones by Dr. Seuss from large books and more fragile, delicate stories like those by Beatrix Potter from smaller ones. In fact, larger books do allow larger effects, while smaller ones demand restraint from an illustrator, lest they appear overly fussy; but these differences are as much a matter of convention as of technical limitations. We tend to read smaller books expecting charm and delicacy — and to find it even if it is not there — and to read large books expecting energetic rambunctiousness— and to find it even if it is not there.
Words About Pictures by Perry Nodelman
We shouldn’t underestimate the effect of binding and size. One disadvantage of book apps and ebooks is that the reader is not provided with any textural information, and the size is fixed according to the dimensions of the device.
That said, a universal book app created for iOS (for instance) may well be interpreted very differently depending on whether it is read on an iPhone, an iPad mini, an iPad, a Mac screen or projected onto a smart board.
The Widow’s Broom and Queen of the Falls, both by Chris Van Allsburg, are examples of meaningfully long, tall format books. Allsburg even redrew the art for Queen of the Falls to make it tall and thin like a waterfall.
Comic book artists and letterers give a lot of thought to where words might be placed inside a composition, though comic book letterers don’t agree with how ‘invisible’ the text should be. Some say that if the reader notices the lettering, the lettering is too much. Others argue that the lettering is allowed to get a little bit of attention, just not so much that it pulls the reader out of the story.
It is difficult to be precise about when the modern picturebook first made its appearance but most authorities seem to be agreed that during the late nineteenth century picturebook makers such as Randolph Caldecott played a decisive role in transforming the Victorian toy book into something much more like the modern picturebook. Similarly, although many fine picturebooks were published prior to the 1960s, a number of factors converged around that time to enable publishers to produce and sell high quality picturebooks in larger numbers than before.
from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks by David Lewis
North America’s first printing press began operation in Cambridge, Massachussets, in 1639, nineteen years after the Mayflower landing. The Cambridge Press issued one or more broadsides before producing its first full-fledged book, the Bay Psalm Book, in an edition of 1700 copies. Fifty years later, the first children’s book of American origin issued from Boston. The New-England Primer was aimed at teaching young people their letters and setting them on the path to the good Christian life. Although few details of the book’s creation are known, it is generally believed to have been the work of an English bookseller, publisher, journalist and staunch antipapist named Benjamin Harris, who fled London for Boston in 1686 following the ascent of King James II to the British throne. Harris is thought to have compiled The New-England Primer between 1687 and 1690 and to have offered it for sale at his London Coffee House in Boston. The little book must have sold satisfactorily. In 1691 Harris advertised a second printing. The oldest surviving copy of the Primer dates from 1727 and was published in Boston by Kneeland & Green. Whether or not it is quite the same book as the one devised by Harris is unknown.
Leonard S. Marcus, Minders of Make-Believe
If a recognisable children’s literature requires a recognisable childhood, and should not be totally shared with adults, then we might argue that English-language children’s books only emerged in the eighteenth century, with British publishers such as Mary Cooper and John Newbery. The first book ‘especially prepared for North American youth’, John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes, was printed in London in 1646.
A Token for Children, Being an Exact Account of the Conversation, Holy and Exempary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children by James Janeway appeared in England in 1671. Booksellers imported it to America a decade later.
This was a first because it starred children —specifically, the pious deaths of thirteen Christian girls and boys. (Melodramatic, heartrending stuff.)
The first commercially produced children’s book printed in English was Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket Book. It was this book that defined the category of books for children:
In 1744 John Newbery, London bookseller and printer, published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, the first of the illustrated “toy” books whose resounding success served equally to define the terms of a new literary genre and to confirm the emergence of a brisk middle-class market for juveniles. The frontispiece of Newbery’s first offering bore the motto “Delectando monemus. Instruction with Delight” — words by which the ebullient, hard-driving Newbery (“Jack Whirler” in Samuel Johnson’s approving Idler sketch) proceeded to publish for the new twenty-two years (while carrying on a second business in patent medicines). Acting on John Locke’s prescription of a half-century earlier, Newbery mixed entertaining and instruction in the books he printed and sold, showing by example that the two goals might indeed be made to dance on the same tune. He published serious-minded books for the young as well. Wading cautiously into the colonial market’s uncharted water, she advertised an assortment of the latter, more traditional little volumes as early as 1750 in the Pennsylvanian Gazette. Newbery and his successors continued to market their books in the colonies into the 1770s, until Revolutionary embarges made doing so impossible. By then, colonial bookseller-printers had already begun; if at first only in a small way, to make Newbery’s books their own.
Minders of Make-Believe, Leonard S. Marcus
This dominance by the English language has continued: In 1988, half the children’s books published in France were translations from English. (In contrast, France was the dominant influence upon German children’s books.) Today, the traffic between English and other languages remains virtually one-way. For more on that, see Dan Hade on Children’s Literature.
It came with merch. Boys got a ball and girls got a pincushion. This suggested that boys and girls would read the book differently. The gender bifurcation in book marketing continues to this day.
In India, children’s books began in Calcutta with the establishment of the School Book Society by missionaries in 1817 and the earliest children’s book in Malayalam (spoken in Kerala), Cherupaithangalkku Upakaratham Kathakal(c. 1824), contained stories translated from English. (By the way, there’s only one copy in existence, and it’s in the British Library.)
The 1830s saw the first national distribution of a children’s picture book in America.
[S]ometime around 1825 the Boston shop of Munroe and Francis published its Mother Goose’s Quarto, or, Melodies Complete, a landmark work in that it represented the first American appearance in print of a great many oft he now-standard English nursery rhymes. At 128 pages, it was also the largest such collection then readily available in America. Nonetheless, the bibliographer and historian Everett F. Bleider concluded, this innovative work was not an “important book in itself” because as far as could be determined, it “was not reprinted, and it left no perceptible trace in the popular memory.” Less than a decade later, however, the same shop’s Mother Goose’s Melodies (1833), a distillation and refinement of the earlier book, achieved an “almost national…distribution…and it set off a chain of imitations, piracies, and similar collections that continues to the present. It was largely responsible for the adoption of Mother Goose in America as the supreme children’s poet, as opposed to her early British rivals, Gammer Gurton, Tom Thumb, Nurse Love-child, or others.
Minders of Make-Believe, Leonard S. Marcus
1840s and 1850s
Printing technology advanced to a point where colour reproduction was possible, but at this point children’s books were still black and white, woodcut engravings. When they were coloured, they’d been coloured by hand. Picture women and girls sitting along a workshop table. They were ‘hand-daubed’ rather than ‘hand coloured’, mostly in pasteboard covers, by a small number of publishers.
The Alderman’s Feast (1854) may be an early stand out example of a coloured picture book.
1911 and onwards
The first Chinese children’s writer was Sun Yuxiu, an editor of Commercial Press, whose story The Kingdom Without a Cat was written in the language of the time instead of the classical style used previously. Yuxiu encouraged novelist Shen Dehong to write for children as well. Dehong went on to rewrite 28 stories based on classical Chinese literature specifically for children. In 1932, Zhang Tianyi published Big Lin and Little Lin, the first full-length Chinese novel for children.
Anyone who has helped an emergent reader with assigned readers knows the difference between an interesting early reader and a ‘slog’. Bears In The Night by the Berenstains is an early reader with a focus on positional words. This book is an example of a successful early reader because the story is engaging and children will want to return to its fun creepiness over and over. This is achieved by:
Creating an eerie story with just the right balance of scary and humour
Creating words with wonderful rhythm and judicious use of repetition.
Seven bears are tucked up in bed together. They hear a ‘whoooo!’ coming from outside, so leave the safety of their bedroom to explore what it is. When they discover it is a big owl, they rush back home and get back under the covers.
