We love stories of excess. examples of excess and visual hyperbole can be seen all across children’s literature. Literally any item can be turned into a visual gag by creating a large number of it.
In the example below it is mittens.Continue reading “Excess, Hyperbole and Pestilence In Illustration”
The Poky Little Puppy is a classic Little Golden Book by Texas writer Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustav Tenngren. This story was one of the first 12 Little Golden Books, first published in 1942, a big year in general for the world. Parents were wanting something light and playful for themselves and for their children, no doubt. 40 years later, The Poky Little Puppy was one of my favourite books as a preschooler and when I told my mother this, she said it had been my Auntie Sue’s absolute favourite as well. Fast forward another 30 years and my own kid loved it.
What I’d like to know is this: Can we put into words what makes The Poky Little Puppy such a popular picture book, so enduring it spans at least three generations (so far)? I know we’re not the only family this applies to; The Poky Little Puppy is the tentpole Little Golden Book which helps to sell other (also popular) Little Golden Books:
The Poky Little Puppy itself is a descendent of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, whichin turn is a descendent of 3000 years of mythic adventures starring (mainly) boys embarking upon adventures then returning home changed. The Poky Little Puppy is the cosy equivalent, for preschoolers, with no real opposition. As we shall see, any potential scariness of this adventure has been stripped away.
Although I won’t get into the language aspects here, The Poky Little Puppy is, above everything, a beautiful thing to read aloud. You can’t not read it in a kind of sing-song voice pitched at preschoolers. The text also contain parts which are likely to become catch phrases, used outside the reading of this book:
- I smell something!
- roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble
- mother was greatly displeased
Below are examples of blue and red in art and illustration. I call this the Phantom Tollbooth palette because the blue of the original Phantom Tollbooth cover is distinctive. When the cover was modernised, a beautiful red was added. This teal blue plus red works especially well, I think.Continue reading “Red and Blue Palette in Illustration”
We know when something is creepy. But how to define it?
On The Nature of Creepiness is a study by McAndrew and Koehnke, who realised there had never been an empirical study on what humans find creepy. The results were ‘consistent with the hypothesis that being “creeped out” is an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty’.
Being ‘creeped out’ is sometimes associated with the physiological reaction of feeling ‘cold or chilly’, which makes me think of ghost lore. According to many folk beliefs, ghosts bring coldness with them. But the sensation of feeling chilly also happens when we feel socially exclusded, so feeling that coldness is part of a more generalised defence mechanism.
THE CREEPIEST OCCUPATIONS
Four occupations were considered far creepier than others:
- Clowns ― see this post for why, exactly, we probably find clowns creepy (it’s the smile and the mask)
- Taxidermists ― because of their proximity to death, and their apparent fascination with it
- Sex shop owners ― their apparent fascination and proximity to sex
- Funeral directors ― because of their proximity to death, making them the embodiment of The Grim Reaper (Where there is death, there are funeral directors, after all.)
Many storytellers have been utilising the creepiness of these jobs in their narrative, sometimes subverting audience expectations by humanising people with creepy jobs, other times using them straight outta the box.
- The clown from Stephen King’s IT (one of many creepy clowns across storytelling).
- Angela from Six Feet Under, who has every creepiness factor except being male
- Arthur from Six Feet Under, whose ambiguous sexual orientation becomes fodder for speculation in one episode in particular, resulting in Arthur being falsely accused of sending feces to the Fishers.
- Barry from Dinner For Schmucks:
Barry ― who seems to lack an internal filter, and who spends his off hours building lovingly detailed dioramas featuring taxidermied rodents ― inadvertently turns the tables on the assembled guests.
Both Roach and Carell joined Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies for a discussion about the film, loosely adapted from the 1998 French comedy Le Diner de Cons. In that film, the idiot character creates elaborate designs out of matchsticks; Roach says he made a conscious decision to change Carell’s obsession to express who he is a bit more.
