Where Is The Green Sheep? Picture Book Analysis

Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek cover

Where Is The Green Sheep? is an Australian picture book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Judy Horacek. I know many preschoolers who count this as among their favourite books. It has certainly been a favourite around here, and my daughter has memorised it.

Part of the magic is to do with the fact that this is a book which encourages dialogic reading.

What is dialogic reading?

The process of having a dialogue with students around the text they are reading. This dialogue involves asking questions to help children explore the text at a deeper level, including defining new words, analyzing the components of a story and being able to talk about the text.



The reader is introduced to a number of different kinds of sheep (making use of various simple adjectives), but at various points asked, ‘But where is the green sheep?’ The green sheep appears on the final page, of course. The sheep looks green because it is fast asleep under a green bush.

This technique offers a touch of the postmodern. Anthony Browne makes picture books for older readers, but like this one for the preschool set, encourages readers to examine the pictures for camouflaged Easter Eggs. Young readers will be better positioned to read the more sophisticated Browne books if they’ve been exposed to Where Is The Green Sheep? as two- and three-year-olds.

The Anthony Browne example below is from Look What I’ve Got (1980).


First, there is the simplicity of language. Some (more complex) picturebooks introduce young readers to new situations and, as a consequence, to new words. This book is a real ‘comfort’ read. There will be very few words a 3 year old doesn’t already know. I’m guessing this is the reason my own daughter managed to memorise it, and it makes an excellent early reader, too, as emergent readers will be able to memorise the sentences and then connect them to the text.

Sometimes when reading a picturebook I think, ‘Gosh, who would have thought of that, and isn’t it clever?’ This book has that effect on me. Mem Fox’s brilliance as a writer for children comes from her ability to see the world in a slightly off-beat way. Of course a sheep sleeping under a bush looks green, but who else would have thought of it? This is exactly the way a child thinks, before learning that no, the sheep is still sheep-colour — the bush is distinct but green.

That said, for all we know the inspiration to make the sheep green due to the bush came from the illustrator. But since I have to guess I’d say the author and illustrator worked quite closely on it. The nice thing about the final page is that there is nothing in the text which mentions the bush. Any mention of a bush would be redundant, since there’s a picture of one.


This was the first book illustrated by Judy Horacek, who has since gone on to illustrate more, including Good Night, Sleep Tight and The Story of Growl.

Horacek’s illustrations are full of bright colours, and the shapes are outlined in black lines. Notice that board books also tend to make use of this illustration style — I think I heard that young eyes are better able to focus on pictures with clear delineations in form, and this book has me wondering if children prefer this style of illustration even after their eyes have become accustomed to subtle gradations of colour. Or is it that older children have learnt that illustrations done in this style have been created just for them?

Children respond very well to humorous faces on animals, especially. The faces of the sheep are two dots for eyes and a curve for a mouth. The open mouths sometimes offer more in the way of expression on these sheep. (Many anthropomorphised animals in picturebooks are drawn with eyebrows even though animals don’t have eyebrows simply because it’s difficult to convey the full range of human-like emotion without them.) Here, the personalities of the sheep are conveyed mainly via their body language. A red sheep does a ‘handstand’ on top of a hill, using only one leg. (See picture above.) The humour of this is amplified because we’ve just been shown a blue sheep standing like an everyday sheep, in a paddock. The blueness of it is ridiculous enough. In other words, the ‘ridiculousness’ of the illustrations build up gradually, with the sheep starting off more sheep-like, progressing into being more human-like, and eventually ending up in ‘tall-story‘-like situations such as standing on the moon.

Here Is The Bath Sheep – but sheep don’t have baths!
And Here Is The Bed Sheep – but sheep don’t sleep in human beds!

So not only do sheep have baths like people, they are also literate!

When adjectives are introduced they are exaggerated for humour. The thin sheep is a very thin, unlikely looking creature; the wide sheep is equally unlikely.

Each sheep in this book looks happy. There is a real carnival feeling running all the way through.

My daughter’s favourite page is what I will call the ‘Where’s Wally Sheep page’, just before the end, in which we are shown an entire page of sheep: playing in a sandpit, flying with angel wings, wearing a tropical fruit hat, eating a birthday cake etc.

My kid likes to use her fingers as legs and make a play out of walking around the scene, joining in with the cake-eating scene, wishing the sheep a happy birthday. It was me who introduced this possibility to her on one reading, and now we must linger every single time. In effect, this is a ‘look’ page, similar to a page of Richard Scarry’s lookbooks, and is designed to be gazed at for a while before reaching the climax. Interaction occurs when the child and adult co-reader are given the opportunity to ask questions: ‘Why do you think that sheep might be crying?’ Despite the simplicity of illustration and language — and perhaps because of it — this story reaches far beyond the page, extending into the reader’s imagination.


Published by Penguin imprint Viking, Australia 2004.


Simplicity wins the day. Margaret Wise Brown was another author who mastered simplicity of plot to great effect. A standout example is Goodnight Moon.

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When we were alone in the world Picture Book Analysis

Written by author Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by Eva Eriksson, When We Were Alone In The World is a 2009 Swedish picture book produced by two longtime experts in their field. I am reading the English language translation from Gecko Press.


Written in first person point of view, a young narrator (probably a grown up by this stage) recalls the day he learnt to tell the time at school. He was five years old at the time and is looking back with knowing hindsight. The narrator is therefore extradiegetic, because hindsight has turned him into a ‘different character’ (for storytelling purposes).

On second reading, we notice the importance of the very first paragraph:

One day at school I learned to tell the time. Nine o’clock, ten o’clock, one o’clock, two o’clock.

Thinking it is three o’clock, the young narrator leaves school two hours early, wondering why his father isn’t there to pick him up. He quickly jumps to the conclusion that his parents must have been killed by a truck, and launches into parental mode, collecting his little brother from playschool, promising that everything will go on as usual despite the obvious tragedy. They walk home and build a makeshift house. Their sad, imaginative game continues until the parents turn up, having been contacted by the playschool.


Translated beautifully in 2009 by Julia Marshall, something of the ‘foreignness’ has been retained in the English, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly. The European-ness is apparent on the cover, of course, as only the first letter of the title is capitalised. Some of the intratext has been translated, while in other cases the Swedish has been left in the illustration. This adds to the European feel of the story. For example, in one illustration, a recipe taped to the fridge has been translated into English but the packets of ingredients in the kitchen retain their Swedish names.

when we were all alone in the world illustration kitchen
When we were all alone in the world – Kitchen Scene

From Nilsson’s profile page at Bonnier Rights:

[Ulf Nilsson’s] books are filled with humour, warmth and imagination, often with a touch of irony (directed against himself). A theme always present is the victory of Good over Bad, and he always speaks in favour of children. Another theme is about acknowledgement and being seen, how to control your own fears by protecting someone smaller than yourself.

The illustrations consistently expand upon the words, creating dramatic irony for the reader. On the very first page we see the protagonist leaving school at ‘three o’clock’, but the illustrations show the other children still inside the classroom, pressed against the window. The close reader should be asking: Why aren’t all the other children outside, too? A close reader will notice he is carrying a paper clock but has left off the eleven and twelve. (The ten is even hidden by his hand.) The same paper clock is seen again on the second page, this time giving the reader a clearer view. In this way, small details are drip fed and slowly revealed over the course of the illustrations.

The imagination of the little boy will be familiar to all readers, the way the mind can jump to the worst possible conclusions when someone doesn’t turn up at the expected time. Unlike adults, who are able to employ reason, this story beautifully portrays the tendency for young children to both jump to the worst conclusion but at the same time turn their imagination over to a maudlin sort of game, funny and tragic in turn.

This funny/tragic juxtaposition is reproduced in the illustrations. While the words say that Mum and Dad got run over by a truck, the picture shows toddlers playing — some have spades in their mouths; the little brother is tipping sand over another child’s head. The maudlin humour is portrayed with phrases such as ‘We poor children’, and ‘It made me sad to think about them. My eyes filled with tears,’ and ‘The wind blew through the gaps in the rickety walls. It was such a shame about us.’ These are the words of a narrator who is self-aware of the humorous memory, without being heavy-handed about it. He is melodramatic and enjoys his melodramatic game on one level.

Young readers will definitely feel sad while empathising with the children. Adult readers will understand the humour from the start. This is how this masterful story achieves a dual audience. I really enjoy it as much as my six-year-old does.

Though trying his hardest to be a responsible grown-up, our five-year-old main character behaves as we might expect: The first thing he builds after returning home to an empty house is a ‘flagpole’. He finds a long stick and attaches a hanky. (Notice that there was a little red flag on top of the fort at playschool — surely this is where he got the idea — another hint at his naivety.) The whole house-building episode, in which the young narrator finds wooden fence posts and constructs a rickety shelter is surely a common form of play worldwide — playing house.

The humour of this scene reaches a new level when the young narrator goes next door to ask his neighbour for some eggs. He wants to make biscuits for the little brother, who normally eats a biscuit after playschool. The author introduces this scene with: ‘Then I remembered we could borrow things from our neighbour. Sometimes when you run out of something in the kitchen, you go over to a neighbour’s house and you borrow it.’ This is an important segue, because it tells the young reader that this is something that people do, but it also tells the adult reader that the young narrator has seen it done. Otherwise we might be wondering what provoked it. This sort of narration is worth a mention, I think, because it’s one of those techniques which is overlooked by the casual read — it is designed thus.

The list of requests for ingredients grows longer and longer, until the baffled neighbour has filled a bowl with every ingredient needed to make biscuits. The adult reader will identify with this neighbour, who is no doubt starting to wonder if the boys have been sent to him by the mother, as he may well have assumed! But he has been drawn so far into the boys’ game that he probably doesn’t know exactly how to stop.

Haven’t we all had the experience of interacting with a young child, wondering how much to believe, thinking there is probably some ‘truth’ to a story but not knowing exactly what? “The People Across The Canyon” by Margaret Millar is a short story for adults which delves into this exact problem.

In When We Were Alone In The World I like the choice of neighbour — an older man in a vest, who may or may not have much experience with very young children. (Matronly types may read the situation better!) We are not given any dialogue from the man — for all we know he questioned the boys, but the important thing is that he obliged. The boys mix everything together ‘using the antenna’. The choice to use ‘antenna’ instead of ‘stick’ is masterful — the children are now fully immersed in their own imaginative world. The stick is not a stick to them.

One thing I always love about young characters in picture books is when young characters draw on partially-understood adult experiences to recreate in their own imaginative play. ‘I didn’t know if we would be able to live in it when we grew up,’ the young narrator says, gazing upon the rickety, make-shift hut, ‘But we could build on eventually.’ I get the strong sense he has overheard adults talking about ‘building on’. This is particularly funny because the hut is so unstable, in which case the hut itself should be fixed, let alone ‘building on’. (The structure eventually falls over, at the very end, and we see a black bird sitting on top of it — a humorous symbol of death.) It is when the boys are in their parents’ arms that the hut falls over. Of course, it’s not just the hut which has fallen over; the entire imaginative role-playing game has collapsed. It’s time to return to the safety of reality.

End Illustration - note the white space = 'aloneness'
End Illustration – note the white space = ‘aloneness’

The young narrator’s partial understanding of the world is echoed again when he makes a TV out of a carton found on the rubbish heap (‘It is quite hard to make a TV.’) and ‘a remote control from a smaller box’. When the TV won’t turn on he concludes it’s because the remote is out of batteries. Yet he knows he needs an antenna, and makes one out of a stick. Again we have a juxtaposition between the five-year-old boy knowing all sorts of things about the world, but with knowledge that stops short of actually making sense of it. ‘Anyway there’s nothing good on TV these days,’ he says, looking at the screen. ‘I sounded just like Dad and I rubbed my chin just like he did.’ The masterful phrase here is ‘these days’. A five-year-old can’t possibly have enough experience of the world past and present to use a phrase like ‘these days’, which is why it’s so funny, and reminds me of my six-year-old who reprimanded me for washing her stuffed toy, since she had been cuddling it a lot and working on its smell ‘for ten years’.

When the young narrator pulls carrots out of the ground, noting that his little brother ‘didn’t think much of them’, the reader sees from the picture that the carrots themselves are tiny, with lots of shoots growing off them — inedible, in other words. Again, this is letting the illustrator shoulder some of the work.

How to make sure the reader understands the story? The reader must understand by the story’s end that the reason the young narrator went home early is because he failed to tell the time correctly. The opportunity for this explanation is taken when the parents piece together what has happened, with the mother showing the boy that there are twelve numbers on her watch, not ten. There’s something about this story which makes me think it may be based on a true event. True or not, it definitely achieves that feel.

The final sentence of the story is ‘My little brother burped.’ With a description of a mildly funny physiological event, the reader is reminded that we are firmly in reality now, that nothing is all that important: This afternoon was just a ‘burp/bump/blip’ in the larger tapestry of life.


The faces on the characters are simple, with dots for eyes and single strokes for mouths. This allows any young (white) reader to imagine that this highly stylised face might just as easily belong to him.

The drawings look to be rendered in coloured pencil, which usually lends a naive touch to picture books, since this is a medium commonly utilised by young readers themselves. The foreground shapes look to be outlined in ink (or strong, sharp pencil perhaps) which adds definition. Sometimes, pencil drawings can have a dream-like quality.

Adding to the naive quality, perspective is ever so slightly ‘off’ in some drawings — this gives a hand-drawn look in an era in which photorealism can be achieved reasonably easily using digital software.

The colour palette is warm — reds and browns dominate each page, and there is no obvious change of palette for the ‘scary’ pages or anything like that. The season looks to be autumn — the sky looks a little thunderous; the little boys wear winter hats. This is an autumn palette.

The end papers are a wallpaper of clocks, each showing a different time. “What?” my six-year-old said, when I asked her to read one of the clocks. “This isn’t a book on how to tell the time!” But here’s the thing: It can be a book about telling the time. The adult reader can point out that there are twelve hours in a day, not ten, for instance.


This is a squarish book in shape. Approximately half of the pages contain white space with the text as a separate asset; the other half are full page illustrations with any text overlaid. The text is a simple Times New Roman sort of font with a large ‘O’ to kick off the story.

Ulf Nilsson is a well-known Swedish children’s book author with over 100 publications under his belt.

Eva Eriksson has illustrated for a number of well-known Swedish series such as The Eddie Series (Eddieserien) written by Viveca Lärn about a boy in early elementary school age in Sweden. She also illustrated the Max Series by Barbro Lindgren, the Mimmi series and a series about a wild baby.


By the very same creators, All the dear little animals is another book about death and loss incorporated into childhood play. This one is just as good as When we were alone in the world. This book is published both by Gecko Press (New Zealand) and Hawthorne Press (UK). There is a strong Christian undertone to this story. Apparently Ulf Nilsson takes a strong interest in Christianity and is makes a study of it without being Christian himself, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Gecko Press specialises in translating foreign picturebooks into English.

All the dear little animals

There is something endearing about stories in which siblings do something really nice for each other. In When we were all alone in the world, the older brother vows to look after his younger brother. The Charlie and Lola series is good on the sibling-harmony front, as well as the classic Dogger written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes, in which a big sister does something really kind for her little brother after he loses his pet dog.

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Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd Picture Book Analysis

Scarface Claw is a wonderful animal villain.

Honestly, for a close-reading I could have picked any of Lynley Dodd’s Slinky Malinki series (or from the even-better-known Hairy Maclary series set in the same world). I find it impossible to pick a favourite. But if I have a favourite character, it is probably a tie between Slinky Malinki and Scarface Claw. Although I grew up in New Zealand I’m a little too old to have grown up with them. Still, I have collected the entire series and enjoy reading them to my daughter, over and over again. Every New Zealander who has ever read a picture book will be familiar with these animals. Teachers will be able to name all of them. If there’s an archetypal New Zealand picture book series, this is it. For a read-along experience, Penguin has partnered with Kiwa Media and turned some of the Hairy Maclary books into apps. While not created from the ground up for a touch screen, the app versions do offer word highlighting, which can be useful to an emergent reader perhaps.


Most readers will already know from previous books that Scarface Claw is ‘the toughest tom in town’, introduced thus in Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. This book focuses specifically on his toughness, presenting a range of scary scenarios that are not the least bit daunting to Scarface Claw. Finally the reader finds out that there is ONE little thing Scarface Claw is scared of **SPOILER ALERT**: Scarface is scared of his own reflection.

Scarface Looks Into The Mirror


The most amazing thing about Lynley Dodd’s books how nice they are to read aloud, over and over and over again. Actually, I think the weakest in this regard is the first and most famous Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. I’ll admit I sometimes get ever-so-slightly tired of the repetition of that, which may be as much a comment on how many times I have been called upon to read it aloud. Hairy Maclary is a book which builds on itself, which is excellent for child literacy and speech development and so on, but taxing on an adult reader. For a repetitious book, Hairy Maclary is still excellent. But it is in the subsequent books that Lynley Dodd’s poetic language really shines. To borrow from culinary-world, the mouthfeel is wonderful. It’s all to do with the scansion.

Font is also important. The reader is given clues on how to read with use of all caps:

is the roughest
and toughest
of cats?

The boldest,
the bravest,
the fiercest of cats?

Wicked of eye
and fiendish of paw
is mighty,


The poetry has a distinctive meter, and if you tap the rhythm on the table you’ll see how scary it sounds, sort of like the narrative poems of yore, a la The Highway Man (though this is different again).

Something that may pass unnoticed until it is pointed out is that the animals do not talk. There are many picture books about animals, which I would divide into two distinct types: First are the anthropomorphised animals who are human stand-ins. This is of another kind, in which the animals are actual animals, thinking and behaving as humans expect animals might. This requires a good understanding of animal behaviour, and it’s clear Lynley Dodd has a history of living with pets.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to complexity of vocabulary for young readers, and apparently Lynley Dodd’s work has sometimes been criticised for including words beyond the comprehension of her audience. Another school of thought believes that children should be exposed to vocabulary beyond their comprehension; this is exactly how they learn. I fall into the second camp, and I doubt Dodd would have achieved such perfect rhythm and meter if she had limited herself to words from a children’s dictionary. In the end, does it matter if children don’t know the exact meaning of some words? The illustrations and the language are more than enough to compensate.


As with pretty much every picturebook, a lot of the story’s success rests upon the facial expressions of the characters — or animals.

Who needs talking animals, when so much language is exchanged in the eyes?

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In this particular story, even the scary black spiders have big, expressive eyes. As for Scarface Claw himself, this is not a truly scary creature — few creatures really are in picture books, which are often read right before bedtime. The young reader is instead encouraged to laugh at Scarface, and also to emphasise with him; children will be familiar with the feeling of being scared of some things and content about others. Here, the contentedness of Scarface is achieved via the closed eyes. Plus, isn’t it always funny to see a cat licking his leg? There’s something graceful and private about it, and when the reader sees Scarface in a more vulnerable moment, empathy is encouraged.

scarface claw content licking leg
Scarface Licks His Leg

The real gem illustration occurs on the penultimate page. After seeing Scarface in a variety of relaxed poses (and scary ones, in previous books) the reader sees for the first time Scarface looking both terrified and adorable. He now has big eyes and flat ears. I accidentally skipped this page when reading to my daughter, who realised a page had been missed. She knew the word that went with it, too. “Where’s the page with EXCEPT…?’ she asked. This was an interesting exercise, borne of nothing more than two pages being stuck together, because I realised just how important this penultimate page was to the story, which could have worked without it, but wasn’t nearly so good.

Another technique Lynley Dodd uses in a number of her books is an intriguing object only just visible on the page — it’s usually someone’s tail, propelling the reader forward to the next page, where fans will know exactly whose tail it is; the next page need only confirm it. In this book, the reader sees Scarface Claw’s tail dangling down from the wall. On the following spread we see Scarface himself, in repose:

Scarface Relaxes Fencetop

The technique isn’t limited to tails — the reader sees the leg of the oh-so-vital mirror before seeing the mirror itself, a good three pages later. So this technique doesn’t necessarily need to be used on consecutive pages, but can foreshadow well in advance.

To go with the ominous rhythm, horror elements have been included judiciously into the illustrations. The picture of Scarface Claw at night outside in a lightning storm features trees with curved, finger-like branches which I have since learnt to associate with Tim Burton. But overall, the book’s scariness is tempered by insertions of comedy. The dogs are supremely comical with their ‘lolloping and leaping’, and their tongues hanging out, with Hairy Maclary grinning like a muppet.


This is one of Lynley Dodd’s later books, first published in 2001 by Puffin. Dodd has said that it takes her a year to write and illustrate each book. My softback edition places the colophon at the back of the book. The back side of the front cover very cleverly doubles as both a promotional poster for other books in the series and a checklist of cats which my daughter loves to name before the story begins. As far as she’s concerned, it’s a part of the story.

slinki malinki and friends
Slinky Malinki And Friends, inside the front cover

This story leaves a big impression at only 160 words.


Scarface Claw may have been inspired (consciously or not) by the American Little Golden Book classic The Large and Growly Bear. Like Scarface Claw, the Large and Growly Bear is an outwardly fierce creature who takes great delight in scaring the creatures around him. The climax is that he is scared of his own reflection in a pond. I expect this plot comes from something even older — probably a folk or fairy tale. I simply haven’t found it yet.

Some people are terrified of mirrors, mostly because of superstitions related to reflections and the dead. This fear is called spectrophobia.

For an example of a picture book that is written around the technique of ‘tails first then turn the page’ (or whatever it’s actually called) see the Australian classic I Went Walking, which doubles as a book for toddlers as well as an early reader for slightly older children.

I Went Walking Written by Sue Williams Illustrated by Julie Vivas
I Went Walking Written by Sue Williams Illustrated by Julie Vivas
I Went Walking Tails First

When a character is scared of something a child doesn’t find scary, this is a sure source of humour for a child, and is utilised by other writers, too. In series one, episode eleven of Lake Campbottom, the character of Gretchen fails to be frightened of all sorts of nasty things, but is then terrified of a cute chipmunk with big eyes.

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Dogger by Shirley Hughes Picture Book Analysis

Dogger cover

I don’t remember seeing a pristine copy of Dogger, ever. Our own copy as a child had been cancelled from a local library and was covered in yellowing sellotape. I still have that copy. Many years later, this is one of my six-year-old daughter’s favourite books. It is also the number one favourite book of the now 13 year old who waits at the same bus stop. In short, Dogger by Shirley Hughes is a timeless classic. What makes it so good?


The plot of this story is surprisingly complex, though 100% pulled off by Shirley Hughes: A boy goes with his mother to pick up his big sister from school, loses his precious toy dog, then when he goes back to school the following day for the fundraising fair, he sees the dog for sale at a toy stall. Before he can buy the dog back a little girl buys Dogger and takes off with him.

Meanwhile, Davey’s big sister Bella has won a beautiful big teddy. She manages to persuade the little girl to swap Dogger for the big teddy. That night in bed Dave expresses his gratitude to his big sister and his big sister says she didn’t have any room for any more teddies anyhow. All is well with the world.


What impresses me is how easily young readers are able to grasp this slightly complex story. What did Shirley Hughes do that a novice writer might forget to do? First of all, the importance of Dogger is established for the reader. Dogger is introduced before any of the characters are introduced.

Next, the full page of illustrations which show Dave tenderly caring for his dog. (I also love this because there are few examples of little boys caring for ‘dolls’ in children’s stories without it somehow being ironic or a reason for being bullied.)

Next the reader has to see that Dave took Dogger to school. Note that the reader is both told and shown the way Dave ‘pushed Dogger up against the railings to show him what was going on’. As small as these details seem, this is the sort of thing that readers absorb subconsciously. We know on subsequent readings that this is how Dave lost Dogger. (By dropping him, or something.) Not only is Dogger’s presence underscored in both the text and in the illustration, the sentence about Dogger being pushed up to the fence is the last sentence on that page. Sentences which come last inevitably carry the most weight.

Next is the scene in which the ice-cream van pulls up. Bella is excited and the children are bought two ice-creams, which Dave must share. Not only has the fictional Dave been distracted — the young reader has been, too. We are now fed detail which is important in the moment: ‘Joe didn’t have a whole ice-cream to himself because he was too dribbly.’ Apart from providing a lovely distraction to both character and reader, this detail is just the sort of thing a child like Dave would remember. ‘Joe kicked his feet about and shouted for more in-between licks.’ I love the phrase ‘in-between licks’ — a neologism coined by a youngster, because to him it is a thing.

Expressed in few words, the realisation that Dogger has gone dawns slowly on Dave, which avoids the need for that dreaded word ‘Suddenly’. The slow realisation fosters more empathy, somehow:

At tea-time Dave was rather quiet.

In the bath he was even quieter.

At bed-time he said:

“I want Dogger.”

But Dogger was nowhere to be found.

The look on Dave’s face is a mixture of bewilderment and distress.

Next we see a variety of scenes in which the whole family looks for Dogger. Something I learned from writing The Artifacts is that both child and adult readers of picture books very much expect the adult caregivers to be kind people. The fact that the whole family is prepared to look for Dogger shows that Dave is cared for by a loving family.

This painting by Mary Dawson Elwell (1874-1952) East Yorkshire reminds me of the scene above out of Dogger.
This painting by Mary Dawson Elwell (1874-1952) East Yorkshire reminds me of the scene above out of Dogger.

Whatever other calamity has befallen him, this is fundamental, and important when writing marketable picture books for the youngest children. The kindness of Bella is introduced here when she spends time looking through her toy box, then lends Dave one of her own stuffed toys.

Now that the story is set up, Shirley Hughes makes good use of the rule of three, with a sequence of three embedded into another sequence of three. The family goes to the fair:

There was a Fancy Dress Parade.

(Turn the page)

[1] Then there were Sports, with an Egg-and-Spoon Race—

[2] a Wheelbarrow Race

[3] and a Fathers’ Race.

Bella wins a race

Bella wins first price in a raffle

Then Dave comes to the toy stall, which kicks off another sequence of three. After seeing Dogger for sale he is thwarted in his attempts to get Dogger back:

The lady isn’t listening to Dave trying to explain

He doesn’t have quite enough money to buy him back

When he tries to find his mother and father he can’t find them in the crowd.

Each of these events will evoke a lot of empathy for Dave. Three is a perfect number of obstacles, because by the third obstacle the reader is clear that getting Dogger back is going to be no simple matter. (After all, that would make for a lesser story.)

So Bella saves the day, and the reader is taken back to the bedroom we saw at the beginning of the story.

This makes for a perfectly circular plot and an excellent bedtime story. Bella is turning somersaults, endearingly, and reassures Dave that she didn’t like that big teddy anyway because ‘his eyes were too staring’. Again, this is a beautiful use of childlike vocabulary, and the reader is left with warm feelings towards both Bella and Dave. The wordless final image shows the bedroom from the very same angle as the first view of the bedroom, with both children fast asleep. Dave is cuddling Dogger.

Note that at no stage did an adult jump in to save the day. Nor was an adult unrealistically cold — the lady at the toy stall genuinely didn’t understand what Dave was trying to tell her. This is a beautiful example of a story about an everyday event and everyday children. Although a possible moral might be, ‘Be nice to your brothers and sisters,’ Hughes avoids painting Bella as some sort of self-sacrificing do-good character by having her say that she never really liked the big teddy anyway.


An aspect I appreciate about Shirley Hughes’ illustrations is that they have an ‘everyday griminess’ to them. The children’s bedroom is ‘lived in’, with toys and clothes strewn onto the floor. The homes of Hughes’ characters are the sorts to have overflowing baskets of laundry sitting on the floor, the dishes waiting to be done, toys lying around to be stepped on. Reading this story as an adult, it’s reassuring to see my own house depicted in literature, and the thing about child readers is they tend to love their own homes and don’t aspire for Pinterest levels of perfection.

Hughes’ characters, too, have a ‘homely’ look to them. Even the faces of the children are rendered with inky lines that almost makes them look like old people. Hughes was definitely not a part of the new media trend, in which it is thought that children are drawn irresistibly towards characters with big eyes. What stands out to me reading this story from 1977, the height of second wave feminism, is that the character of Bella — apart from her feminine name and use of ‘her’ — looks no different from a boy. Comparing Bella to modern depictions of girlhood in picture books, today’s young readers are used to the convention that girls must look a certain way: They’ll probably be wearing an article of clothing that is pink. If represented by animals, the female animals will have heavier eyelashes, redder lips or a bow on their head. Yet apart from pink pyjamas, Bella is dressed androgynously — her femaleness is not important to the story — she is first and foremost a kindly older sibling, and I really appreciate this about the character.

As a counterpoint, the little girl with the bow in her hair and the dress behaves like a spoilt brat, with no empathy for Davey who has lost his precious toy. This little girl is a Spoilt Brat Trope, drawn to pretty and new things, and therefore assuaged with the promise of owning a brand new teddy bear. It does concern me slightly that the spoilt brat trope is usually a girl dressed like this which — Bella notwithstanding — can sometimes morph into femme phobia. This is a minor concern.

Shirley Hughes is especially adept at drawing complicated, crowded scenes from a birds’ eye perspective. She demonstrates her skills here by offering readers a view of the fair from above. I’m not sure why birds’ eye views of scenes are so intriguing, but it may partly because children see the world only from a very short position. Seeing more, even from the shoulders of a parent, is a novelty.

The passing of time is often depicted in words, even in picture books: After dinner, before bed, and indeed that technique is utilised here: ‘Now and again Dave and Bella’s mum said that Dogger was getting much too dirty./One afternoon Dave and Mum set out to collect Bella from school.’ But Shirley Hughes also makes use of the visual chronotope, in which the reader sees several scenes, like different frames in a film reel, and is expected to understand that these are not the same-looking characters doing different things, but the very same characters depicted at different times. Below is a visual chronotope of Dave playing with Dogger, quickly establishing to the reader how very important this toy is to his young owner.

Notice, too, the use of an inset image. This is a useful technique to be aware of when needing to create stories for print books, in which stories must fit onto exactly 32 pages. But there’s more to it than that. The inset image of Dave washing his dog links the idea to the mother hanging Dogger on the washing line. Like a paragraph explaining a single idea, this page depicts the single idea of Dogger being washed.