WONDERFULNESS OF BEARS IN THE NIGHT
Picturebooks work best when the world of the story is exaggerated in some way compared to real life. On the very first page we see not just a young character in bed, but seven of them, all looking exactly the same.
Creators of picturebooks must find the line between ‘too scary’ and ‘not scary enough’, settling upon ‘intriguingly scary but not nightmare inducing’. The Berenstains have managed a perfect balance, with an owl which seemed far more scary before the little bears and little readers know what it was, and a final page in which we see the mother for the first time, and seven little bears fast asleep. Downstairs, the light is on and the mother looks content, with a reassuring, cosy surrounding: sewing in a rocking chair.
It’s interesting how often mothers perform the comforting role in picturebooks. This story was published in 1971. We are starting to see a few more ‘fathers as comforting figures’ in picturebooks, but they are still few and far between.
As for the text, this is a story in which the words build upon themselves, and I tend to find these irritating if there is too much text to read over and over again. Regardless of how much children like it, so often it’s an adult co-reader who has the arduous task of reading these stories, and I have seen some particularly bad examples in my time, one of which recently ended up in the bin.
This book, in contrast, builds upon itself in the best kind of way, often by repeating just the first phrase in a sequence, next by compressing all phrases — mostly on one page. This is a good technique to use following a climax, because when familiar phrases are seen on a single page the reader naturally quickens the tempo of reading, adding urgency to the need to get back to safety. Another classic book which makes use of this technique is Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. The language in Hairy Maclary is more complex because the words carry more of the story, but the repetition works because the names of the dogs have such wonderful mouthfeel.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF BEARS IN THE NIGHT
This is almost but not quite a wordless picture book. Because there are so few words — and even fewer distinct words — the illustrations carry the vast majority of the story.
The choice to make stories about seven identical bear children offers advantages to the illustrator. We see a variety of facial expressions in the one scene, for example, without having to create a multiple of backgrounds which prop up a different, conflicting face. Also, when decoding picturebooks which show successive scenes, for example when a character gets ready for bed and we see several different ‘shots’ of the character, brushing teeth, putting on pyjamas and so on, young readers don’t always realise that each instance of the character is the very same character. This book avoids the decoding issue, and has a dual child audience of children encountering picturebooks for the first time, and a few years older when learning to read for themselves. These ‘crossover’ books are very useful to have on the shelf, because there are few things more satisfying for an emergent reader than to come back to an old favourite just a few years later and discover they can now read the words themselves (aided by general familiarity as much as decoding skills, perhaps). This gives confidence.
When illustrating night scenes, many illustrators for children do this by using blue hues rather than darkening the tone. This serves well to create a nightscape which gives the illusion of darkness but without the element of scary — blue hues in bright hues are the ‘night light of picturebook world’.
When you read the book did you notice the white space? Good white space goes completely unnoticed unless you’re looking for it. White breaks up the blue of the night time, and has several other roles here:
A place to put black text, which needs to be super easy-to-read
Allows for differently shaped scenes across multiple pages of the same dimension.
Though there is white space, these blue night scenes can look a bit flat unless there is a high-contrast lightsource. In this story we have a bright yellow lantern which provides a focal point of colour on every single page. The same yellow is used for a crescent moon. (Full moons are less common in this illustration style, more easily confused with the sun.) The intratext of ‘Whooo!’ is also yellow. Combined, this adds up to quite a few splashes of colour.
There are stock images illustrators make good use of to tell the reader ‘This is scary!’ The Berenstains have used:
the darkness of night-time
reflected light off the silhouette of the owl
dark woods with sparse foliage and jagged branches
ghost stories as a sort of hypotext for the ‘whooo’ of what turns out to be just an owl
One of the challenges when illustrating this particular story would have been the page layout; specifically, the need to include vast landscapes on double-page spreads. The spreads build on themselves just as the words do. On the most challenging double spread we see a bear climbing out of a window, climbing down a tree, ducking under a bridge, running around a lake, walking through two big rocks and running scared through the woods. The illustrator could have created a less engaging picture (though easier to illustrate) by drawing a series of ‘snapshots’. Instead, we see a birds-eye landscape view with compressed perspective.
First published 1971 in Great Britain by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd
Subsequently became a ‘Bright and Early’ book with the Cat In The Hat logo
Our Picture Lions version has exactly the same cover on both the front and the back, which is an interesting choice for children who haven’t yet learnt which way a book opens.
15 double page spreads and a final ‘comforting’ page facing the colophon on the back cover.
Phoebe and the Night Creatures is a much more recent book (also an Australian band) published by Scholastic, and stars a single girl protagonist who is scared to get out of bed to visit the toilet.
The mother in this story is a distant figure who appears at the beginning of the story and provokes Phoebe to become independent rather than as a comforting figure who appears at the end. Again, the scenery is a nightscape, but set entirely inside a house. Notice how a digital artist portrays night-time and intratext, and how the advent of computers has changed how we illustrate. Like Bears In The Night, Phoebe and the Night Creatures is a story that builds on itself, but in a different way. The climax comes later in the story, so the denouement is shorter. Scary things in picturebooks tend to fall into two categories:
The thing wasn’t scary after all and
The thing you were scared of was all in your imagination.
Or perhaps it’s best to think of picturebook scary things in terms of a continuum.
There are many ways of illustrating night-time, and nightscapes are not necessarily less bright and cheery than daytime scenes. See: Illustrating The Dark.
Wolf Comes To Town by Denis Manton must be one of the most underrated children’s book on the Internet. I was genuinely astonished to check out what others have said about this picture book on Amazon and Goodreads. Both sites show a 1.5 star average rating at time of writing. Can you guess what reviewers don’t like about this book?
This book is terrible, it should not be in print. The wolf eats the dogs and cats and then the little boy in it is praised for suggesting the wolf should be burnt and have his head cut off. He is promptly told what a “Brave little boy” he is! Then it is indicated that the wolf has eaten the little boy when the boys mother finds his trousers and is sobbing!
There is no good, it will do nothing but corrupt young children. It was given to my young son from his school and this was for me to read to him, but it was a horror story and I’m disgusted that I did just that. I would suggest this book is thrown away!
Amazon 1 Star Review
As the blurb says, it’s a book about a wolf who dresses up to fool the towns people..he manages to steal all sorts of things, eat the pets and eventually a little boy (caught whilst dressed as the vicar!). I thought it was funny for a bit- my daughter had some fun spotting the wolf dressed up, but there is no moral come back at all- he runs off with his dressing up clothes to terrorise the next town, and so the story ends on a bit of a down. The language and style suits 3 years plus, but some young children would be upset by it. My copy is in the bin (not the charity shop!). Also- are there no books out there where the wolf isn’t so bad?
Amazon 1 Star Review
I could not believe it when my 3 year old brought this horrible story home from school. The wolf steals, eats pet cats, eats pet dogs, and eats a little boy. There is no comeuppance, no moral.There is nothing it indicate to children that his behaviour is wrong. He gets away with it with no punishment. My son was upset by the boy getting eaten. Dreadful book.
Amazon 1 Star Review
Because there is no real ending to this book. I’m a Children’s Librarian, and I ran across this while looking for books about stealing for a patron. The book starts out well enough; the big bad wolf disguises himself in order to steal whatever he pleases from stores & shops. The townspeople finally find the wolf’s home (while searching for “brave little Bernard,” a young boy the wolf takes), and see all their belongings inside. Everyone claims their things, Bernard’s mother finds her son’s trousers, and the wolf’s clothes are packed up to be given to charity. Only the nurse doing the packing is really the wolf in disguise, and he makes off with the clothes to a new town. That’s the end of the story. There’s no conclusion, the wolf doesn’t get punished for his bad behaviour, and the reader doesn’t know if little Bernard is alive or dead. Cute beginning, terrible ending. I would not choose this book for storytime, as a learning tool, or anything else.