“There’s a little hint of something sad underneath, and the [stuffed] mice become a way for him to express this optimistic view of life,” he says. “And that’s what made it seem like a kind of creepy-funny thing at first, and then these layers unfold.”Dinner for Schmucks, NPR
CREEPINESS IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS
Storytellers and illustrators of children’s books can make deliberate use of the creepiness factor to create a frisson of suspense or joyful terror in young readers.
Below is the artwork of an illustrator whose work I grew up with. The Grahame Johnstone sisters were very good at creating creepy villains.
They did this by making use of features which have since been listed in the creepiness study above. Which of the following can you see?
- standing too close
- greasy hair
- peculiar smile
- bulging eyes
- long fingers
- unkempt hair
- very pale skin
- bags under their eyes
- dressed oddly
- licked their lips frequently
- dirty clothes
- laughed at unpredictable times
- made it near impossible for someone to leave without being rude
- relentlessly steers conversation toward one topic
The greenness of her skin affords an extra level of creepiness which is available in fantasy but not seen in real life. We can deduce that if green-skinned people existed in real life, we could add that to the list of creepy.
CREEPINESS CHANGES OVER TIME
When you spend a lot of time looking at illustrations from the first and second Golden Ages of children’s literature, you realise that our idea of ‘creepiness’ must have changed.
As one example, let’s take a look at Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, written by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, published in 1962. This is an especially interesting example as it won a Caldecott Honor Medal. This book was fully accepted by audiences at the time.
Now take a look at contemporary consumer reviews of this picture book on Goodreads. The first thing you notice is how many people find the large rabbit creepy.
He’s either imaginary, or been exposed to a radioactive carrot. Either way, I see this kid spending her adolescence in therapy.CONSUMER REVIEW
Some readers find the rabbit less creepy once they code him as imaginary.
I wanted to like this story but it always felt a little squicky to me. Then I read the intelligent comments of my friend …. And, among other praises and analyses, she pointed out that Mr. Rabbit may be an imaginary friend.
Well that makes so much sense to me now that I actually do feel comfortable loving the story now!CONSUMER REVIEW
Others had no trouble realising the rabbit is imaginary:
I do really like the aspect of the rabbit being bigger than the girl, making it clear that he is an imaginary helper.CONSUMER REVIEW
The following reader made a great job of cataloguing exactly why she finds the large rabbit creepy:
I found Mr. Rabbit verging on creepy. Walking on two legs, wearing no clothes, suggesting to the little girl that she buy her mother red underwear, leaning on the little girl presumptuously – violating her personal space – There’s another picture where Mr. Rabbit sits atop a fence and looks at the reader with an expression that seems to say, “Get me out of this picture book.” And in another, he lounges inappropriately on the forest floor, stretched out almost like a courtesan in a nineteenth century painting, his paw touching the little girl’s skirt. It doesn’t help that the contours of his body are those of a middle-aged man growing a beer belly.CONSUMER REVIEW
- Ambiguity: Is this a man or is it a rabbit?
- (For some readers: Is this a real rabbit or is it imaginary?)
- Standing too close
- An age difference
- He is male (therefore statistically more likely to be a sexual predator)
But what did 1960s audiences think of this book? Looking at other examples of 20th century children’s stories, elongated limbs of animal characters (ie. children with human heads) were common. I haven’t seen these proportions on animal characters in contemporary children’s books:
There was far less awareness of predatory adult behaviour in the 1960s. We know this. Changes in attitudes, sadly, track directly with men leaving primary teaching positions. By the end of the 1980s, the book buying public had started to think quite differently about stories in which grown men hang out with ‘little girls’. (The word ‘little girl’ is used to refer to the child character in Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present.)
Or perhaps something else is at play. Perhaps readers in the 1960s were less likely to ascribe any gender at all to a fantasy rabbit? If Mr Rabbit is in fact agender, that would remove one of the known creepiness factors. As a corollary, commentators will quite often say that Winnie-the-Pooh is agender.