The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998
The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998


If you enjoy the illustrations of Shirley Hughes, you may like to check out watercolours by John Lovett, Australian artist.

John Lovett - Australian  watercolor
John Lovett – Australian watercolor

If you enjoy the loose watercolour work of Shirley Hughes, check out illustrator Victor Ambrus, whose village below reminds me somewhat of a Shirley Hughes high angle view, as seen in many of her picture books.

Victor Ambrus village
Victor Ambrus village
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Wolves by Emily Gravett Picture Book Analysis

A very cute rabbit checks out a book from the library. The book is called Wolves. As rabbit reads the book, the wolf ’emerges from’ the book (or maybe it doesn’t), coming closer and closer to the rabbit as the rabbit gets scareder and scareder. Finally, we see an extreme close up of a scary wolf looking at rabbit from behind. (Note that the rabbit has been given eyebrows. Animals in picturebooks are often given eyebrows, as this helps a lot with the expression.)


This story belongs to the category in which child readers delight in knowing what’s going to happen, and are gratified when it does. Knowing the ending means it’s no less of a surprise. Further to the metafictive nature of this picturebook, an ‘alternative ending’ is supplied, and it is explained that this has been added for the more sensitive readers. We are then treated to a classic cutesy happy ending, which pokes fun at the picturebook category in general. This will appeal to adult co-readers, who will have seen more than their fair share of picturebooks of the cutesy kind. I wonder when young children realise the joke.


My six-year-old daughter was very, very taken by the fact that you can pull a little library card out of the rabbit’s library book. Later, she is equally impressed at being able to pull an overdue library notice out of an envelope which has been stuck down to the final page. This particular copy is from the university library rather than the local library, in which case any sort of paper engineering tends to get mangled. (The university’s collection of picturebooks, in contrast, seem to be most utilised by adults rather than their kids. No food stains, taped-up pages or scribbles have been found yet.) I did have to explain to my daughter what a library card and an overdue notice is. Although published in 2005, this book may stand as a historical artifact in a world where books are checked-out digitally and overdue notices are sent electronically. Even the postcard illustration, adding interest to the colophon, is something young readers may not have much experience with. This book is a snap shot into the past. These things may need to be explained to young readers.


What makes this rabbit so darn cute? I think it’s mostly in the very expressive ears. One sticks up and one flops over, in the teen-romance equivalent of a lopsided smile. Ears pointing toward the book show rabbit’s intense concentration. Ears pointing straight back show rabbit’s mortification. One ear loops round to resemble a question mark at times. On the cover, the rabbit looks small and inquiring, and looks with interest up at the title — an echo of the interest in the child readers themselves, looking up in the world, trying to figure it out.


The rabbit is innocent until the very end. The story makes use of ‘Rosie’s Walk’ techniques:

Wolves layouts

As rabbit walks along while reading, oblivious to its surroundings, the young reader sees that the grass is actually a wolf’s fur; rabbit is coming to the end of wolf’s snout, and wolf is holding cutlery. There are allusions here to The Gingerbread Man. Earlier, the wolf in a hood is reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood. In fact, the whole story relies on the classic fairytale idea that rabbits are cute and good; wolves are evil and sneaky and bad.

The reader’s comprehension of this story hangs on understanding that rabbit is reading a book within a book. To achieve this, the book replicates the half title page — which is red with the single word ‘Wolves’. We then see an extreme close up of rabbit clutching a book, advancing towards the reader with a library in the background. Interestingly, the rabbit’s head has been cut off. This helps set the ominous tone.


White space is used both within the fictional book and in the actual book. The reader can’t be distracted. Our eye is guided straight to the critical spot on the page, in this case to a clump of trees that — to the rabbit — now look like a big wolf. Is this the illustration within the book, or is rabbit now looking around its own environs, seeing wolves everywhere? Rabbit spans both the main frame and the embedded one. Which world is rabbit in?


The colour palette is limited and red is, of course, symbolic. When the rabbit supposedly gets gobbled, the reader sees only the red, scratched-up, photo-realistic cover of the rabbit’s book.

The jam sandwich shared by rabbit and wolf in the ‘alternative ending’ is made out of scraps of torn out paper. This is wonderfully funny because the astute reader will see that it’s not a fictionalised ending at all. Did the wolf really eat the rabbit in the world of the story? We never really know.



Bronze award winner of the Nestle Children’s Book Prize 2005. (The Nestlé Children’s Book Prize, and Nestlé Smarties Book Prize for a time, was a set of annual awards for British children’s books that ran from 1985 to 2007. So this won in the second to last year of the prize.) Although I’m sad that this prize no longer runs, I don’t like to see highly sugared and processed food associated with children’s products.

Almost square in size — slightly higher than it is wide — medium size.


Another beautifully produced book about rabbits with impressive pop-up engineering (and a surprise on the last page) is The Rabbit Problem, also by Emily Gravett.

The Rabbit Problem

Each page is a month of a rabbit’s calendar (anthropomorphised). Again, the book is full of mock-copy such as rabbit cookbooks, rabbit newspapers and so on. Most of the text is found within these artefacts.


Then there’s Battle Bunny, for another example of metafiction which pokes fun at picturebooks in general. It seems rabbits are an excellent choice for picturebook parodies, probably because they’re so ubiquitous and also because they’re inherently cute, furry and helpless, lending themselves to cutesy stories.

The Tawny Scrawny Lion is an example of a classic picturebook in which a carnivorous animal turns vegetarian for narrative purposes. Sure enough in Wolves, the alternative ending has the wolf sharing a jam sandwich with the rabbit and becoming best of friends.

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The Importance of Picture book Endpapers and Other Peritext

Peritext is especially important in picture books, and refers to the physical features and design elements that surround the story. When readers take note of this information, their experience of the story will be enhanced, or possibly change. Peritext includes information on:

  • dust jackets
  • under the dust jackets (of hardbacks)
  • front and back covers
  • endpapers
  • dedication page
  • title page
  • endpapers

Part of me thinks that a reader’s preference for a physical book isn’t just about how it smells or about the reassuring heft of it in the hands, but derives from more subconscious things. Picture books are more ornamental than other kinds of books. In picture books you’ll sometimes see that an imaginative illustrator has done something creative with the colophon, or included easter egg doodles in unexpected places (maybe a face sticking out from under a dust cover).

I’ve not seen this much in novels for adults. When an adult picks up a book, they’ve probably done a bit of research about what it’s about, even if that’s just reading the back cover copy. In picture books for children, the peritext — everything in the book which is not the actual story — helps the reader to decode the story. A reader learns something about the story from the cover, the size of the book itself, the type of paper, any dust jacket and — often overlooked — the endpapers.

Retold by Edward Holmes Illustrated by Ronald Embleton endpapers
The Third In Line from The Sketchbooks Of Mattias Adolfsson (Sanatorium Publishing 2015)
The Third In Line from The Sketchbooks Of Mattias Adolfsson (Sanatorium Publishing 2015)
Endpapers from The Brimful Book, Eul Alie, C.M. Burd, G.& D. Haumen , 1927 Platt & Munk Co., Inc.
Endpapers from The Brimful Book, Eul Alie, C.M. Burd, G.& D. Haumen , 1927 Platt & Munk Co., Inc.
by Dale Maxey front endpaper for Seeing London 1964
by Dale Maxey front endpaper for Seeing London 1964
Our State Birds by Mary I. Curtis illustrated by Julia Morrison, 1947 endpapers
Our State Birds by Mary I. Curtis illustrated by Julia Morrison, 1947
Jim and Judy, by Arthur I. Gates, Miriam Blanton Huber, and Celeste Comegys Peardon endpapers 1947 edition
Jim and Judy, by Arthur I. Gates, Miriam Blanton Huber, and Celeste Comegys Peardon endpapers 1947 edition
Seymour Chwast, Sleepy Ida and Other Nonsense Poems by Steven Kroll, 1977 (endpapers)
Seymour Chwast, Sleepy Ida and Other Nonsense Poems by Steven Kroll, 1977 (endpapers)
Make and Make-Believe by Arthur I. Gates and Miriam Blanton Huber, Macmillan, 1931 endpapers
Make and Make-Believe by Arthur I. Gates and Miriam Blanton Huber, Macmillan, 1931
HOTEL SPLENDIDE (1948) Ludwig Bemelmans endpapers
HOTEL SPLENDIDE (1948) Ludwig Bemelmans endpapers
endpapers from Richard Scarry’s Great Big Air Book, 1971
endpapers from Richard Scarry’s Great Big Air Book, 1971
The Third In Line from The Sketchbooks Of Mattias Adolfsson (Sanatorium Publishing 2015)
The Third In Line from The Sketchbooks Of Mattias Adolfsson (Sanatorium Publishing 2015)
The Little-Mailman of Bayberry Lane end papers
The Little-Mailman of Bayberry Lane end papers
illustrated book endpapers for a Ladybird book Hedges 1979
illustrated book endpapers for a Ladybird book Hedges 1979
NOAH'S ARK (1965) Miche Wynants the end and beginning rainbow
NOAH’S ARK (1965) Miche Wynants the end and beginning rainbow
Superb Art Nouveau Design Endpapers c1905 by Talwin Morris - Friend and Contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Superb Art Nouveau Design Endpapers c1905 by Talwin Morris – Friend and Contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Front-piece and back-piece of the 1949 edition of ‘Childcraft’ Encyclopedia Illustrated by Milo Winter (1888-1956)
Front-piece and back-piece of the 1949 edition of ‘Childcraft’ Encyclopedia Illustrated by Milo Winter (1888-1956)



Lawrence Sipe explains how endpapers are like stage curtains:

Endpapers, in particular, mark a movement from the public space of the cover to the private world of the book, much as stage curtains rising and falling mark the entrance into and exit from a drama.


End papers can also be used to summarise an entire narrative. A standout example of that is Ugly Duckling illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (1999). There’s an illustration of a new hatchling on the front endpaper and an illustration of the adult swan on the back endpaper. Together, the endpapers say: This is the story of a small bird who bacomes a beautiful swan.


Endpapers can show the passage of time in various ways. Another example is The Napping House (1984) by Don and Audrey Wood. The front endpapers are a different colour from the back endpapers. (Darker at the beginning, lighter at the end.) This follows the mood of the story, which begins darkly and ends on a lighter note.


What might this mean for those of us creating picture book apps rather than paper products? Picture book apps have their own analogues to the peritext of printed matter. For example:

  • an icon on the app store
  • screen shots on the app store
  • promo videos/trailers
  • splash page
  • title page
  • navigation page

Of this list, the young reader will not necessarily see screen shots on the app store nor watch any promo video, so I can probably cross those off the list as examples of peritext. (I guess it’s called ‘epitext’.) As for the other features, any of those can be left out when it comes to an app. There is no physical cardboard, for instance, requiring some sort of endpaper, and so it can be tempting (due to memory and other limitations) to leave out something like a title page between the splash page and the main menu. A splash page is most often used in apps to advertise the developer’s company and to create a brand across a stable of products, without necessarily tailoring its look to the story in hand.

There is also ‘peritext’ which is specific to book apps:

  • rate this app button
  • credits page
  • links to social media
  • other products from the same developers

Some of this ‘peritext’ isn’t welcomed by adults who purchase picture book apps for children, though I’m sure a great many feel neutral about it, so long as it’s not obtrusive and click-baiting from the main menu. This isn’t an exhaustive list of peritextual possibilities. In an app, would a finger-painting activity or a match-the-words page counted as peritext?

Frontmatter from The Brimful Book, Eul Alie, C.M. Burd, G.& D. Haumen , 1927 Platt & Munk Co., Inc.
Frontmatter from The Brimful Book, Eul Alie, C.M. Burd, G.& D. Haumen , 1927 Platt & Munk Co., Inc.
Forty White Sided by Yuri Vasnetsov 1958 frontispiece
Forty White Sided by Yuri Vasnetsov 1958 frontispiece

Some questions for picturebook app developers are:

  • How can we introduce our stories with ‘stage curtains’ in this new digital environment, where readers expect some sort of introduction to the story before it ‘begins’?
  • How can we help the reader by making sure our peritext extends the story on every non-story page, even if it’s just a little?
  • What is it about physical books which is best transferred — in some form — to a digital medium? And what can happily be left out?
  • Is there anything we can do digitally which would improve upon the peritextual limitations of printed books?

 Somewhat related:

When we discuss front cover designs, the pinkness of this or the blueness of this, we’re discussing paratexts. And, to be frank. there doesn’t seem to be much research about the impact / affect / effect of them.

Gendered Books In Children’s Literature

 Paeony Lewis points out that when it comes to printed books, not all of them are as beautiful as they could be: “I think many hardback children’s picture books lack what I call ‘gorgeousness’.” This is worth mentioning in a climate where comparisons between digital and printed matter are inevitable.


Picturebook Endpapers: Resources for Literary and Aesthetic Interpretation by Lawrence Sipe

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A Storybook [X]

“Storybook” as adjective is applied to various places and objects. English has recently borrowed the Scandinavian concept of “hygge” to mean something similar.

We might also use the word holotypic (from the noun holotype) when talking about something which stands in for ‘the accepted, archetypal version’ of an object or idea. It actually comes from botany, but I’m borrowing it for picture books.

People who are good at Pictionary aren’t necessarily the best at drawing — instead they tend to understand the difference between a holotypic depiction versus an idiosyncratic one.

The holotypic car has four wheels, so when Mr Bean drives a three-wheeled reliant regal, this is seen as a quirk.

In picture books, the holotypic house has a pitched roof and is surrounded by garden. The picture book house is basically The Dream House. Any departure from the dream house draws attention to that aspect.

As much as I like ‘holotypic’, ‘storybook’ is a more widely accepted term.

What does it mean to be a ‘storybook [X]’?

In her novel We Were The Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates describes High Point Farm:

The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the house are five enormous oaks and I mean enormous—the tallest is easily three times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. In summer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive to see the house—what a house! In winter, the lavender house seems to float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child’s storybook. And that antique slight in the front yard, looking as if the horse had just trotted away to leave the lone passenger behind—a human figure, a tenderly comical scarecrow wearing old clothes of Dad’s.

storybook house
A storybook house From Songs We Sing (A Big Golden Book), illustrated by William Dugan, 1957

If you’re an artist and you ever sit down to illustrate a picture book, even if you’ve not considered this question before, it may come up as you illustrate: How much of your illustration is going to be ‘storybook’? Which parts of the illustration will draw attention to themselves by not being classically ‘storybook’?

The Storybook Bedroom

For there are certain ‘storybook’ ways of depicting certain objects. The interior of a child’s bedroom will have a single bed, elevated on four legs (or perhaps bunks, perhaps twin beds); curtains on the window rather than vertical blinds, a few toys scattered artfully around (likely some books). A futon in a Western storybook, or a foldout sofa, will draw attention to itself. A child’s house will basically be clean, with no peeling wallpaper, or maybe a few crayon marks, but rarely evidence of where a parent tried to scrub off two-year-old artwork and didn’t quite manage it. Storybook homes are not mobile homes. They are most typically found in leafy suburbs.

The Storybook Bedroom is the middle-class, Western bedroom.

My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children's illustrator, book author and doll designer.
My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children’s illustrator, book author and doll designer.

Storybook Cars

Parents will drive sensible family cars like station wagons (not convertibles fitted out with child booster seats). Towns will comprise everyone’s idea of perfect capitalism: a grocer’s, a butcher’s, a bakery, rather than the more likely alternative of Walmarts in America and The Warehouse in New Zealand…

Storybook Daily Routines

Fathers go out to work in the morning rather than at night. They wear button down shirts and carry briefcases. Families eat breakfast together.

These are not rules, of course. These are simply the storybook conventions which don’t draw attention to themselves. Except when they do. Like when more and more readers become dissatisfied with the fact that this storybook world we imagine is in fact a white, middle-class world, which seems to have the 1950s era as an ideal, even when modernity is also apparent.

Storybook Towns

Manchester-by-the-sea provides (some of) the filming location for a sad adult film Manchester By The Sea. The juxtaposition between the depressing storyline and the beautiful scenery stands out to make our main character seem even sadder.

What does it take to achieve Storybook Town status?

  • A clear delineation between seasons, with red leaves in autumn, snow in winter
  • Curved, narrow, tree-lined roads which meander rather than grid
  • A slightly hilly terrain
  • Near the sea
  • Where there are boats
  • Brightly coloured weatherboard or brick two-storied houses, with crisp white trim
  • Low stone walls for fences
  • A variety of greens in the foliage
  • Bright blue skies at certain times of the year
  • Coves, harbours and creeks
  • Place names with clear Anglo meanings like Cathedral Pines, Cornerstone Church and Central Pond.

Storybook Charm

If you do a Google image search for “storybook charm” you get

  • houses with high, gabled roofs, dormer windows and established English gardens
  • lit up from the inside
  • windows with drapery
  • quilts
  • rose bushes
  • log cabins in the woods
  • certain types of architecture such as exposed timber interiors and arched interior doorways
  • views from the tops of mountains into secluded valleys sheltering cosy little towns
  • outdoor seating with cushions brought out from inside for the occasion
  • falling down little sheds at the bottoms of gardens
  • interesting stairways
  • different patterns brought together but still in a matching kind of way, much like a kimono ensemble
  • manicured lawns
  • paths leading to front doors, often curved
  • canopy beds
  • treasures hidden in chests
  • lamps on stands

Lane Smith apparently lives in a house with ‘storybook charm’. Pictures here.

Naturalistic Animal Behaviour and Picturebooks

This week our local agricultural group sent an email containing the following information: Warning: Fox Attacks on Chickens

In the last few days, 9 chickens have been killed by foxes in Centre St and Daffodil St at 3 properties between 3am and 4am. The fox is able to climb fences 6m in height. Sid Drumstick lost his entire flock in one night. Chicken owners need to keep chickens fully secure overnight. (Names have been changed to protect the victims.)  

A Peacable Kingdom - illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen (1978)

  We have six chickens at our house, and have lost at least that number over the past year. Keeping them secure is quite a job — the coop needs to be locked as soon as dusk falls, which in these winter months is quite early.   But then, there’s the bonus of genuinely free range eggs. And chickens are good to keep with young kids. They encourage responsibility, and establish a connection between animals and food products, which is easy to overlook unless children grow up on farms.  

Perhaps because of her interest in chickens, our six-year-old daughter brought home a book from the school library called ‘Henny Penny’. Although the school library recently purchased new books for its library, this one is an old one, published in 1968. There is much humorous repetition, great for kids (though slightly tiresome to read!), and it’s a Chicken Little type of story in which an acorn falls on a chicken’s head, and she walks around the farm gathering up other kinds of fowl on her travels, on her way to tell the ‘king’. (The six-year-old wasn’t sure who the king was, thinking it may be the farmer, but this was never resolved.)  

Eventually the flock of fowl meet up with a fox, who offers the birds a short cut. Because of many other fairytales about cunning, wily foxes, suspense is set up.   Sure enough, the fox leads the birds straight to his cave.  

You may know this story as Chicken Licken or Chicken Little, which is based on an international folktale. But I’d somehow missed out on this tale, or had forgotten all about it, so when the birds were lured to the den I was all set for some great escape, in which the birds somehow outwit the fox. I expected this even though I’m a keeper of chickens myself, and know full well that foxes would never in anyone’s wildest dreams be outwitted by a hapless chicken — especially not one who was silly enough to be lead back to his lair.

“In they all went after Foxy Loxy,” the story reads, with an illustration of some hesitant chickens and a sly fox with its tongue hanging out.  

Overleaf: “From this day too this Turkey Lurkey, Goosey Loosely, Ducky Lucky, Cocky Locky, and Henny Penny have never been seen again. And the king has never been told the sky is falling.” Ah, what bliss! This is an Attenborough style of story, in which carnivorous animals actually eat the meat!   Finally:  


 I was interested to read some of the Amazon reviews:  

Unfortunately, the book has not aged as well as it might have. Illustrator Paul Galdone’s story is a bit dull for a while, and then it suddenly becomes a little shocking at the end.- I would NOT recommend this book! Children don’t need an ending where the animals are tricked and get eaten by the fox! I wish I could return it and get my money back!- It’s a classic! Very good lesson learned.