Amazon 2 Star Review
WHAT HAPPENS IN WOLF COMES TO TOWN
A wolf lives on the outskirts of a town. He dresses up in all sorts of disguises, then visits the town to steal things he likes and needs.
He tends to dress up as trustworthy people: policemen, priests.
One day he eats a little boy at a garden party.
The townspeople go out looking for Bernard — the wolf among them — and happen across his house, chock full of all the things he has stolen.
Wolf manages to prevent his clothes from being thrown out. He takes them in a trolley to the next town, where he will presumably do exactly as he did in this one.
WONDERFULNESS OF WOLF COMES TO TOWN
A Fun Catch Phrase
Possibly my favourite aspect of this book is the phrase, ‘I like it, I want it and I’LL TAKE IT!’ In oral retellings of Little Red Riding Hood, too, the teller of the story would pounce in playful fashion at the child when the grandma wolf pounced at Little Red. This book is equally well suited to a dramatic retelling between parent and child.
Frisson Of Fear In Relation To Real Life
Whose town is the wolf in now? Roald Dahl makes use of this kind of fear in his book The Witches, in which the reader is told that even the teacher who is reading this book to you right now might be a witch. I was read The Witches by my teacher when I was six, and I do remember looking at her very closely, concluding she couldn’t be because she wasn’t wearing gloves.
Modern Morals For Modern Readers
In common with various famous fairytales — Little Red Riding Hood springs first to mind — readers are warned not to take people at face value. The beautiful young woman is really a wolf. The policeman is really a wolf. The vicar is really a wolf. Although the classic tales have been watered down for modern children — starting with Grimm and completed by Disney — this story harks back to the pre-Grimm days, in which villains were not punished.
In these days of Occupy Wall Street, which is the more important lesson for young readers? In real life, villains most often do go unpunished. They dress in respectable clothes and walk among us.
In the picture below, an unsuspecting art gallery owner gives too much information to a criminal. When identities are hidden online, this is not a bad lesson for the rest of us:
Other people are locked out of certain establishments based on what they look like. Here, a man has been excluded from a fancy restaurant simply for having grown fat and a beard. Use this to open up a discussion about all sorts of discrimination, including throughout history:
This is the double page spread where the story takes a particularly sinister turn:
But again, is it so wrong to introduce the idea that even priests at garden parties cannot necessarily be trusted? In traditional fairy tale fashion, Little Bernard does not survive this story:
Especially disturbing, against the comic line ‘Little Bernard’s little trousers!’ is the art gallery owner who is far more interested in his stolen painting than in this mother’s missing son. In storybooks as in real life, sometimes we get our priorities wrong.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION BY DENIS MANTON
The main challenge for Denis Manton in illustrating this work would have been to depict a wolf who looked sufficiently like a person when dressed up like one. He has risen to this challenge by turning the snout into a large nose.
Because of this challenge, the loose, sketchy style works best. When the style is loose like this, the wolf looks different every time we see him, but the reader can put this down to the style, and accept it’s the same creature. The sketchy style is also fitting for the generally chaotic scenes: the wolf’s messy abode, scenes of people screaming and running away, scenes with lots of movement etc.
The opposite choice — a photorealistic style of illustration — would result in a story too scary for a young audience. This art, with its black outlines and comic style, tells the audience that this is a comic tale. In keeping with comic book style, the facial expressions in this tale are marvellous:
Written and illustrated by Australian Denis Manton in 1994, this book is now hard to get, possibly helped along its way to obscurity to the large numbers of adult gatekeepers who refused to buy or recommend this story.
Manton seems to have illustrated more books than he wrote, and the books that he wrote seem to have fallen out of print, including Anastasia, published 1979.
COMPARE WOLF COMES TO TOWN BY DENIS MANTON
Another picturebook which has certain adult readers up in arms is This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, also accused of having ‘no repercussion for stealing’ and ‘no definitive ending’.
Some of my own favourite childhood books have catch-phrases which heighten the excitement. Enid Blyton’s Thirteen O’Clock is memorable for its repeated phrase, ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’
The ending of Wolf Comes To Town gives the story the feel of a cautionary tale of yesteryear.
The beginning of Wolf Comes To Town reminds me of the beginning of Burglar Bill from 1977, by the Ahlbergs:
Burglar Bill lives by himself in a tall house full of stolen property. Every night he has stolen fish and chips and a cup of stolen tea for supper. Then he swings a big stolen sack over his shoulder and goes off to work, stealing things.
Perhaps the most unlikely pet is the European brown bear (the same species as the American grizzly bear), which the Ainu people of Japan regularly captured as young animals, tamed and reared to kill and eat in a ritual ceremony.
Thus, many wild animal species reached the first stage in the sequence of animal-human relations leading to domestication, but only a few emerged at the other end of that sequence as domestic animals.
Gun, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
Perhaps you know a little person who absolutely love bears. I know one of those. She loves stories about bears. Fortunately they are in no short supply. Here are some we have read lately.
THE GREAT BEAR BY LIBBY GLEESON
In this story, a bear is kept in a cage to perform tricks and basically be an exhibit. But one night the bear escapes, scares away the villagers and climbs up a pole into the sky, and flies away.
The message is obviously one about keeping animals in captivity (don’t), and I wonder if there are bigger themes in here as well, about reaching for the sky.
This one was shortlisted by The Children’s Book Council Of Australia but failed to engage my daughter. I think it was partly to do with the dark, sketchy drawings (by Armin Greder) which look to me a bit like an underdrawing.
I vividly remember owning a picturebook in a similar style as a child, and I didn’t like it solely because of its illustrations — illustrations that would intrigue me as an adult.
SCRUFFY BEAR AND THE SIX WHITE MICE BY CHRIS WORMELL
This is a pretty cute story, in which a bear protects six white mice by fooling three predatory animals (a snake, a fox and an owl) into thinking they’re something else (moon apples, furry eggs and snowballs respectively).
By the time the predatory animals have worked out that they’ve been fooled, the bear and his six white mice have gone. The page in which the fox, snake and owl realise they’ve been tricked is a deliciously scary moment for the child, who sees their, angry duped faces in close up.
What’s not clear (to my critical, adult mind) is why the bear doesn’t eat the mice. Do bears not eat mice? I would’ve thought so.
Still, bears get special exemption from the laws of nature, at least when it comes to picture books.
KISSES FOR DADDY BY FRANCES WATTS ILLUSTRATED BY DAVID LEGGE
There is a type of children’s story which I’ll call ‘Hugs and Kisses’. It’s usually bedtime, though not always, and we follow a happy, affectionate family as they hug and kiss each other and roll-around laughing happily until the child character is tucked safely into bed. All is well with the world.
In this story, the parents and child happen to be bears. An astute adult reader will see the end coming a mile off: the baby gets a ‘bear’ hug, of course.
The illustrator looks like he really enjoyed rendering the bears’ fur. I’m not a fan of the creepy monkey who appears on most pages. (I have a thing about toy monkeys, along with tunes coming out of ice-cream vans and clowns.) This book is a good example of my main issue with some digital art: the elements of each picture don’t look sufficiently integrated together. While the bears look handdrawn, the lamp in the living room looks like an imported photograph. I do like illustrations to look like illustrations, even if heavy use has been made of photo references. Others will have no such problem, and indeed many may prefer this style, which only digital art can offer.
ADDIS BERNER BEAR FORGETS WRITTEN AND ILLUSTRATED BY JOEL STEWART
It seems I often read a picture book in which the story is lacking, or ill-composed, but it is accompanied by fantastic artwork. That happens more than the other way around. But this book is an example of a story which I really like accompanied by less masterful (but still adequate) illustrations, rendered in pastel watercolours, held together (too) loosely by incomplete black pencil lines. I wonder if this author/illustrator would consider himself a writer first, an illustrator second.