I don’t entirely buy this. Children, for sure, absorb gender markers such as the word ‘Mr’ when decoding a text or a situation. This has been studied in educational settings, and even applies to so-called ‘universal he’. (Girls don’t think ‘he’ includes girls.)
INTERROGATING OUR OWN CREEPINESS RESPONSE
When we consider the creepiness of ‘standing too close’ I’m reminded of how British people mostly have a much smaller personal distance than Australians and New Zealanders. Yet this is a cultural difference, and we should code it as such.
When I think of people who ‘relentlessly steer conversation toward one topic’ I think of certain neurodiverse individuals, their disabilities around pragmatics and the joy they derive from deep and special interests. When it comes to hobbies, hobbies which involve collecting things are seen as creepy. (And more creepy still when the item collected is related to death or sex in some way. Collecting dolls is also widely considered creepy.) Neurodiverse people with special interests often collect items related to that special interest.
Watching something as a hobby is also considered creepy, including bird watching.
Should we really consider such hobbies creepy? Bird watching harms no one.
In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker encourages us all to trust our instincts when assessing potentially dangerous people. He’s not wrong about that, and I’ve recommended his book to many people.
“intuition is always right in at least two important ways;Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
It is always in response to something.
it always has your best interest at heart”
“Only human beings can look directly at something, have all the information they need to make an accurate prediction, perhaps even momentarily make the accurate prediction, and then say that it isn’t so.”Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
At the same time, our assessment of ‘creepy’ has been shaped by our exposure to narrative (cultural and in fiction), and also by our own prejudices and lack of awareness of different cultures and neurodiversity.
Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining why young people are more likely to be creeped out than older people, who have seen a broader range of individuals, and are therefore more likely to sense the main factor behind creepiness: ‘ambiguity’.
CREEPINESS AND ASYMMETRY
When artwork is nowhere near symmetrical and we don’t expect symmetry, that’s not creepy. Perfect symmetry is also not creepy. But once the artwork approaches symmetry then messes with it a little, now the viewer is plunged into an uncanny valley of symmetry: We espect symmetry, but don’t get it.
The illustration below by David Hockney is the perfect example of creepy asymmetry.
Does the following creep you out and if not, why the hell not? What happened to you?
Also: What makes it creepy? Be specific.
Ward created a long series of ads featuring Elsie the Cow and her family. Elsie was seen in advertising campaigns for over 30 years, but she was never able to make the transition to television. (I wonder why.)
She was created in 1936, when the dairy industry saw highly-publicised price wars between farmers and dairy processors that caused larger dairies to be portrayed unfavorably. (Walter Early drew the first Elsie the Cow cartoon, which makes his name aptronymic.) The company first started advertising in medical journals, which featured a variety of cartoon cows with several different names, including Mrs. Blossom, Bessie, Clara and Elsie. A typical ad showed a cow and calf talking in a milk barn.
Except for the rare promotional appearance, she was retired in the late 1960s. However, Borden’s kept her image on their products. Over the following years she went through a few changes, arguably becoming creepier and creepier. This cow could already talk, but she was subsequently given the ability to stand upright. Eventually she became a creepy admixture of cow and housewife.
Header illustration: “Two Dancing Fools” by Hendrick Hondius (I), after Pieter Bruegel (I), 1642. The image reminds me of illustrations of the Wild Things by Maurice Sendak. Sure, they’re fools and they’re only dancing, but they are also very creepy.
You are probably familiar with the classic storybook world: the cosy home with its 1950s technology, the suburban safety, the two-storeyed dream house and the neighbours who know each other, the neighbourhood school, the big yellow school bus… The white, heteronormative, amatonormative households.