Henny Penny by Paul Galdone is not your modern PC story   

The following was from a teacher, who understands the point of the disappointing ending:  

Of course, children love to feel smart and they feel much smarter than Henny Penny, who thinks the sky is falling down!  Someone else sees relevance to today’s media-rich world:   – I have always liked Henny Penny as a good example of the foolishness of assuming that news broadcasts are accurate, which is an especially good lesson in today’s world.  

The same reviewer makes a further comment on the ending, which I’m not sure is a recommendation or a resignation. Either way, it’s a comment on how picturebooks seem to have changed over the past generation or so:

Henny Penny and her friends are eaten by Foxy Loxy and his family. In today’s world of fluffed up fairy tales, Henny Penny should probably be rewritten to have received some other consequence other than being barbequed.  

Have picturebook endings really become more sanitised, or are we just imagining it?

  Also this week, my daughter asked me to read a Little Golden Book called The Tawny Scrawny Lion. From what I can gather, this was one of the most popular Little Golden Books (and is ranked number 25 on a Goodreads List). In fact, it’s one of my friends’ favourites from childhood. She told me to re-read it, saying it explained everything about her. My friend is vegetarian, and although this story is not the only reason why my friend is vegetarian, this dietary outcome does speak to the power of children’s literature.   This is my own tawny scrawny copy from childhood:  


Although I remember the book itself, I didn’t remember the story. After reading it as an adult, I realise the plot makes no scientific sense whatsoever.

The Tawny Scrawny lion catches everything he chases, but can’t seem to put on weight. Apparently this is down to too much running. Do lions suffer from hypothyroidism or anything like that? I don’t know, but it makes no sense that evolution would favour such a creature. In nature, lions balance their energy expenditure nicely — that’s why they are as efficient as they are today. No matter. I only thought of this as an adult reader. I certainly gave it no consideration as a child.  

As you may remember, the lion meets some cute bunnies and the rabbits make the lion carrot stew. When the lion had gobbled all the stew, the rabbits heaped his bowl with berries. And so it continues, until the tawny scrawny lion realises that in fact he thrives on a pescatarian diet. As a consequence, he makes some wonderful new friends:  


  Not only that, but by eating carrots, berries, mushrooms and herbs (and also some fish, caught by the rabbit) the lion manages to look ‘fat as butter, sleek as satin and jolly as all get out’.  


  Which makes this true family entertainment.   Could a lion thrive on a high-vegetable diet supplemented by fish? Certainly not on fish caught by rabbits, which is why this story is a story, not a wildlife documentary.  

Back to my original point about sanitised endings: I now point out that this story was first published in 1952. By 1978 it was onto its tenth printing, according to this battered copy in front of me. In other words, this non-naturalistic ending belongs to the era of today’s grandparents, and actually predates Henny Penny by 18 years.

In fact, Henny Penny may well have been a satire of books such as the Tawny Scrawny Lion. If picturebooks have indeed become more sanitised, this is not a new phenomenon. When we speak of ‘PC modern stories’ we are surely talking about stories from the mid 20th century.  

The Contrast of Fairy and Folktales

Perhaps what we really mean when we say that picturebooks have become more gentle is in comparison to the most classic of fairytales such as those collected by Grimm and authored by Hans Christian Andersen. Seek out any of the original translations (or the originals if you are multilingual) and you’ll see the Disneyfication of storytelling, and particularly the endings. The Little Mermaid is a good example of an ending which has been changed to suit a modern audience.  

However, fairytales were never meant for children. Fairytales had a dual (multi) audience, and existed as cautionary tales for adults and adolescents. Since the concept of childhood is a fairly modern one, it’s likely children were also told these tales, but they were not specifically designed for kids.  

In that case, have picturebooks really become more sanitised? I would argue that no, they haven’t. Picturebooks are not an old artform, and have always been thus. And with every happy ending, you will always find a dark story as counterbalance: a Charlotte’s Web to Miss Spider’s Tea Party; a faithful rendition of Henny Penny for every Disney version of Chicken Little, in which “aliens return everything to normal (except Foxy Loxy, whose brain got scrambled, turning her into a Southern belle, and as a result, Runt falls for her), and everyone is grateful for Chicken Little’s efforts to save the town.”  

by Garth Williams
by Garth Williams
Lemon girl young adult novella


Ideology In Children’s Literature


Every novel, every painting, every work of art with meaning contains an ideology.

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell

I don’t think one ought to worry too much about corrupting children, so long as one’s books are honest. It has always seemed to me (and this may sound unduly inspirational) that what is honestly intended, and done as truthfully as the author is able to do it, cannot intrinsically be regarded as harmful. On the whole I am inclined to think that children will pass unharmed over what they do not understand. The objection to the heavy sex novel is not that it is going to corrupt them, but that it is going to bore them stiff — by elaborating on experiences that are beyond meaning for them.

John Rowe Townsend, British children’s writer and scholar

The certainty of story that allows a child to add it — with delight — to the category of ‘things that are so’, also lends to its content the slight implication that this is how things ought to be. We cannot be told ‘Once there was a prince’ without also being told (on some level and in some part) that it was right that there was a prince. What knits together out of nothing, and yet is solid enough to declare that it is so, recommends itself to us, although we don’t receive the recommendation straightforwardly. In this lies the power, and the danger, of stories.

Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

One of the fundamental changes in critical thinking and teaching over the past twenty years has been the acceptance that ideology is not a separate concept ‘carried by’ texts, but that all texts are inevitably infused by ideology. This has been particularly difficult to accept in the world of children’s literature, which is still widely assumed to be ‘innocent‘ of concerns of gender, race, power, and so on — or to carry transparently manipulative messages.

Peter Hunt

[P]olitical ideologies almost always work to distribute power unequally among people in a society and to justify that unequal distribution. Stories in which children question their parents’ authority usually end with the children finally accepting the need for that authority.

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

We believe some ideologies so deeply that we consider them Truth: such ideologies as “education can improve people’s lives” and “it’s better to be rich than poor” can be difficult for people brought up in capitalist societies to recognize as arguable positions.

But all adolescent novels are informed by such sociopolitical beliefs. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, infuses her own libertarian ideologies* into all of the Little House books, but most especially into the later books written for adolescents. Although in actuality the Ingalls family was closely connected to their neighbors during the historical season of blizzards depicted in The Long Winter (1940), Wilder portrays the fictionalised Ingalls family as living entirely isolated in self-sufficiency. Influenced by libertarianism, her ideological goal was to portray government intervention as both unnecessary and suspicious. William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1974), Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese (1977) and Virginia Hamilton’s The Gathering (1981) provide similar ideological critiques of government politics.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

*I feel it’s a bit easier for a non-American to see libertarian ideologies when they crop up. From my perspective here in Australia, Australians value equality, in contrast to North Americans, who seem to value freedom. Equality wasn’t originally written into the American constitution (for obvious reasons — slavery.) Though membership to a certain culture gives one kind of insight, sometimes it’s easier to spot ideology in stories from a slightly different culture.

In the same way, it’s easier to spot ideology in work from the past. The past is a different culture. You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of sitting down to watch a classic film — Gone With The Wind or The Long Hot Summer or even Friends from the early 2000s, and noticed how jokes once accepted and loved now seem hopelessly sexist, homophobic and racist. That’s exactly how future audiences will see the stories of today.

In order to understand…political ideologies…the reader has to understand at least two things: the historical context in which the story is set and the historical context in which it was written. The distinction is especially important for historical novels like The Long Winter, when the historical setting is significantly removed from the date of the novel’s publication.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

The following are notes from various places, notably from Episode 9 of the Kid You Not Podcast, and from the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephenswith extra insertions from me. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly is meant by ‘ideology’ and have come across words like ‘hegemonic’ without really understanding what the words mean, the Kid You Not podcast is a great way to spend 25 minutes. It’s clear and concise.

The current publication life of any given title can be very short and this can result in the fairly rapid silencing of work that challenges prevailing norms and values.

Charles Sarland, Understanding Children’s Literature

A large part of any book is written not by its author but by the world its author lives in.

Peter, Hollindale, Ideology and the Children’s Book, 1988

A writer’s own values are inevitably implicit in the text, seeming simply part of the texture of reality. The countless nineteenth-century children’s stories which restrict girls and women to limited domestic roles are products of their writers’ unexamined assumptions about gender, and they carry a powerful, though passive, ideological message. More generally, stories are the products of the time and the social group which gave rise to them, and the values of that time and that group will inform the language in which they are written.

Deconstructing The Hero, Marjery Hourihan, 1997


From a literary criticism perspective, all texts, especially fictional texts, are imbued with ideological content. This can refer to a system of values/beliefs/fears/world views, which are all linked to concepts of power. These values and beliefs will be distilled within language, whether through the words/images on the page or the words and images that are not there. [See: Where Are The People Of Colour In Picture Books?] Even picture books aimed at very young children can be ideologically charged. Sometimes ideology is hidden, because we’re bathed in it and therefore don’t even see it. “You’re soaking in it.”

No text, and therefore no children’s book, is devoid of ideology. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Ideology isn’t necessarily in reference to Nazi or communist propaganda. It might simply be an ideology of capitalism. While extremist groups have historically leaned on children’s literature to share their beliefs with impressionable audiences, but this is not what’s generally meant by ideology. Generally, ideology refers to children’s books at one end of the spectrum: Books designed to teach children something or deal with a specific problem.

Peter Hollingdale has written about the distinction between implicit and explicit ideology. He didn’t go so far as to explain that an explicit ideology can be communicated either directly or indirectly — but this is definitely the case. The difference between the two:

  • Novels with directly explicit ideologies go out of their way to explain certain views to the reader, in case the reader doesn’t pick it up.
  • Novels with INdirectly explicit ideologies trust that the reader has enough prior knowledge to pick up the messages in the book.

I suppose win everything I write am making some sort of statement, but I don’t know just what the statement is. Which I can’t say I feel guilty about. If you can say exactly what you meant by a story, then why not just say it in so many words? Why go to all the fuss and feathers of making up a plot and characters? You say it that way, because it’s the only way you can say it.

Ursula Le Guin, The Last Interview

Ideology is a Partnership Between Storyteller and Reader

Do folks get gender views from the Bible? Or do they read the Bible w/their gender views? In experiments, @icecreamsoc and I find mostly the latter. We found unless content was drastically modified, Bible readers interpreted ideologically, not inductively.

@socofthesacred 10:19am · 30 Jul 2021

Ideology and Didacticism: They Are Different

Some writers will tell you that books with direct and explicit ideologies are out of fashion, described as moralistic. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

You’ll still see examples of direct and explicit ideology coming out of the mouths of first person young adult narrators. An example is the mini-lecture by the young adult narrator of Am I Normal Yet? in which she describes the problematic language around casual use of words like ‘OCD’ thrown around in everyday discourse. If this had come out of an adult, then it would have sounded didactic. But coming out of a ‘peer’, it sounds persuasive.

Not every book has an explicit ideology. But every single story has an implicit one, and it is this kind of book which tends to be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology, precisely because it is invisible. The implication: that things are simply ‘so’.

The more covert the social practice in narrative, the more a text demands a reader who knows how to interpret a fiction. This demand is itself an ideological assumption.

Ideological Expectations of Genre

Different categories of stories tend to have common ideologies. For example, in the mouse tale it’s common to find the idea that ‘When mice become too reliant upon human technology, this leads to the downfall of their own society.’ Is this saying something about isolated, ‘primitive’ human cultures and what happens to them when they rub up against technologically advanced civilisation?

What viewers will take away from Disney’s Aladdin:

  1. Arabs are a desert people.
  2. The peoples, and states, of the Middle East have been more or less at war for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
  3. Good guys have light skin and speak English without accents.
  4. Bad guys have beards and large, bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and wield swords constantly.


Most people in the [Arabian] Peninsula are not nomads, but are either agricultural labourers (Yemen, Oman) or inhabitants of the eight or so major maritime and cosmopolitan cities that mark the coast of the Peninsula, from Kuwait City in the northeast via Manama, Dubai, Muscat, Mukalla, Aden and Hodeida to Jeddah in the southeast.

In modern times the Middle East has been no more riven by war than other parts of the world such as Africa and East Asia, and, in the past century, much less than its neighbouring continent to the northeast, Europe. For all the wars between the Ottomans and Safavids (later Qajars), the two empires coexisted reasonably well for four centuries (1500-1914). In the period since 1945 there have been five Arab-Israeli wars but these, while catastrophic for the Palestinians, have been confined in time and space. Only the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-8 escaped external and regional state control and involved, by modern standards, high levels of casualties. Peoples of the Middle East have historically been busy doing things other than warring, like inventing algebra for instance.

Good guys can look like anyone. Bad guys can look like anyone.

— above information from World History Connected

Implicit messages in The Lion King:

  1. The West is the font of all notions of equality and democracy.
  2. African societies are tyrannical and hierarchical.
  3. African cultures are warlike.

— again explained by John Murnane at World History Connected


Jan Needle

Fiercely and consciously political, overtly using his narratives to confront abuse of power, sexism, racism, economic exploitation and social neglect.

Diana Wynne Jones

‘a very intelligent writer of absorbing fantasises, [who] appears to have been consistently unaware for most of her career that her depiction of women already socialized into conventional female roles is pervasively sexist (and to some extent classist).’ – John Stephens.

Jacqueline Wilson

Being a sister isn’t always easy . . . but what’s the very worst thing about your sister?

Marty and her sister Melissa couldn’t be more different. Marty loves her Converse trainers, playing football, hiding in her secret den and helping her dad with his DIY. But Melissa loves Justin Bieber and all things pink, girly and pretty.

The sisters can manage to live together, despite their occasional scraps but then Mum tells them they have to share a room. For Marty, having to share her bunk beds and lose her private sanctuary turns out to be the very worst thing about having a sister. But the girls soon discover that being too close for comfort can have unexpected consequences, and when an accident happens, the sisters realise they are closer than they thought.

The premise behind this [pink!] cover is that you should love your family and sister. This is accepted throughout the world. But actually lots of people don’t love their own family members.

Children’s books in general are permeated with the idea that families are not perfect but they are still your family. Children’s literature promotes very strong attachment to a child’s family that makes it almost impossible for any young reader to be presented with stories about pure family hatred. This is probably why children’s books very often use other figures to stand in for real family members, to allow that expression of hatred to exist in fiction. [Stepmothers.]

Take any book, for example a Mr Men book by Roger Hargreaves, and you’ll often find the same type of cultural characteristics: Simply drawn houses that look like country houses, people who wear a bowler hat/tie, women who are called ‘Little Miss’ and not ‘Mrs’. The hegemonic ideology of the Mr Men books is very Western, very middle-class.

The male characters seem to be grown-ups. The Little Miss characters seem not to be, in general.

Secondly look at the way positive and negative characteristics are constructed. Some are common, so you have Little Miss Chatterbox as well as Mr Chatterbox, and Little Miss Greedy as well as Mr Greedy.

You have Little Miss Bossy, Little Miss Fickle, Little Miss Brainy, Little Miss Contrary, Little Miss Dotty, Little Miss Giggles, Little Miss Princess, etc etc. These are quite gender specific.  There’s no Mr Brainy, but there is Mr Clever. Note the difference.

Thirdly, some of the Mr Men embody *activity* -Mr Bump, Mr Tickle. They *do* things, and what they do defines them for the purpose of the book. There are few female equivalents — almost all are abstract personality factors.

Stereotypes and Children’s Books, at FTB

Somebody has written reviews on Amazon for the Mr Men series as if these simple-minded picturebooks were high literature. They’re brilliant.

See also: Mr Messy, the original video

[I am no fan of the Mr Men franchise, and although I’ve kept most of my own childhood books to pass onto and read to my daughter, I did hiff those ones out.]


Picture books can exist purely for fun, but can never exist without either a socializing or educational intention, ‘or else without a specific orientation towards the reality constructed by the society that produces them.’

As all texts contain ideologies, so do all pictures, since we ‘read’ those too.

A lot of picture books have a story which is told by an unseen narrator. This unseen narrator has an air of authority, precisely because they are unseen. Implicit authorial control is a characteristic marker of the discourse of children’s fiction.

Pictures do offer the reader at least a representation of what is being described. The audience uses both text and pictures to create a story, and has no scope to find a dissenting opinion when the text lines up with the picture.


Some writers are aware of their own views and create children’s books deliberately in contrast to those views.

The key, perhaps, is a certain detachment: Tan’s books are political but not polemical, and the reader never feels lectured. “I’m quite fond of illustrating stories with an ideology I don’t agree with, or illustrating parts of history that offend me slightly — and doing that almost impassively, without adding judgment,” he says. “I try to divest my work of those attachments.” With The Arrival, for example, he approached the charged issue of immigration by focusing on the human detail. “The path I chose was just to tell a story of settlement. It’s quite an intimate book — I was interested in the problems of getting something to eat, getting a job, these sorts of things.” The fantasy followed from that premise: “We need to be confused and perplexed, and we need things to look like things we know but be very different — like animals and trees and systems for getting a bus ticket and so on.”

from an article on the work of Shaun Tan in the Financial Times

Does Shaun Tan succeed in his impassivity? That’s another question. I suggest it’s slightly easier to be impassive when creating simple works of fantasy — harder when writing realistic contemporary fiction, in which case it’s impossible not to come down on one side or another.


When the reader already believes something because it’s part of their own society, then we say that the ideology is ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’. The readers don’t even notice that it’s there.

If there are certain people who will argue that ‘This Is The Way It Is’, then this is the very definition of hegemonic ideology: Girls like pink because this is the way it is.

Take Harry Potter as an example of transparent ideology. Because this series is so very popular, thinkers and academics have looked hard at its ideologies. Harry Potter is no more ideological than anything else, but take the following from Toby Young writing for The Spectator. Young does a good job of summing up the politics of J.K. Rowling — politics which are transparent/invisible to most readers, and certainly to most young readers:

On the face of it, there is nothing complicated about the politics of Harry Potter, who made his first appearance in The Philosopher’s Stone 20 years ago. Like his creator J.K. Rowling, who once gave £1 million to the Labour party, he is a left-wing paternalist in the Bloomsbury tradition — the love child of John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He feels a protective duty towards the common man (‘muggles’ in the lexicon of the novels) and a loathing for suburban, lower-middle-class Tories like the Dursleys, his Daily Mail-reading foster parents. The arch-villain of the saga is Voldemort, a charismatic Übermensch who believes in purity and strength and in the final novel promotes his own version of the Nuremberg Laws through the Ministry of Magic. Indeed, the books are shot through with the mythology of the second world war and its aftermath, linking the struggle against fascism to the emergence of a socialist New Jerusalem.

But look more closely and something stranger hoves into view. What is Hogwarts, after all, but an idealised version of an English public school, with its houses, quadrangles and eccentric schoolteachers? As George Orwell points out in ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, his 1940 essay in which he tries to understand why millions of children find stories set in boarding schools so spellbinding, the ‘snob appeal’ of this milieu is ‘absolutely shameless’. ‘The heroic characters all have to talk BBC,’ he observes, something that is equally true of the Potter novels.

The Spectator


1. The dominant ideology

How to tell if an ideology is dominant (or hegemonic)? It’s unquestioned. We don’t notice it’s there. We would question it if it wasn’t there. But when it’s there, we don’t notice it. This is a ‘transparent’ kind of ideology.

Since the 1960s (in particular) some effort has been made in Britain and the USA to publish children’s books which would have us assume the world is white, male and middle class. Other assumptions have yet to be much challenged: That the world is heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, monoamorous, amatonormative, cis-gender and so on. And progress has not been a straight line, either; books on African American themes have been decreasing since the early 1970s in the USA as a total proportion of the the book market. Other countries aren’t doing much better.

Examples of dominant ideology

A dominant ideology can look invisible, but is more obvious to modern readers when opening a classic book from yesteryear. One way a book can sound patronising to certain subcultures is by rendering non-standard English in dialogue, especially when reverting to standard English from the unseen narrator. This implies that there is a correct way of speaking versus the characters’ way of speaking. But when a book is written entirely in, say, Black English, this tells the readers that Black English is a legitimate form of communication. Books for children of yesteryear quite often rendered non-standard dialects within speech marks, but reverted to a certain, hi-falutin kind of English for the rest of the story. This is no longer common. Today, ‘voice’ is important when writers seek publication, and voice can sound more unique if other voices are employed as part of the narration.

2. The alternative, subversive ideology
My favourite line from the movie Whip It
My favourite line from the movie Whip It

Sometimes an alternative ideology is deployed within a story with a dominant ideology, managing to subvert reader expectations.

Examples of subversive ideologies [from me]:

  • Marjery Hourihan (Deconstructing The Hero) offers some favourite examples of stories which successfully subvert the traditional heroic tale.
  • Margo Lanagan’s The Best Thing is a story of teenage pregnancy which is not an outright disaster for the young mother, unlike hegemonic ideas about young mothers and their unhappiness.
  • The Hunger Games may be subversive in that young people are killed by other young people, though you could argue that this is only subversive when compared to stories from the past few hundred years. Tales of war and fighting go way back.

Definitions of  ‘subversive’ will vary enormously according to era and culture. A subversive story in America may seem very mainstream in France and vice versa. These are completely subjective because they depend so much on what’s considered dominant.


This categorisation comes from a paper by Peter Hollindale, 1988: Ideology And The Children’s Book.

When an author hasn’t consciously conveyed a particular ideology, then theirs is a passive ideology. Almost no attention has been paid to this aspect of children’s literature. JS speculates that this is because it overlaps with the issue of ‘the implied reader’, and we’ve all been more concerned about that.

The work of Enid Blyton is infused with the author’s own assumptions about white, middle-class English children. Blyton’s ideologies were almost certainly passive. Passive ideologies are characterized by ‘this is how it is’. It’s worth noting that children’s literature is characterised as being overwhelmingly conservative. Kidlit tends to replicate the conditions of its creation. British publishing tends to be conservative in values. [As is the American publishing industry, especially around sex. 50 Shades of Gray was picked up first by an Australian small press, presumably because the author couldn’t find an American one who would touch it.]

When an author actively attempts to subvert and transgress conventional, dominant ideologies, then this is an active ideology. C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia with the intention of transmitting a Christian ideology to his readers. [Likewise, Philip Pullman wrote His Dark Materials trilogy with the intention of undoing what C.S. Lewis had started.]


The ideology of a children’s book acculturates the child reader, no matter whether its ideologies are passive, active, alternative or hegemonic. Because of that, the child will be influenced. There is a stark imbalance between the creator and the addressee of a children’s book. The adult creator, with a longer experience of processing and of being exposed to various ideologies, is in a position of authority.

If you’re a writer you’ll be familiar with the different types of point of view: first person, unreliable first person, (close) third-person, omniscient etc. There’s another way of breaking down point of view when discussing ideology:

Perceptual Point Of View — Who sees?

Phenomena such as objects, events,. people, landscape etc. within the world of the story are focalized by some perceiving agent (the focalizer). There can be a lot of switching between narrator focalization and character focalization, and between various characters. But in children’s literature it is unusual to find narratives extensively focalized by more than a narrator plus, say, one main character. (Stephens uses the word ‘focalization’, but I have also heard ‘close third person’. In this subset of third-person narration, the audience is encouraged to identify closely with the character we know the most about.)

Conceptual Point Of View — Who interprets what is seen?

Conceptual point of view comprises all intratextual acts of interpretation of all kinds. This works a bit differently in novels than in picture books, though the overall effect is the same. Sometimes in children’s literature, if you look closely, you’ll see adult words coming out of the mouths and minds of young characters. Sometimes, a conceptual point of view even comes through in the inquit-tags (also called speech tags or dialogue tags) such as ‘he said,’ ‘she demanded’. For example, the inquit-tag ‘declared’ almost invariably has a pejorative association in children’s books, marking an utterance as opinionated or wrong.


A feminist book such as Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants tries to promote a counter-hegemonic reading of marriage and being a girl. [As does Frozen, the wildly popular Pixar movie.] For more examples from the wider culture and cinema, many people don’t realise that princesses and pink are not actually an intrinsic part of girlhood — that little girls have been acculturated into identifying with these things.

[For more on Babette Cole’s so-called feminist book, see: inversion is not the same as subversion.]


A number of books have been banned by various organisations because of the ideas they transmit. Often these books are banned because they have been completely misread, not because they’re introducing subversive ideology at all.

According to many critics, who do actually understand the banned books, it is not books that promote certain ways of life/beliefs/values that are dangerous. The most dangerous books are those that normalise certain ways of life without encouraging readers to question.

By the way, subject matter has nothing to do with ideology. There are a lot of books which people call ‘sooo radical’ which are nothing of the sort. The reason they seem radical is because of sexual/violent/drug content. In fact, the inclusion of ‘edgy content’ does not necessarily subvert any hegemonic ideology. For example, a book which contains drugs in young adult literature will most often convey the idea that Drugs Are Very Bad, No Question, which is actually not a subversion of dominant thinking at all.

You’ll find a number of children’s books that feature rainbow parenting — an actively ideological sort of story — will nevertheless rely on hegemonic ideologies about relationships in general. For example, the homosexual parents will be monogamous, not too far removed from the nuclear family of the 1950s. [This is probably to do with the fact that cultural change happens one step at a time, and the publisher wants to sell some copies.]

Likewise, you can have an incredibly radical story in something that is at first glance very mainstream.


Children’s books are often used to comfort a child, or to make an event in their lives more understandable. It’s impossible to have a truly radical book which gets rid of all norms. Norms are what you anchor your reflection in. If you had a text which had a completely new ideology, new values, new social order, you’re actually going to be alienated from the story altogether. The most effective books strike a balance between the normativity of hegemonic ideals and the new ideas presented within the text.


A society which has book awards is a society that chooses which ideas it wants to promote via texts. A book award is a strong ideological decision because it validates certain reinforcements of The Ideology. Shaun Tan won the Astrid Lindgren award, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for children’s literature. Shaun Tan writes about experiences of immigration and integration. He has a steampunk take on the world, with a strong political comment on the world. We see in his work something we want to see in society. The branch of children’s literature which is involved in dishing out the awards tends to be quite left wing in values, though the popular commercial fiction is more on the right-wing side.

On the other hand, Waterstones (with its strong financial motivations) finances the Children’s Laureate, rewards authors such as Julia Donaldson, whose work is very mainstream, very successful financially and less challenging to children. Empirical studies show that children tend to prefer more sophisticated pieces of work (like Tan’s), just like adults do, so Waterstones is an interesting study in contrast.


Best-selling books for children tend to conform to a capitalist, consumerist, liberal, democratic, humanist ideology, seen as benign and benevolent, but at the same time, is not transgressive. Julia Donaldson has no political message, and conforms to dominant ideas about parenting and teaching etc. Her books can therefore become best sellers. However, they certainly contain ideologies.

Take Zog, widely hailed as a feminist triumph, as it stars a girl who saves a boy. This is an excellent example of inversion without subversion.

The following summary of Zog describes exactly how ‘girl heroes saving boys’ is Female Maturity Formula rebranded:

Zog is an accident prone dragon failing in his training but he gets by with help from a mysterious girl. When he has to take on the hardest task at Dragon School — capturing a princess — she’s on hand to save the day again.

The Gender Agenda: A First-Hand Account of How Girls and Boys Are Treated Differently by James Millar and Ros Ball

Even in their own summary of the book, the authors of The Gender Agenda failed to notice that the girl is not the star of the story. She is the hero and saviour, but also the more mature and sensible helper. She is a blow-in saviour trope, coming to the rescue whenever Zog  injures himself in his quest to become a fearsome dragon. The story is a spoof on the classic ‘girl princess saved by a knight from the scary dragon’ story which is why, at first glance, it looks like a feminist triumph. However, a closer look positions the girl character in the same old, same old sexist stereotype of mature little arbitrator. The scene in which Princess Pearl stands between the dragon and the knight, breaking up their fight, is staged as a female character between two warring male characters, telling them off for fighting. Not only are girls good little nurses (to male characters) but they’re also useful when it comes to breaking up fights (between male characters).

See also my analysis of Zog, a picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.


Semiotic and post-structural literary academics have exposed this:

All writing exists in a larger world of writing, of intertextuality. The implications of such a context for the reading of literature are exciting to some — a promise of interpretive freedom — but discouraging to others, since interpretations of particular works can never be more than provisional, always contingent upon a wider horizon of writing. The meaning of a work cannot be found within its own boundaries.

Confession and Complicity in Narrative by Dennis A. Foster

Standing alone, Zog is not an overtly sexist story. Its ideology only becomes apparent once considered within the corpus of children’s stories and the a history of real world misogyny.


The Trouble With Normal: Trans youth and the desire for normalcy as reflected in young adult literature, a paper by Robert Bittner

All writing is political. To assert that it’s not is political. If your politics is mainstream, it’s invisible. If it’s on the fringe and based on what you referred to earlier as the politics of difference, then it’s ‘visible’ and suddenly political, and ‘aesthetics’ – which are also political! – can suddenly be compromised.”

Selina Tusitala Marsh (speaking to Witi Ihimaera)

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. . . This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement.

from Susan Sontag’s “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning”
Lemon girl young adult novella


The Study Of Film Equals The Study Of Picturebooks

In juxtaposing a series of pictures in order to imply the sequence of a story, picture-book artists act much as filmmakers do. Andre Bazin [film critic] suggests that montage, assumed by many to be the essence of film art, is “the creation of a sense of meaning not proper to the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition”. In films, the arrangement of a succession of shots provides the events depicted with their significance; not surprisingly, filmmakers often prepare themselves for shooting by using storyboards, sequential drawings of the various shots they intend to make of the scenes they will film that look much like picture books.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Continue reading “The Study Of Film Equals The Study Of Picturebooks”