The story depicts perfectly how I felt about London when I went there for a while; I’d been attracted to it, but as soon as I got there I wondered why I’d come. It took another while to find my purpose for being there. This is a message that perhaps adult readers are more likely to appreciate than younger ones. The resident four-year-old wasn’t captivated by this story and asked to read a different one, but I was keen to see it through, and enjoyed the atmosphere of it. I also liked that the story was told partially through the pictures, leaving the reader with sparse words. Surely that is the point of picture books, otherwise they might as well not be picture books. I’m noticing that this sort of cohesion is more likely with works in which the author/illustrator is the same person.
One thing though, I thought the last page could have been more original. I think the last page of a story is very important, whether it contains words or just an image. This one ends with, ‘It was a day that Addis Berner Bear would never forget.’ There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it doesn’t resonate, either.
PADDINGTON BY MICHAEL BOND ILLUSTRATED BY R.W. ALLEY
Paddington Bear is a phenomenon, but unlike some other phenomena which don’t deserve their highly-marketed popularity, this character is lovable in his own right. I didn’t know this until I opened this very picturebook though, because I’d never read any of the books. It’s high time I did, since this bear is over 50 years old.
The picturebook gives a keen sense of London — a London in a former time, full of white-skinned characters, and a Paddington Station that’s not nearly so crowded as it is today. Although I enjoyed a lot of my time in London a few years ago, books like these make me wish I could have visited London in the 1960s.
I think I’m going to adopt and use the phrase, ‘This isn’t a bit like Darkest Peru’. Which is funny, because when I think of Peru, I don’t think ‘dark’.
Speaking of New Zealand, there was a Kiwi band who called themselves The Paddington Bears. That was 1969. I don’t know what happened to them. If Wikipedia had existed back then they may have got a two line entry. Alas.
A teddy bear is too prickly to be appealing in a shop, and so the shopkeeper throws it into the skip where it is rescued by a passing boy. In a few deft strokes we see that the boy is from an economically impoverished background and for lack of alternatives the prickly teddy becomes favourite. Over time, the teddy bear loses its prickliness and becomes soft, metaphorically mirroring the transformation that often takes place when we get to know someone really well.
The ending of this story feels a little abrupt, but after a few seconds I realised that the ending was perfect.
Also comes in a 4 story collection.
LOVE IS A HANDFUL OF HONEY BY GILES ANDRRAE ILLUSTRATED BY VANESSA CABBAN (1999)
I’m far too old and pessmistic for overtly cutesey books like this one.
The story follows a bear in a sort of manic state as he makes his way through a day full of delights. (The animal characters could equally be female — interesting that I assume maleness when no gender is specified. Maybe it’s the absence of pink?)
The story starts off okay with, ‘Love is that warm cosy feeling/You get when you’re cuddling your mum’, but as the day progresses, the descriptions are less about ‘love’ and more about other feelings dressed up as love: And then when your tummies are grumbly/Love is unwrapping your treats (consumerism)/ And love’s stuffing everything all in at once/Leaving masses of mess on your cheeks (greed).
Perhaps my skepticism is only a reflection of the fact that in English we don’t have very specific words to describe the different types of ‘love’. At any rate, I had a hard time reading this one out loud without emitting a groan.
CAN’T YOU SLEEP, LITTLE BEAR? BY MARTIN WADDELL, ILLUSTRATED BY BARBARA FIRTH
Honestly, this would have to be the most irritating going-to-bed book I’ve read yet, which no doubt speaks to my own views on sleep for the little ones. As far as I’m concerned, you put the kid to bed, and then you leave them the hell alone.
That’s not what happens in this story. Instead, there’s a big bear and a little bear in a furnished cave. The big bear is trying to read, but the little bear can’t sleep. So the stupid big bear decides to turn on a light for the little bear. Little Bear has a doctorate in manipulation, and asks for bigger and bigger lights, until the cave is so well-lit that even a chronic narcoleptic wouldn’t get any shut-eye.
I thought this was just my own adult take on proceedings, until the four-year-old laughed and said, ‘Of course Little Bear can’t get to sleep with all those lights on!’
That Big Bear needs a slap. Because Little Bear is going to be mighty grumpy tomorrow. Good luck to Big Bear with THAT.
(By the way, this is one of Professor David Beagley’s favourite books, which just goes to show.)
WILBERFORCE GOES ON A PICNIC BY MARGARET GORDON (1982)
This is another story about a family of bears, which could just as easily be a family of people.
The words in this story are very simple: sequential and uneventful, of the kind that might almost have been written by a child when asked to recount what he did at the weekend:
Waving goodbye to Mother and Baby, off they went through town… and then through the country… until they found an ideal picnic spot.
The simplicity is effective because this is no doubt how the little bear remembered his picnic with his grandparents, looking back fondly after time. But the pictures tell us a very different story, in which everything that can go wrong on a picnic does go wrong: Wilberforce mucks around in the bathroom, smearing toothpaste onto the mirror, while the text below alerts us to the fact he’s supposed to be brushing his teeth and combing his ears. He gets into the picnic basket before grandmother has finished preparing it. The car has mechanical issues and grandfather needs to start it. (This story is old enough to have very traditional gender roles.) Sure enough, all sorts of bad things continue to happen, until it rains (as it often does when characters go on picnics in story books) and the story ends as unpretentiously as it begins:
“After supper we went to bed. Grandmother and grandfather finished supper, and then they went to bed too.”
Such a simple story works because of the counterpoint in the illustrations. The reader has just had two stories, not two, and an adult reader is likely to empathise with the adult bears, who probably aren’t having the greatest time as Wilberforce almost drowns himself and gets into other mischief.
Before reading this book I’d just been listening to a podcast about the American dietary guidelines, which came out in 1982 and haven’t changed much since, ‘food plate’ or ‘pyramid’. In 1977 a scientist called Ancel Keyes published some (flawed) research which led to the American government recommending that we all cut down on dietary fat and increase our servings of whole grains. This came into effect in 1980, just two years before this book was published, and so I made note of the fact that this family of bears is eating the pre-1980s breakfast of bacon and eggs and sausages. In picturebooks published subsequent to this one we’re likely to see a box of extruded cereal on the kitchen table to indicate breakfast time, which makes me want to delve further into a study of food in picturebooks.
As an unrelated side note, this family has gone back to the pre-obesity-epidemic days and we eat meat and eggs for breakfast. Our health is far better for it.
MY FRIEND BEAR BY JEZ ALBOROUGH
This is a sequel of sorts to It’s A Bear! which my daughter absolutely loves. This time Eddy is in the woods all alone when he comes across the very large bear who happens to be benevolent. This story would appeal big time to preschoolers who spend a lot of time talking the parts of teddies.
THE VERY CRANKY BEAR BY NICK BLAND
I know young children who love this book. I do not love this book.
The Problem With Raising Good Girls points out the problem with Australian author Nick Bland’s The Very Cranky Bear, which was chosen for national simultaneous storytime 2012, and was consequently read and studied by my preschool daughter. I agree with the issue raised in that article, and feel that deeper thought should go into which books are chosen as basically ‘required reading’ for Australian kids.
Stories about self-sacrificing girl characters can be seen the world over. One South Korean example is How I Caught A Cold (설빔(남자아이멋진옷/ 여자아이고운옷) by Dong Soo Kim.
What does a flock of featherless ducks have to do with a little girl catching a cold? It all begins with a new down winter jacket. One day, she discovers a feather emerging from it. That night, she goes to sleep wondering about the feather and begins dreaming of featherless ducks who feel cold. The girl distributes the feathers from her jacket. Finally, all the ducks feel warm but the girl doesn’t.
[W]e should note that — bare naked, in its five-pointed-star shape — the stuffed bear fuzzily resembles our own bodies. And unlike other creatures, and as dancing bears at circuses reveal, these animals are also like us in being fuzzily upright. And for the young who seek the satisfaction of snuggling, the fur-covered teddy is — well, fuzzy. There is, in other words, a simple explanation for the overpopulation of bears in Kidsworld: the bear presents a “fuzzy” version of ourselves.
That “fuzziness” permits the child to think the “same only different,” to understand something under the guise of marginal difference.
There is something inherently funny about a moose. Is it the bulbous snout, or the slightly onomatopoeic name? (I’m not sure what real-world sound the word ‘moose’ makes, but it should, shouldn’t it?)
See also:Inherently Funny Animalsin which the moose is still the funniest, precisely because there’s no reason for him to be.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “Z IS FOR MOOSE”
In order to fully appreciate this book, the reader should be familiar with the standard ABC picture book. This is kind of a parody of that. Using the framing story of a play, each letter is represented by an animal/thing which makes its appearance when the MC Zebra announces its initial letter. All are well-behaved, except for petulant toddler-like Moose, who can’t wait until it’s his turn.
(Side note: We assume moose is male — but how do we really know?)
When the letter M is given to a mouse. The mouse is a common choice for abecedaries of yore. (E in the following book is an Elk, and a moose would be too similar.)
Moose throws a tantrum which is very funny. In the end, the emotionally competent Zebra realises his mistake and lets Moose have a turn on the final page. Which is surprisingly moving.
WONDERFULNESS OF “Z IS FOR MOOSE”
First some notes on alphabet books in general, from Nodelman and Reimer:
People usually assume that the purpose of alphabet books is to teach children the letters of the alphabet. Presumably, they see the picture of an apple, name it, and thus learn that the accompanying symbol “A” represents the sound that begins the word “apple”. The trouble with this theory is its assumption that visual symbols relate directly to specific words. Unfortunately, they don’t. One child might look at the apple and accurately name it ‘fruit’, and another child might accurately label the same picture ‘Golden Delicious’. In fact, rather than using the visual information to understand the verbal, most people treat alphabet books in the opposite way. They use their previous knowledge of the letter as a way of identifying the right word to describe the object. If the apple appears on the A page, then it’s an apple; if it appears on the F page, it’s a fruit. The implication is that alphabet books are not especially educational: readers have to know what the books are supposed to be teaching before they can make use of them.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature
Reimer and Nodelman acknowledge that letter recognition may indeed result from these books and that letter recognition itself may be beneficial. They continue:
So if alphabet books don’t play a central role in teaching language skills, should they simply be eliminated? Our answer is no—because they offer pleasure. The books are a form of puzzle. They offer readers the run of figuring out what the connections between the pictures and the letters are. The same is true of number books. Readers who already know their numbers can have fun finding and counting up the objects in a picture to see if they match the accompanying number.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature
Z is for Moose is therefore as much puzzle as ‘alphabet book’. How does Z stand for Moose? What’s behind those disrupted pictures? What’s happening behind the scenes, that which we can’t see?
Let’s not underestimate how very difficult it is to make an ABC/puzzle book which feels fresh, funny and original. It is very, very hard. But the bar has now been raised! What can we learn from the creators of this book?
The word ‘performance’ is part of this story in both senses of the word:
A variety of standard ABC characters are putting on a performance
Moose puts on his own kind of tantrum-performance when he realises he’s been overlooked.
For the reader, this makes for a story within a story — a work of metafiction. We are invited in on the gag. We are to enjoy not only the ABC performance, but also the performance of Moose.
Why does this work so well? Mixing up a linear narrative is perhaps the only way of turning something boring and oft-done into something entirely original. Also, there is a ‘second unseen audience’ here: A staged performance is by its very nature an important affair. So when Moose sabotages the whole thing, we know the stakes are higher than simply having had the story ruined for us, the readers.
Making Use Of Peritext
The best picture books always make use of the front and end matter, weaving it in as part of the narrative.
This is where the colophon and dedication go: Note how the entire cast is introduced wordlessly with a double page spread before the story begins. This is likely to be skipped upon first reading, but subsequent readings will allow the reader to dwell on each character, attaching letters to each.
And before this page, we are given more than enough information on the front end papers and title page to work out that here are some characters and they are going to put on a performance.
A number of children’s book illustrators/authors use the technique of partial revelation of a character or object, leading the reader through the book and creating suspense. Lynley Dodd does it in a lot of her Hairy Maclary books and Zelinsky does it here, with the zebra peeking his head around the corner on the A is for Apple page.
This technique is evident throughout the book. Who is that peeking behind the ‘stage’ on the B is for Ball page?
But this book utilises another form of partial revelation, in a way which at first seems counter-intuitive to makers of picturebooks: Parts of the information is covered up and is ‘unreadable’. I put ‘unreadable’ in quote marks because of course the reader knows what’s under the chaos, precisely because we are over-familiar with alphabet books, and so we know that if the ‘H’ is obscured by the enthusiastic head of Moose, we still know it says ‘H is for Hat’ because we can see the hat. This technique provides a ‘fill in the gaps’ cloze exercise for the young reader, though ‘cloze exercise’ makes the reading experience sound dull, when it is nothing of the sort.
Rule Of Three
It’s no accident that moose’s first intrusion doesn’t occur until the letter D. The rule of three works so well because it establishes a pattern. The reader needs to know that this is an ABC book, so the A, the B and the C are presented uninterrupted.
After that, notice that Moose turns up on D, and then on the letter H, after three pages and three letters in between.
But then the pattern is broken! Readers who know their alphabets will be expecting something big to happen on the letter M, and that’s when things really turn sour for poor old Moose, and so the 4 letters between Moose’s last full-faced intrusion make the M page feel especially dramatic.
At its most basic, this is a straight-man, funny-man gag. As Kate de Goldi says on the podcast which made me buy this book, the Moose has the nature of a 3-year-old, looking forward to an event with unrestrained glee, then throwing a tantrum when he thinks he’s been overlooked. A character who has a tantrum is a fairly common way to present a Battle scene in a picture book. Young readers will relate.
Then there is the visual humour, which is very often composed of incongruous images: a moose in an ice-cream, a moose inside a kangaroo’s pouch. There’s the inherent funniness of the moose! My six-year-old finds Moose’s tail funny, for some reason, especially as depicted on the Y page.
Then we have moose who has somehow managed to become part of the labelling on a jar, and the speech bubble coming out from inside the jar suggesting he’s in there too, and the way we can see both ends of his body even though there’s no way Moose is that long. (Note that this last gag was used by Beatrix Potter when illustrating The Tale Of Peter Rabbit.
It is particularly inspired that ‘mouse’ sounds so much like ‘moose’. Oh, almost moose! You almost got a go!
Then there is the full integration of text into the picture on the big tantrum page, in which moose steps all over the text which says ‘P is for Pie’ and ‘Q is for Queen’. Next, Moose pulls out his red crayon and scribbles out every word, replacing it with Moose. We don’t see this extent of picture/text integration in many picture books, and it really works here, turning the book into postmodern metafiction.
When zebra guards the truck so Moose doesn’t get the opportunity to destroy it, the cap that he has been wearing all along has been pushed around and now he’s wearing it sideways. For adult readers, the unconventionally worn baseball cap will be associated with truck drivers.
I’m not sure what to call this exact form of visual joke, but when a zebra wears a black and white striped shirt (on the V page) we laugh because such a garment is entirely unnecessary.
Naive acial expressions are especially marvellous in “Z Is For Moose”. I adore the squinty eyes of the zebra, and I don’t think I’m alone in that because a squinty-eyed zebra graces the front cover.
The Various Art Styles Of Paul O. Zelinsky
It’s worth noting that Paul O. Zelinsky has several main styles as an illustrator, and you wouldn’t necessarily pick him as the same artist! Sometimes he paints like an old master:
But even in this style, there is still a slightly hyperbolic element which make the illustrations suitable for children’s literature. Look at the facial expressions:
Sometimes Zelinsky adds even more of a comic book look to his ‘old master’ style. Here he has played with perspective to create the illusion of speed:
Next we have a looser style in which the strokes (of crayon? pencil?) are obvious. Now he makes use of solid outlines, closer to a comic book style. From Shivers In The Fridge:
Pen and Oink asked about the colour of the outlines above, in which Zelinsky makes use of purplish/reddy outlines rather than solid black. He explains that he changed them in Photoshop after scanning them in, because
1. black looked too serious
2. the colours make the illustrations look a lot more lively.
Then there is the truly comic style of Z Is For Moose, which we’ve seen before in The Lion and the Stoat:
I got to wondering about Paul O. Zelinsky’s process. How does he decide which style to use and when? I don’t know many illustrators who manage such a range of different styles. Most stick to just one — the trend is definitely towards specialisation (in everything, not just in illustration!):
From Pen and Oink:
PO: You use a variety of distinct styles that change from book to book. When an editor comes to you with a manuscript how much say do you have in the illustration style that you use for the book? Do they come to you and say, “Can you do this like Rumpelstiltskin?” or “Can you do this like Toys Go Out?”
Paul: I don’t actually think anybody’s ever asked that.
Paul: I guess I’ve been lucky that way. Nobody’s said, that I can remember, please do this like that. I guess publishers have known from pretty far back that maybe they’d be surprised. And maybe they’d be pleased. I have reworked things when they weren’t pleased, but in those cases there’s been a discussion of why something wasn’t working and I’ve been convinced that they were right. That’s usually how it works.
PO: So once you’ve read the manuscript do you just start experimenting with different techniques?
Paul: Yeah, sometimes I know what I don’t want to do and that’s all I know. But it helps. If the story isn’t telling me where it wants to go then I’ll try different things. It’s pretty clear I like finding approaches to my books by thinking of art and the history of art. I think about those images more than about pictures by illustrators per se.
Paul doesn’t give much in that interview about exactly how he decides on which style is most appropriate for each assignment, though I suspect it’s not a particularly cerebral decision. One thing seems clear to those of us breaking it down:
The realistic, old-master style is well-suited to illustrating fairytales.
The cartoonish styles are well-suited to humorous stories.
Paul O. Zelinsky requested a photograph of the night sky in Alice Springs for this book. He explains why he needs it here. I don’t think the sequel is as successful as the original. When trying to work out why not, I settled on the idea that, unfortunately for narrative, shapes don’t have a natural order to them, unlike the alphabet. It’s partly the unchanging sequence of the alphabet which adds to the suspense of the ABC book. The shapes book feels a lot more loose and meandering, though readers who fell in love with Moose and Zebra will appreciate seeing them again in a different context.
Is it the age of the Picture Book Moose? Is the Moose having a Moment? See also my take on This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers.
Mr Chicken Goes To Paris is a carnivalesque picture book about a chicken who goes to Paris on holiday.
For a whiff of the Foreign, film makers often turn to France and especially Paris. The same is true in children’s films, from “Ratatouille” to “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” And the same is true in children’s books.
Not a high concept book — indeed, a chicken goes to Paris. For a holiday. It’s what it says on the tin. This is a third-person version of someone’s summary of a trip, of the kind it’s possible to get quite bored of, unless, of course, the holiday maker happens to be an enormous chicken. A reader’s enjoyment of this story will depend on how funny they think huge chickens are.
There is no real story to this poultry’s holiday and each page jumps to one of Paris’ famous tourist attractions.
– 3 Star Goodreads Review
I’m approximately 30 years older than the target audience, I thought this was rather adorable.
– 4 Star Goodreads Review
The main drawcard of this story is the disproportionate size of the chicken, who grows larger and larger as the story progresses. Ostensibly, this is because Monsieur Poulet eats too much delicious French food. As a side note, my only criticism of this book is that it is suggested Mr Poulet go on a diet. I’m no fan of mentions of dieting in children’s books because of the huge pressure on young people (especially on girls) to look slim. The story would have worked without that, as in Avocado Baby, an old book I remember from childhood, in which food is seen as nourishing, and can be used to bulk a picture book character up to a ridiculous extent nonetheless.
Here is Mr Chicken on a plane:
Someone pointed out on Goodreads that Mr Chicken looks more like an alien than a chicken, and I hadn’t considered until then that this is probably intended. Mr Chicken is indeed an ‘alien’ in Paris, in the foreigner sense, and this books becomes a metaphor for not fitting in because you look different. As someone who lived for a year in a tiny Japanese village where the only other white person was the French guy who owned a restaurant, I can tell you that being a significant minority really does impact the way you experience life. And everyone should ideally experience that once. If that’s not possible, there are always books.
Notice the use of colour (or lack of it) in the illustration above. Mr Chicken is conspicuous not just because of his size (and because he is a chicken) but because he suddenly feels bright yellow, emphasised by the unsaturated sepia tones all around him. You’ll notice the bystanders looking with fright and surprise at Mr Chicken, though the comedy happens when none of them do a thing. Indeed, when Mr Chicken asks someone to take his photo, the someone politely agrees, as if seeing an enormous talking chicken is an everyday event.
The interesting thing about this is that children are often required, when reading picture books, especially, to believe that talking, house-dwelling animals are a thing, or at least, a stand-in for humans. This book isn’t quite like that. The reader is required to understand that a giant talking chicken in Paris is an unusual thing, even in the fantastical world of a picture book. Indeed, unless the reader gets this joke, the book is just another talking animal story.
This is exactly why an understated text is the perfect choice. If you were to read the text without the pictures, you’d find that it’s rather boring. The contrast between The Everyday of the text and The Fantasy of the illustrations creates a pleasant irony, and allows the story to work as a comment on difference.
I know educators are always looking to link picture books in with the curriculum, and this book includes a number of French words which would be useful in a primary school or beginner high school French program. (There’s a list of the words with their meanings on the front endpapers.)
This book would be a useful cross-curricular resource if themes such as Paris, France, tourism, foreign language, etc. were on the agenda.
3 Star Goodreads Review
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
It would be easy to think that these scampy looking illustrations don’t require much in the way of skill, but I can assure you it’s as difficult to produce something sketchy and full of movement as it is to produce something more photorealistic. These illustrations are in the style of Quentin Blake or Ronald Searle.
I’d love to know how long it takes Leigh Hobbs to produce each sketch. For all I know it takes ages. The point is, it looks very fast. Line drawings are coloured with rapid-looking colour washes which do not keep within the boundaries of the lines. Like Mr Chicken himself, the colour is its own ‘rogue visitor’, out-of-place.
This sketchy, un-careful way art style is well-suited to tall tales which are humorous. I also love photorealism in tall tales — in that case we can marvel that something like that might really exist — but when the illustrations are sketchy like this, the reader is told very clearly via the pictures that this cannot possibly exist. Come on, share the joke with me.
Another advantage of this kind of art is that the people look like no one and everyone both at once. With dots for eyes and one sausage-type of nose, these people are without their own personalities — they are just people. However, the washes suggest everyone is nonetheless a white person, and I know Paris is not quite that white these days, and certainly not in the tourist spots.
The other nice thing about unfussy, sketchy styles is that young readers are given confidence to keep drawing. Most children draw confidently, but most then lose that confidence and stop drawing altogether. If your young reader is in danger of leaving behind their creative years, show them this book then sit down to sketch a few ridiculous scenes together, revelling in the joy of creating something unique, even if it’s not ‘good’.
(It’s worth mentioning at this point that Leigh Hobbs is an art teacher and that his illustrations are ‘good’. It’s the illusion of easy execution we’re working from, here.)
I think of myself as an artist first and a writer second.
Draw lots, write lots. Look at art books. Not just children’s books. You can never draw too well.
– Leigh Hobbs
STORY SPECS OF CHICKEN GOES TO PARIS
Leigh Hobbs has written/illustrated at least 20 books and is therefore one of Australia’s best-known children’s authors. The Old Tom series was turned into a TV series.
First published in 2009, paperback edition published 2011. This seems to be the most popular of the Mr Chicken books. If not, it’s the easiest to get a hold of. The book is reasonably large — always the best choice for books about humorously large subject matter. This is one aspect of print books that is not as easy to replicate in apps. Apps are better for ‘peephole’ or suspenseful stories, which culminate in a gradual revelation of surprise, perhaps by requiring the readers to scroll/tilt/press.
One of my own childhood favourites is an American book called The Biggest Sandwich Ever written by Rita G. Gelman, illustrated by Mort Gerberg. My teacher read it when I was five and then I convinced my mother to buy it for me via Lucky Book Club. Like the enormous chicken in Hobbs’ books, the enormity of the sandwich is fascinating to a young reader. I can’t explain why, but kids love incongruities and especially incongruities of scale.
For a more contemporary comparison, this time about an enormous teddy bear, see Jez Alborough:
Another book (in French) about an animal in Paris. Perhaps because Paris is known for being the city for lovers, it’s particularly incongruous and humorous to see an animal do the tourist thing there.
Back in 2011 a study was released which showed that boys were almost twice as likely to appear in children’s books as girls. The ABC (Australian) produced a radio piece on thisand interviewed a local author, who happened to be Leigh Hobbs. Leigh Hobbs says something like, “I hate this kind of crap.” Meaning, people whinging about diversity. He then went on to say that for his books, at least, the gender was even. If you listen to the piece all the way through, you’ll find the journalists did a count up of Leigh Hobbs’ books and found that his books are gender imbalanced in typical fashion.
I wonder if Leigh Hobbs has changed his mind after listening to the radio piece. I’d love to know if he has, because every time I look at this book, which my daughter really loves, I’m reminded of his radio splutter, and few things annoy me more than white men who simply won’t acknowledge that the space that white men occupy in the world is indeed disproportionate.
Mr Chicken Lands On London was released in 2014, currently available in hardback.
Gorilla is the book that made Anthony Browne’s name as a creator of postmodernpicture books. It was awarded the Kurt Maschler Award (1982-1999), which specifically rewarded British picture books demonstrating excellent integration between words and pictures.
WHAT HAPPENS IN GORILLA?
A girl called Hannah — about 6 or 7 years old — feels that her father doesn’t spend any time with her. She often wants to do something with him but he is always busy. One day her father gifts her a toy gorilla, as she has a special interest in gorillas, seeing gorilla related things everywhere. That night Hannah dreams she goes on a dream date with her life-sized gorilla, who is now a stand in father figure. He takes her to the zoo and then to a cafe. In the morning we learn that it is her birthday, and her father has a surprise — he is going to take her to the zoo.
WONDERFULNESS OF GORILLA
There is something wonderfully unsettling about the picture books of Anthony Browne, who is a postmodern picturebook writer/illustrator.
Postmodern picture books are a specific genre of picture books. Characteristics of this unique type of book include non-linear narrative forms in storybooks, books that are “aware” of themselves as books and include self-referential elements, and what is known as metafiction.
Wikipedia (BTW, anyone would think from the Wikipedia write-up that postmodern picture books are created only by men.)
Features of Postmodern Picture Books
they expand the conventional boundaries of picture book formats
contain overly obtrusive narrators who directly address readers and comment on their own narrations
often contain narrative framing devices (e.g., stories within stories, characters reading about their own fictional lives)
feature typographic experimentation
feature a mixing of genres, discourse styles, and modes of narration
illustrated with a pastiche of illustrative styles
– Frank Serafini
For more on postmodern picture books see David Beagley’s lecture on iTunes U, or my notes on that, here.
A less well-executed story may have started with something like, “Tomorrow it was Hannah’s birthday…” It is particularly masterful that Anthony Browne withholds this information until the conclusion. Why? Because the brightness associated with birthdays lightens the ending. Since the first part of the book is melancholic, a birthday tone would not fit well.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
A feature of Anthony Browne’s work is that although the characters are depicted in almost naturalistic style, “in all styles we can only interpret faces with certainty as positive, negative or neutral in affect, with more subtle readings dependent on contextual and intermodal guidance. (Tian, 2011.)
As is the case in all of Browne’s books, the illustrations contain surreal details which reward the reader for lingering. This is not a page-flipper. A young reader will feel smart, in a Where’s Wally/Spot The Difference kind of way, for picking out what’s strange about each picture.
First, Browne sets up a desire in Hannah: She wants her dad to show her some affection. The reader must emphasise with Hannah and feel some of her isolation and loneliness. Above, the father holds up a newspaper as a wall.
In the image above, the father has his back to his daughter. Hannah’s isolation is emphasised by the rectangle of light coming through an off-stage door. The rectangle forms a border between Hannah and her father. They may as well be in different worlds.
There is no comfort in this house — not even a sofa to sit on, and no carpet. Notice the map of Africa on the wall — a part of Hannah’s imagination. The truly masterful part of this illustration is that the light coming out of the television turns the pattern on the wallpaper into butterflies. The light coming out of the television is Hannah’s only company — her only brightness in an otherwise dark home environment.
What does it mean when a background merges with the real life of the story?
The character feels ignored/isolated/lonely, having more in common with the background than with the action going on around her
The world around the character is not what it first appears, suggesting there’s a hidden depth to everything. Here, the father’s feelings towards Hannah are warmer than initially suggested. (He is redeemed at the end.)
There’s something a little disturbing about this, unless we realise that the gorilla is a fantasy stand-in father.
I must admit there are a few scenes that had me arching my eyebrow at what she was up [to] in the way of questionable behaviour, but the end explains everything nicely.
from a 3 Star Goodreads Review
Superman is the symbol of supreme strength and prowess. This little girl thinks of her father as a superhero. But, like Superman, he is also some glamorous figure who remains out of reach.
The city is a jungle and the jungle is a city. Most stories set in cities have elements of the jungle in them, and vice versa.
Food is immensely important in children’s books. Though there is a bit of a movement towards depicting healthy food in picture books, this is almost impossible to do when the feast takes place inside a child’s imagination, in which case (in the West, at least) it’s almost always cakes and sundaes.
Not seen in this shot, but the father has a banana poking out of his back pocket. There are little details like that which tell the reader visually: “The gorilla IS the dad.” Anthony Browne reuses this trope in his postmodern Hansel and Gretel, in which the mother IS the witch.
The reader (along with Hannah) now learns that Dad really does think about his daughter. He has intuited that Hannah is fascinated with gorillas, and has planned exactly the birthday outing she has been dreaming about. He’s the sort of dad to hang Hannah’s pictures on the wall, framed. The young readers are left with the message that even when they feel that their caregivers don’t care about them, parents actually do love them, no matter what. This is a reassuring story: children will eventually receive the attention they crave.
There have been a number of reprints with different covers over the years:
This image with the surprised cat is my six-year-old’s favourite. The expression on the cat is funny to a kid, and is perhaps the one bit of true hilarity in the whole book, which is bitter-sweet and melancholic. Perhaps this is why it was chosen as a front cover image.
This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen shows that toddlers can cope with the horror genre.
“Jon Klassen’s darkly humorous illustrations are a joy to behold. Deceptively simplistic, the expressions and events that he captures, which range from the sublime to the sinister, are utterly wonderful.”
The CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal judges’ commentary
Someone on Goodreads called this a “hard-boiled crime thrillers for toddlers”. This is fairly apt description! Below I will refer to a number of 1 and 2 star reviews of this book on Goodreads, because these reviewers say something interesting about what adults think is good for children, and what should be kept from them. Committees who award big prizes are a lot less conservative than many book buyers, but I fear it’s the book buyers who drive the market.
PLOT OF “THIS IS NOT MY HAT”
A little fish steals the hat of a big fish when big fish is napping. Little fish thinks he has got away with it. He plans to hide in the reeds. Unfortunately for little fish, the big fish works out exactly what has happened and finds him in the reeds. The reader never knows how it ends exactly, but I figure the big fish eats the little fish up.
It’s interesting to read the 1 and 2 star reviews of this book on Goodreads, because there you will find parents who don’t approve of such morbid tales for children:
But who would I recommend this for? For a “scared straight” morality tale about the wrongness of stealing? I don’t feel like traumatizing children.
2 Star Review
Others take issue with the message it sends to kids:
In this book, a small fish steals a hat from a big fish and, although he knows it is wrong, thinks he can get away with it. What kind of message does this send to kids? It’s ok to steal if you don’t get caught! There is a conscience though. The big fish EATS the little fish and gets his hat back! What message does that send? If you steal something from someone the person has a right to kill you?
– 1 Star Review
Stealing is ok——I think not! This is NOT a book to be shared with anyone other than the trash! How very sad the committee accepts and medals a thief! The insanity must stop somewhere. This storyline is NOT ok! Perhaps some will try to explain the parameters of the medal again to me. I know the parameters – I don’t know why the committee would choose this book knowing full well many people will purchase it just because it is a winner.
– 1 Star Review
Any book that engenders such strong reactions in parents must be a good one, in my view.
– 1 Star Review
From Klassen himself:
The bear [from I Want My Hat Back] can’t talk to the rabbit and can’t reason with him. So the only thing he can think of doing is to eat him. I’m not endorsing it but it’s what you can feel like doing! I like the fact that the hat abstracts the idea. The object doesn’t need to be a hat, it could be anything. We just need a motor for the story. In This Is Not My Hat, the morality is slightly more overt because the fish states his case: ‘I know it’s wrong to take the hat but I’m going to do it anyway.’ You don’t know whether you’re supposed to be rooting for him or not. The reader has been with him all the time and that’s a more complicated emotional scenario: are you going to feel bad when or if he’s caught?
I think the book does have certain ideas about morality but not ones that the characters are necessarily aware of. As the reader, you’re part of that process. When I was little, I didn’t need books to name those lessons so I don’t use a narrator or a verb like ‘she whispered’ or ‘she said angrily’. It frees things up and you have to look to the pictures and the font colours for emotions. … But this is a hard argument to make, especially in the United States, where they think that if it happens in a book, then the author has endorsed what goes on there.
I love the voice. There is nothing adult about it whatsoever. This is the voice of a naive youngster. The little fish speaks directly to the reader — the reader is in on a big secret. The little fish’s conscience eventually kicks in. He knows it’s wrong to steal someone’s hat but he justifies it to himself. (Non sociopathic) readers will be familiar with this kind of stream of consciousness and will identify with the little fish. But we identify equally with the big fish, who has had something stolen, after all. Modern picturebooks are devoid of moralising, and this voice is a wonderful example of such a tone.
It is difficult to pull off an ambiguous ending in a picture book simply because there are so many readers out there who won’t stand for it. I admit looking and looking into the reeds trying to find where the little fish was still hiding and, you know what? He’s definitely not there. He’s either too scared to come out or he’s been eaten. When I asked my daughter what had happened to the little fish she said, ‘Dunno’ and at first I thought it was because she hadn’t engaged with the story and didn’t care, but she rushed off and wrote her own picture book, which just happened to star a big fish, so this book definitely resonated with my six-year-old.
The thing about humour is, it will never catch everyone. Kirkus described Klassen’s earlier book I Want My Hat Back as ‘cynical on wry’ and this one could be described that way also. One thing that almost always works to get little kids laughing is incongruity: Mum wearing Dad’s shoes, dogs smoking pipes, that kind of thing. Klassen makes use of incongruous humour here, too, not only with a fish wearing a hat (haha) but with a huge fish wearing a little hat that’s obviously not for him. In my mind, this big fish has already stolen the hat from a much smaller fish. This is a wry comment on the food chain which parents can shield from children as long as they like, but they’ll never shelter them from it completely.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THIS IS NOT MY HAT
This is a minimalist picture book, not only minimalist in words but in illustration:
A few consumers don’t like such minimalist books:
The story is really simplistic, even for a picture book.
1 Star Review
This Is Not My Hat stands out from a lot of other picture books because the background is black instead of white. (Six Feet Under flipped this same expectation by making use of fade to whites instead of fade to blacks.) How many illustrators would have even considered using a black background when the story is set underwater? Jon Klassen’s colour palette is as much a part of his distinctive style than anything else, and I suspect he is now going to stick to blacks and ochres. The shapes are wonderfully textured, with splatters and watercolour washes (which could just as well be acrylic or gouache for all I know).
(How else does this book feel minimalist? There’s minimal punctuation, also. Klassen explains that this was very much a deliberate choice:
It’s all about context. There doesn’t need to be exclamation marks. Let the pacing do the work.)
When personifying animal characters, illustrators very often put eyebrows on animals who don’t normally have eyebrows, because it’s difficult to convey the full range of human emotion without them. This big fish doesn’t have eyebrows – he has 4 different, very simple drawings:
Open eye looking up
Squinty, suspicious eye
Nothing else about the picture changes — these eyes say everything. Of his earlier book I Want My Hat Back, Klassen articulates the reasons for his design choice when it comes to animal expression:
The characters’ expressions barely change with just some movement of their eyes. If the rabbit is too characterised, then he becomes too cute. If he shows no reaction, then it’s okay to want consequences for him. When you’re a kid and you’re being picked on, this is the big question: what do you do when you actually find the person who’s done something wrong to you and they’re indifferent? Amoral. They’re blank.
Irony in picture books is often achieved when the pictures say something different from the words. This book is a perfect example of that. The reader knows the big fish understands what has happened, but the words come from the little fish’s stream of consciousness, and are in complete contradiction to the reality of the story. This serves to amp up the drama. The young reader knows what’s going to happen to the little fish. The ending is both satisfying and surprising, if only because we don’t often see death at the conclusion of humorous picture books starring personified animals.
STORY SPECS OF THIS IS NOT MY HAT
Pictures have a black background, so on most the text is laid over a white band at the top.
Deep in the sea there lives a happy school of little fish. Their watery world is full of wonders, but there is also danger, and the little fish are afraid to come out of hiding . . . until Swimmy comes along. Swimmy shows his friends how—with ingenuity and team work—they can overcome any danger. With its graceful text and stunning artwork, this Caldecott Honor Book deserves a place on every child’s shelf.
Another illustrator with a distinctive colour palette is Nick Sharratt, who works closely with Jacqueline Wilson.
A lot of picture book artists start off as painters, but Sharratt’s style has not evolved from that tradition, and you don’t find subtle references to the world of fine art. He doesn’t go for a painterly look; his pictures are arresting in their almost schematic simplicity, and he favours strong flat colours. He speaks directly to a young audience – his pictures are easy to read and humour is his first concern.
Books For Keeps
Jon Klassen’s art background is quite different — he studied animation and has worked as a concept designer in film (notably Coraline). There is definitely a graphic design/fine art feel to Klassen’s art — you could hang these pictures in an upscale restaurant or dining room and they wouldn’t look out of place. What these guys have in common is distinctiveness of style.
Some adults don’t think this art is ‘for children’. Another 1-Star review on Goodreads comments on Klassen’s colour palette, which brings up an interesting expectation among some adults and many children, who have been trained to understanding that most brightly coloured things are designed for them:
I didn’t care for this book at all, and it is not a book that I would read to any children. The pictures were all dark and not very fun colors. Jon was trying to show that it is not okay to steal someone else’s belongings. The thing is, he could have done this by having bright fun colors so children would be more apt to want to read this book.