WHAT IS AMATONORMATIVITY?Continue reading “Amatonormativity and Children’s Stories”
Watch enough TV and you’ll likely draw the conclusion that women, especially housewives with significant personal problems commonly relieve psychological pain by shoplifting. It’s rare to find men shoplifting for the buzz. Also in fiction, teenage girls shoplift as a hazing ritual, and to own prized items (mostly body adornment items) they couldn’t otherwise afford.
How does this compare to real life stats on shoplifters? Shoplifting is not gendered in the way of fictional tropes. There’s a strong link between shoplifting, anxiety and addiction. When it comes to kleptomania, two thirds are women. For a similar buzz, men are more likely to turn to gambling than shoplifting. Both gambling and shoplifting are impulse control disorders.
Nor is shoplifting a crime of young people. However, most adults who shoplift probably started in their teens.
Shopping itself is a heavily gendered activity. Men spend just as much money as women do in shops, but because the job of shopping (groceries, clothing etc.) is the job of the person running the household, it is mostly women we associate with shopping. Men are doing less shopping work, but when they do shop, they buy big, expensive items (computers, cars etc.)
Real life examples of shopping and shoplifting aside, I’ll take a closer look at how women shoplifting is used in popular storytelling to advance the plot, or to convey something to the audience about character. In all three examples below, the women and girls are shoplifting body adornment items. Shoplifting scenes in which characters steal necessary items in order to survive are a different thing entirely. That kind of shoplifting exists at a different spot on the morality spectrum.
CASE STUDY ONE: MARIE IN BREAKING BAD
In the clip below, we learn that Hank’s wife Marie is a shoplifter. She impulse steals a pair of sparkly purple shoes. (Marie is strongly associated with the colour purple throughout the show.)
Later, Marie will shoplift a princess crown for Skyler’s new baby, and also a spoon from an open home. Marie is very clearly trying out a new identity.
One problem experienced by the writers of Breaking Bad: An astonishingly small cast of characters. Take almost any other series running the same number of seasons and you’ll find the writers have many more characters whose arcs they can explore. I feel that Marie’s strange shoplifting arc was a strange and unnecessary addition, when the writers already faced a woman problem.
That said, Marie’s shoplifting subplot does mirror the ‘other self’ of Walter White. Both Walt and Marie are objectively good at being a spouse. They both feel confined by the house (or their spouse). Hank is a cranky husband who requires Marie to walk on egg-shells around him. This slightly menacing aspect of Hank is emphasised during Marie’s shoplifting scene, in which Marie calls Hank as Hank barks instructions at some men he and his partner have just arrested.
Marie’s anxiety about Walt Junior’s smoking of pot comes across as busy-body interference, and juxtaposes against Hank’s drug bust for its snigger-inducing inconsequence. “What, you want me to tell him about marijuana overdoses?” Hank says dismissively before pacifying his wife.
It is fitting that Marie shoplifts impractical but beautiful high heels, leaving behind her flat, sensible work shoes. The adornments of women are commonly positioned as frivolous (at best) and actively deceptive (at worst).
CASE STUDY TWO: RUTH IN SIX FEET UNDER
In “The Eye Inside” episode of Six Feet Under (Season Three, 2013) Ruth Fisher meets Bettina, who is helping Ruth’s hippie sister Sarah to detox from a Vicodin addiction. Suddenly free from the strictures of ladyfriend and mother, Ruth is now in a world entirely different from her usual one. She even tells Bettina she has never been brave enough to sit in a hammock before.
While the sister remains tied up in bed to scream and detox in “peace” (a moment of dark humour), Bettina accompanies Ruth shopping and tries to persuade Ruth to update her wardrobe. Ruth is initially shocked to witness Bettina yank the price off a branded scarf and tuck it discreetly into her handbag.
Bettina explains to Ruth that the wonderful advantage of turning into a middle aged (white) woman is that you are now completely invisible, including invisible to law enforcement. This follows on from the juxtaposition of Sarah explaining in pathetically unfeminist terms that she got hooked on Vicodin because of the tragedy of losing her youth and beauty. Bettina has decided to embrace the advantages of invisibility.
Initially shocked, by the end of the shopping expedition, Bettina has successfully persuaded Ruth to join her in crime. Together, Bettina and Ruth steal Ruth a red lipstick.
The lipstick is called ‘Flirtation’ and, very similar to the purple, sparkly shoes stolen by Marie in Breaking Bad, is a symbol of youthful feminine sexuality. These middle aged women are symbolically ‘stealing’ back some of their youthful vibrance. They steal because they are invisible, but they steal the very items which, we deduce, aim to make them visible again.
In Six Feet Under, the death at the beginning of each episode will link to the character growth in one or more of the Fishers (and their extended families). In “The Eye Inside”, Ruth’s shoplifting arc opens with the death of Callie Renee Morimer, who flees a group of jeering young men calling to her as she walks alone in the dark. The young men turn out to be a group of joking friends, but Callie is struck down by a speeding vehicle. In their eulogy, the young men reveal they have never considered before that a friend, so brave in other ways, could also be so scared of men in the dark. This 2003 episode preceded the #metoo movement. This would have been a revelation to much of the audience, conveying a feminist message akin to Bettina’s.
The dead girl of this episode was unpleasantly invisible in the darkness, and also completely invisible; her invisibility led directly to her death. As Bettina successfully convinces Ruth, invisibility is useful, but also a kind of death.
Meanwhile, in a thematically mirrored plot involving David and Keith, David worries about seeming too visibly gay in front of straight couples.
CASE STUDY THREE: THIRTEEN
In the film Thirteen (2003),Tracy Freeland becomes first a thief, then a shoplifter. This is a classic shoplifting scene involving young teenage girls. There is a hazing aspect to it. Tracy is literally buying popular and beautiful new friends, impressing them with her daring.
As in the two examples above, Tracy, Evie Zamora and Evie’s other friends are most interested in shoplifting items which will adorn their bodies and transform them into the sexy older women they aspire to be.
Teenage girls stealing clothes and fashion items in TV shows is standard fare. I’m sure this is partly why I was followed around stores as a teenage girl myself. Back in the 90s, shop assistants regularly barged in on you while you were trying on clothes in cubicles. (The Glassons at Riccarton Mall in Christchurch was terrible for that.) At least that particular awful rite of passage seems to have come to an end.
Two Wolves by Tristan Bancks, good for older, struggling readers
The Fall by Tristan Bancks
Detention by Tristan Bancks, lots to discuss
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Jack Heath’s Minutes series e.g. 300 Minutes Of Danger
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell
Pax by Sara Pennypacker
Bear Grylls: Spirit of the Jungle, harder to get now
In the “Odyssey”, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” Well, that’s poetic, isn’t it?
But there’s a reason he didn’t just call the ocean blue. There was no term for ‘blue’ in Ancient Greece. People from antiquity didn’t consider blue a separate colour significant enough to name. It’s difficult to find a word that meant ‘blue’ way back in time. Black and white are mentioned a lot. Red, a little, next green and yellow. But no blue! Blue is one of the primary colours. In Japan there’s ‘midori’, which today means green (think of the liquor) but which is traditionally a sort of bluish-green colour, somewhere in the middle. Midori is traditionally ‘the colour of nature’, and describes the color of shoots, young leaves, or whole plants. There is a Japanese word for blue (ao). But educational materials distinguishing green and blue only came into use after World War II.
Now everyday Japanese has more specific words for blue than English does. In modern Japanese there are additional basic terms for light blue (mizuiro) and dark blue (ao) which are not found in English.
Continue reading “Symbolism Of The Colour Blue”
“We found that people who only speak Japanese distinguished more between light and dark blue than English speakers,” said Dr Athanasopoulos, whose research is published in the current edition of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. “The degree to which Japanese-English bilinguals resembled either norm depended on which of their two languages they used more frequently.”Bilinguals see the world in a different way, study suggests
The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).Continue reading “The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame”