American writer Carson McCullers published “The Jockey” in 1941, when she was just 24, which seems young, until you realise she’d published “Sucker” at the age of 17 and a novel at age 22.
McCullers belonged to a generation who spent their youth living through world war. Surely that affords a measure of maturity. She had also endured a number of strokes, which were to eventually paralyse one half of her body. She was married by the time she wrote this. Apparently, when her husband forged his signature to get the money she received for this story from the New Yorker, that was the last straw, and she (temporarily) left him. They reunited later, he tried to persuade her to double suicide with him, she refused, and he suicided on his own.
Wait Till the Moon Is Full is a 1948 picture book written by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Garth Williams. The story has carnivalesque elements, a gentle utopian storyline and a well-drawn mother figure, who is safe and warm but who also joins her son in his imaginative play.
This picture book is a perfect going-to-bed story because of its poetic elements. For this reason it has been produced as an audio play. It works even without illustrations.
Pitschi is a picture book written and illustrated by Swiss storyteller Hans Fischer, first published in 1948. Pitschi is a good example of a post war children’s book: dangerously cosy with a stay at home message.
The Crows of Pearblossom is a 1967 picture book written by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and first illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000). This story was published after Huxley’s death. He originally wrote it in 1944 for the specific audience of his niece.
The Crows of Pearblossom was much more recently re-illustrated by contemporary children’s illustrator Sophie Blackall, so has obviously found its audience. But I first encountered this story described as ‘ an odd little book for children’. I’m always interested in ‘odd little books’ because aren’t all books for children inherently odd? They’re wacky, they’re carnivalesque, they contain unique, resonant imagery, and the best of them see the world through the eyes of a three-year-old. And three year olds live on a different planet. So what makes some children’s books feel ‘odd’ while others feel…. ‘expected’?
Being ‘an odd little book’, I expected something like Meal One by Ivor Cutler, which is truly wacko in a wonderful way, but in fact Huxley’s story reminds me of little known Australian picture book The Cider Duck by Joan Woodberry because the climax involves animal cruelty of the sort that I wouldn’t expect today. Especially in Australia, perhaps, cruelty to a snake is a big no-no. If we find a snake in our yard we are required to call animal protection, who then remove the snake. Snakes are not killed.
I find The Crows of Pearblossom uncomfortable for another reason entirely, and that’s the display of misogyny. Did Huxley realise it was there? 1944 was an overtly misogynistic era. Perhaps someone more familiar with Huxley can answer that one.
Huxley aside, my personal reaction leads to another interesting question: In order to critique an idea the storyteller must first show it. I’m clear on that. But in stories for children, to what extent must we critique a bad bit of culture? We no longer accept overtly didactic stories for children, and modern efforts which teach lessons are considered old fashioned.
However, this old-fashioned form of didacticism may have been replaced with what is simply an updated version: The expectation that any sexism/racism/ableism and so on is remedied or somehow addressed by the end of the story, partly as a way to signal to the audience that, no, the storyteller is not themselves sexist/racist/ableist. Most gatekeepers of children’s literature seem to accept that children are not tabula rasa in the sense that they will ape the bad behaviour the Horrible Henrys of children’s literature, but do remain uncomfortable with children’s book which are as sexist, racist and ableist as the real world.
I happen to be in that camp myself, by the way. This is because anything ending in -ism is ‘the water we swim in’. Unless stories point it out somehow, -isms will continue to thrive in the worst possible way — invisibly.
SETTING OF THE CROWS OF PEARBLOSSOM
PERIOD — This story could take place anywhere, anytime, but The Crows of Pearblossom could only have been written in an era prior to collective consciousness about animal cruelty and protection.
DURATION — This is unclear, though we can assume the main action takes place over a week or so. The story calls back to a long-running pattern of a snake consistently, routinely, stealing a bird’s eggs.
LOCATION — In a tree, we might guess a pear tree from the title, but it’s actually a cottonwood tree. ‘Pearblossom’ sounds like something out of Foxwood tales, an anthropomorphised animal utopia, but if that’s your expectation going in, prepare to be a little taken aback.
ARENA — Cooney’s illustrations are spot illustrations only, which is unusual for Cooney, whose later full spreads are gorgeous. (See Miss Rumphius, for instance.) Even when the crow and the owl visit a house, we see only the top of a chimney. The effect of this is interesting: There’s no sense of an ‘arena’, but rather a sense of connected spaces which we cannot (and need not) place spatially in our heads.
MANMADE SPACES — Chimneys in children’s stories are starting to really fascinate me for how they are used metonymically to stand for human habitation. We see only a chimney, not a full house.
NATURAL SETTINGS — Likewise, in Cooney’s version, we see only a branch of the cottonwood tree, not the full tree. This is an interesting choice because after reading a bit about birds, this is very much not how birds see the world. (I also know from my daily walks that birds, well, magpies, see everything. In this country they swoop you.) I can believe that insects see their world in macro, but evidence suggests birds have a far better grasp of an overall landscape than humans do, and better eyesight, too.
WEATHER — The environment of this story is devoid of weather events. This is in line with your typical utopia, in which weather is sometimes exciting but never calamitous.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — There may or may not be some technology which your plot will rely on. In some genres (especially science fiction) this technology will be central.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — We don’t know what’s going on in the wider world of the story. The conflict is entirely between characters, one of whom is more clearly animal (the snake is snakey), the other is more anthropmorphised (the birds is unfortunately human enough for her offspring to require nappies).
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CROWS OF PEARBLOSSOM
I doubt this picture book would have found longevity (or publication) without the platform of the author as a writer for adults, so the later version of this story reminds adult buyers on the front cover that this is by the author of Brave New World.
Written in 1944 by Aldous Huxley as a Christmas gift for his niece, The Crows of Pearblossom tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, who live in a cottonwood tree. The hungry Rattlesnake that lives at the bottom of the tree has a nasty habit of stealing Mrs. Crow’s eggs before they can hatch, so Mr. Crow and his wise friend, Old Man Owl, devise a sneaky plan to trick him.
This funny story of cleverness triumphing over greed, similar in tone and wit to the work of A. A. Milne, shows a new side of a great writer.
I disagree that this work is similar to that of A.A. Milne, whose 100 Acre Wood is a genuine utopia, where no one is gendered, despite the reflexive male coding of everyone. The similarity is the existence of the sage owl. That’s about it.
Who is the main character in this story? There isn’t one — it’s the story of a small group of animals.
The female crow is initially presented as the clear victim, though the peacock feather stuck in her modest hat suggests she has big ideas above her station. Every day she goes out to do the shopping, and when she returns her precious fertilised egg has been eaten by the snake.
But despite being the victim of serial… and I do mean serial… infanticide, the shortcomings of Mrs Crow are substantial. This is refected in both the text and the illustrations. You’ll be familiar with this bossy housewife trope from other stories. To take one example, Larry McMurtry uses her to comical effect in Lonesome Dove, with the character of Peach.
Here she is, introduced in full comedic form:
Lonesome Dove and The Crows of Pearblossom are different genres for different audiences, but the trope is identical: A white woman exacts retributive justice via the male characters in her life, and she persuades them to do this with veiled insults about him being insufficiently manly if he does not do her bidding. In contemporary lingo, this MO is an inherent part of the ‘Karen’: powerful tool of the patriarchy. The difference between a man exacting vengeance and a woman persuading a man to exact vengeance is clear: The audience is always, always more sympathetic to the person who at least has ‘the balls’ to go in and do the hard work himself. Audiences rarely sympathetise en masse with the Peaches and the Mrs Crows of narrative.
There is also some body size issues going on with this one, with fat women coded as bossy wives, and I can’t even be bothered with that. I’m so tired of it.
Here is Mrs Crow of Pearblossom, mouth open, eyes shut. The visuals are clear: She wants her husband to kill the snake. She is all talk, but blind to the fact that she’s asking a lot of the (smaller) male crow. By this point in the story, any sympathy for her has evaporated, by design.
Yet the rules of masculinity are so strong, that these male characters always seem to do her bidding. Audiences, conservative in consumption, are not expected to question this part.
The snake is typically snakelike. If you’ve ever kept poultry in Australia you’ll know that the snake’s MO is to sniff out a coop and camp out nearby, enjoying eggs daily. The chickens and their eggs belong to the snake now, until you get rid of the snake (or the goanna).
Sympathy transfers away from the female crow to the male crow, who looks appropriately terrified at the prospect of killing the Minotaur of this story — the snake.
In traditional mythic fashion, the male crow of Pearblossom finds a fairytale mentor, in the form of an owl. Twentieth century children’s stories frequently utilised owls as the sage archetype. (A.A. Milne spoofed the trope.) Sure enough, the owl has an idea, but this plan will work. The owl and the husband crow will trick the snake by making fake eggs (basically the poisoning trick) and painting them to look exactly like Mrs Crow’s eggs.
This part of the narrative is disturbing to me. Although the snake is the baddie in this story, it is decidedly uncomfortable to watch any animal writhe in pain after eating something poisonous.
The snake wraps himself in a knot around the branch and dies. I’m confident that ‘wrapping himself in a knot’ was coded 70-80 years ago as ‘just desserts’. Even today, children’s writers prefer to avoid direct retributive justice by implicating the villain in their own demise. One Goodreads reviewer calls this ‘deliciously dark’. Indeed, Edward Gorey pulls off similar. However, I just find it dark.
Secondarily, there is also interpersonal issues between the husband and wife crow. In one spread, the homosocial bond between the crow and owl (both coded male) is emphasised when they confront Mrs Crow by telling her, “You talk too much.” Oof.
The problem, of course, is not that she talks too much. It’s that she’s all talk, and that women who use the patriarchy indirectly for retribution are as bad as men who use it directly. This is the aspect that isn’t fully explored on the page. The sociopolical implications of that one-sided remark really sting with a 2020 reading.
The Minotaur (snake) was a flat baddie and was never going to learn anything. He ends up dead. strung between two branches.
What does a reader take away? Rather than bash something on the head quickly and put it out of its misery, poison it? Slowly? So that it appears to die through its own greed? This is the children’s book version of Se7en (1995), utilising one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Mr and Mrs Crow have many, many babies and anyone who knows anything about environmental equilibrium will realise that the ecosystem is a delicate thing. There is such a thing as too many crows and not enough snakes.
What has happened to Mr Crow? We don’t see him with Mrs Crow at the end. She must have had her egg babies fertilised somehow, but there may be a homosexual subplot. I’m wary of reading too much into stories of this age, but on the other hand, in an era when homosexuality was illegal, dangerous and therefore taboo, ‘veiled’ stories about gay lives had to be heavily veiled.
An excellent example of that is “The Lumber-Room” by Saki, a story which I didn’t even realise was a queer story until someone else pointed it out to me (and then it was obvious).
An excellent counter example is my contemporary interpretation of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes, which I see as clearly, unequivocally gay. But from what we know of Potter’s life and times, there’s absolutely no reason to think she wrote it with queer intent.
I believe The Crows of Pearblossom is an excellent example of a children’s book in which the author’s celebrity leads directly to its reprinting. I despise this story, and I doubt a newcomer to children’s publishing would have found a place for their similar but contemporary manuscript.
Did Huxley write this ‘for children’ (in general)? Nope, and this is the issue. He wrote it for a specific child. I also suspect he wrote it for her adult co-readers equally, with winks to the adults about martinis, obvious lampshading of why there just happens to be paint lying around, and so on. We’ll never know how many in-jokes and real-life animalification Huxley included in this story for his niece. The wider readership is left only with what’s on the page.
The Hundred Dresses is a middle grade American novel by Eleanor Estes, first published 1944. I consider this story a children’s literature sister of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Doll’s House“. The Hundred Dresses remains resonant with young readers today, and is happily still in print after winning a Newbery Honor. (The medal was awarded to Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson that year.)
The Hundred Dresses is illustrated by Louis Slobodkin in his usual loose watercolour and sketchy style. Slobodkin was a good choice, since he shared in common with fictional Wanda Petronski a non-Anglo last name in a more overtly racist era — a rare #OwnVoices before #OwnVoices was a thing.
THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND ME
I was 10 years old when my Year 6 teacher read us The Hundred Dresses. He said, “I normally read this book when I suspect bullying problems. I don’t think there are problems like this going on in this class, but I’m going to read it anyway.” I immediately wondered if he knew what was going on.
After he’d read The Hundred Dresses, I knew he had seen what was going on. He’d seen at least some of it. I knew it was a little about me.
This was the eighties. The ‘Mean Girl’ group started up in full force that year. The Mean Girls themselves were victims in a system which requires women and girls to look a certain way. They wore tan coloured pantyhose under their short skirts, even on hot days, because suntans were in fashion. There was a hierarchy regarding who had the most ear piercings. Some of the piercings extended right up into the painful cartilage area of their ten-year-old ears. They tied their hair in a whale spout fountain.
I wasn’t one of those girls. Unlike in Estes’ book, this wasn’t about socioeconomic status. Our hierarchy was a kind of rich-poor inversion. These girls with the piercings and the whale spouts had the most permissive parents. They rode their bikes around the neighbourhood all evening in summer, unsupervised. Their families didn’t seem to have much money. The girls somehow found cash for pantyhose and stud earrings. But when they learned I’d been enrolled in karate (they turned up one evening on their bikes and peered through the dojo — classroom — window), they expressed their envy the following day. “How long have you been doing karate?” they asked, envious, because The Karate Kid was new out. I felt little bad for them then. Extra curricular activities were for ‘rich’ kids, like me. If my parents seemed rich to them it was because my folks were so very careful about money.
Case in point: The school photographer was bad at his job. He took a portrait of me with my eyes closed. I carried it home feeling the utmost shame. You weren’t supposed to blink for photos and I had been bad. Film was expensive. You were supposed to stare at the camera with a smile affixed to your face. If your eyes were closed it was all your fault. My mother was dismissive, borderline disgusted. “I’m not paying five dollars for that,” she said. “You can take it right back.”
Masking my shame, I had to return the stupid photo to school. The worst of it was, I was smiling as directed. Grinning with my eyes closed, I looked like a simpleton. I placed the portrait discreetly upon the teacher’s desk. But I was the only kid in the class whose parents didn’t pay the five bucks for their portrait. The teacher said nothing, thank goodness. But that afternoon, the girl with the most elaborate fountain of ponytail cornered me near my box. (We had boxes, not individualistic desks — our teacher was a Rudolph Steiner type). She said, “I know why your mum didn’t buy your photo. You’re too ugly.”
My mother did pay for the class photo, though not for the portrait. I don’t look at it much. Then, last year, as most of my class turned 40, someone tagged me in it on Facebook. It struck me how similar my ten-year-old self looked to that nasty girl with the most flamboyant fountain ponytail. Same height, same build, same freckled face. By any measure, our ten-year-old selves are identical on glossy paper. If this were fiction, she’d be my foil character.
Back in 1988, I believed what this identical-looking classmate said about me. To clarify, I knew ugliness had not been the reason my mother sent the photo back. But I suspected this girl was right, in a general way, about ‘ugly’. I had no piercings and a bad haircut, not quite long enough to tie up. I looked kind of like a boy (by design, actually). I was the youngest in my year. I (gladly) hadn’t hit puberty. I wore homemade, practical athletic clothes, sewn with love, if not by fashion, by my auntie who owned an overlocker and sold polar fleece jumpers at the Saturday Morning Market. These clothes were great for running around in, and when I wasn’t reading Ramona Quimby in the school library, I ran around a lot. But elastic is a precious resource, so my track pants featured two stripes instead of the superfluous Adidas triple, which marked the apex of Year 6 status at that time.
I wonder if our teacher overheard that insult by the boxes when he decided to read The Hundred Dresses to our class. He could’ve heard any number of others.
I do wonder what that girl is doing now. I’ll never know, because nobody tagged her in our class photo 30 years later. I left the town after Year Six, because my father was transferred to the city. I didn’t attend high school with that cohort, and had spent only two years with them in total. So I was surprised anyone remembered my name to tag me in a photo. I’d aimed for invisible.
Back in Year Six, Marie was the opposite of invisible. Fast forward three decades, I wonder if anyone else remembers her name at all.
THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY
WOMEN OBSESSED OVER WOMEN
Lately, lots of people are talking about the highly promoted TV series Killing Eve, which features a woman increasingly obsessed with another woman. The BBC’s Woman’s Hour podcast discussed other similar dynamics in fiction (at 31 minutes)and I thought immediately of Hundred Dresses as the children’s book equivalent of:
Many French novels, usually set in school, usually someone younger who becomes obsessed.
Sarah Waters does it beautifully in Affinity and The Paying Guests
The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud
The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
Sleep With Me features a character who inspires obsession in others
All About Eve (1950)
In each of these stories there’s a possessive charge between each of these women and their objects, whether that’s sexual, intellectual or whatever. It’s about owning a piece of another person.
Why do audiences respond so well to this dynamic?
Despite all the examples above, we don’t see it all that often. There’s a current trend of writing ‘strong women’ who support each other. These stories are necessary too, but there are also conniving, devious, treacherous women. Audiences want to see all kinds of dynamic, not just the idealised ones.
The male gaze is default in narrative, so watching a woman gaze at another woman feels refreshing in a different kind of maybe-feminist way.
This kind of relationship is about identity and self-lack and not necessarily about the object in the way the gazer thinks it is. So the nature of the gaze is different. It’s turned inward.
In the past, authors have hidden behind the male gaze. Willa Cather is one example. (Cather wrote “Paul’s Case“.)
Women’s lust for power is rarely represented. It’s a new take on power dynamics. In the past it was more of a ‘woman catfight’.
The woman with the obsession is lacking something in her own life. She watches another woman from the sidelines, fascinated.
There’s a freedomthat comes from watching another woman have the courage to do all the things you want to do yourself.
We rarely see two female leads on screen unless it’s this dynamic.
I have seen literary agents who represent young adult fiction lament the huge number of submissions they get about the viewpoint character best friend looking on at the life of the cool, interesting, sparky best friend. This probably speaks to a common pitfall for writers — both characters must be equally interesting in their own right.
DEHUMANISATION IN THE HUNDRED DRESSES
We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. One striking example of this blatant dehumanisation came from a brain-scan study that found a small group of students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Another study showed that people who are opposed to Arab immigration tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women. What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (of people from a different city or a different gender to the child) as less human than in-group faces.
For everyone, the deep desire is identical — to have as much social capital as possible.
In a story there have to be outworkings. For Wanda, it’s the desire to have everyone believe that she has more than the one worn dress in her closet.
For Peggy and Maddie, it’s the Desire to have friends who are truthful and transparent, and in order to achieve this end they must ostracise those who they feel don’t follow the moral code of their community. They have been taught that lying is wrong; they will therefore punish liars. Since they are girls, they aren’t allowed to be outright mean, so they will do this is in a nasty-nice way.
Old Man Svenson is set up as the potential Baddie in this story.
People in the town said old man Svenson was no good. He didn’t work and, worse still, his house and yard were disgracefully dirty, with rusty tin cans strewn about and even an old straw hat. He lived alone with his dog and his cat.
But we’re all used to the classic Girl Opposition, which contains archetypes:
The popular pretty girl (Peggy)
Her sidekick (Maddie) Is the narrator Maddie? The narrator has excellent insight into Maddie’s head — she feels guilty for being a bystander to ostracism.
The unpopular girl (Wanda)
Various other by-standers
Peggy was the most popular girl in school. She was pretty; she had many pretty clothes and her auburn hair was curly. Maddie was her closest friend.
A Hundred Dresses remains a standout book because of its treatment of bullying, as a system rather than a good kid, bad kid dichotomy, which is not how bullying works:
Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children from bullies. And she cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated. If anybody had said to her, “Don’t you think that is a cruel way to treat Wanda?” she would have been very surprised. Cruel? What did the girl want to go and say she had a hundred dresses for? Anybody could tell that was a lie. Why did she want to lie? And she wasn’t just an ordinary person, else why would she have a name like that? Anyway, they never made her cry.
Readers will likely sympathise with Peggy a little, or a lot. After all, Wanda appears to be a liar. If Magritte were about, he would say “This is not a dress.” (It is a picture of a dress.) It is a little baffling why Wanda won’t say that her dresses are pictures — this is lampshaded at the beginning with the description that she doesn’t say much. Her laconic way of speaking seems to preclude her from uttering the simple words “I have drawings of pictures.”
ENEMY VS NEMESIS
There is a kind of rivalry, as mentioned above, which is a more like a love-hate relationship. I appreciate what Roxane Gay has to say about the distinction between an ‘enemy’ and a ‘nemesis’. We tend to love our nemeses as much as we hate them:
There are many famous nemeses both real and imagined — Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, Professor X and Magneto, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Eve and Villanelle.
The most important thing to remember is that the rivalry must be tended to, nurtured. It is an eternal flame, the heat of which can warm you during dark times.
An enemy is a nuisance but a nemesis is someone for whom you harbor an abiding, relentless dislike. A nemesis must be a worthy adversary. It is far too easy for someone completely odious to be a nemesis. People often ask if, for example, the President is my nemesis but that would absolutely be beneath me. Envy is certainly part of having a nemesis but it is not quite jealousy because generally you and your nemesis are equals in some way, even if you are the only person who believes that to be true. A nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.
Wanda disappears. Her father says she has been bullied. The teacher gives the class a lecture. Wanda is basically the blow-in saviour trope, so now the Battle is internal, focusing on the psychology of Maddie. She feels guilt.
The first plot revelation is that Wanda was talking about dresses.
The second revelation is that Wanda drew the popular girls as models for her dresses.
What is not revealed is how the poor girl really feels about the rich one. Does Wanda genuinely admire Peggy? We are left thinking that, and as a child I did think that, but how does she feel, really?
I suspect this is a love-hate relationship from her side, and a nothing, you’re-less-than-nothing relationship from the other.
It is the rich girl who has the Anagnorisis — that even when you pay someone no mind, that doesn’t mean they feel the same about you. The moral? Treat everyone with respect, no matter how worthy you deem them. Everyone is worthy of your attention. Attention equals respect.
Peggy and Maddie have learned to be less passive aggressive in future because they have learned that Wanda is a rounded individual with feelings rather than a figure of fun.
It’s the first day of school, and Ruby is new. When her classmate Angela wears a red bow in her hair, Ruby comes back from lunch wearing a red bow, too. When Angela wears a flowered dress, suddenly Ruby’s wearing one, too. Fortunately, Ruby’s teacher knows a better way to help Ruby fit in–by showing how much fun it is to be herself!
“The Pearl” is a novella by John Steinbeck, first published hot on the heels of the second world war. The story is a re-visioning of a Mexican folktale, sometimes called a parable. This story is widely studied in American high schools so much has been posted elsewhere about symbolism and themes. My focus is on the structure and storytelling techniques, from a writer’s point of view.
The following song is based on John Steinbeck’s story.
THE ILLUSION OF CAUSALITY
This story reminded me of a half-forgotten memory. I’m four or five, sitting on the carpet in the living room at my Nana’s house. Nana goes to her bedroom, comes back with a ring and says, “See this ring? That’s yours when I die.” I can’t really see the ring from where I sit on the floor, but I nod obediently. A year or so later, Nana is killed by a car while crossing the road to buy milk at the dairy. I never see that ring again, because my father insists it’s cursed. First it belonged to an auntie of his — an auntie who died. Now his mother has died. Obviously, to his mind, the ring itself is bad luck.
That’s how inheritance works, of course — a ring isn’t passed down until its owner dies. If everyone were affected by the same cognitive bias as my father we wouldn’t see older women walking around with hands full of inherited rings.
The illusion of causality is at work in Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”, too, as humble villagers are corrupted by greed as soon as they come into some material good fortune. The oversized pearl itself is blamed, when in fact pearls are just pearls. Bad deeds are carried out by imperfect humans.
CHARACTERS OF “THE PEARL”
Kino — small build, wears a suppliant hat, native to Mexico, no money. Owns a canoe and spends his days diving for pearls and fishing to feed his family.
Juana — Kino’s obedient wife who has recently given birth to their first baby. Her life revolves around her baby. Juana is your classic Female Maturity Formula. She realises the evil in the pearl much earlier in the story, functioning as a Cassandra character. If only she weren’t under the thumb of her husband, who knows best according to the laws of patriarchy, they could’ve returned the pearl to the sea and their baby would have lived.
Because of the Female Maturity Formula, authors like Steinbeck are often let off the hook, because, as the following Goodreads commenter says:
In …The Pearl, Juana is the true hero of the story whose place is behind her man until the end, when they walk “side by side” when before, she always had to walk behind him. They only survived each scenario because of her and her ideas. Based on that, you make the call.
I disagree that Juana is ‘the true hero’. The viewpoint character is Kino, Steinbeck spends the first chapter getting us to side with Kino, and Juana remains unrounded. We never see her interiority at all. The same has been said of Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan, as a get-out-of-sexism free card for the creators, but I don’t buy ‘women as true/secret/sleeper heroes’ precisely because of the long history of unrounded woman characters.
Coyotito — their baby (At first I thought Coyotito referred to a bird! Just me?)
The Doctor — a French man who considers poor people animals, and whose fat body symbolises his greed.
Juan Tomas — Kino’s brother
Apolonia — Juan’s wife
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE PEARL”
The story begins with two characters waking up. Many children’s picture books open with the beginning of a day, and end with our main character falling asleep. There is an inherent cosiness to a story which takes place over 12 hours — as if to say, “This too shall pass — tomorrow is a brand new day.” This story takes place over a number of fraught days, but we don’t know that yet.
It is difficult to write an original waking up scene. It has been done many times before. Here, Steinbeck is describing an idyllic morning — at least for Kino, who gets to sit around watching ants while his dutiful wife, always awake before him, sets about preparing their breakfast.
It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.
This is Steinbeck describing the iterative. He is yet to switch the reader to the singulative. This technique of opening with the iterative is again very common in children’s books, because it feels cosy. Routine is reassuring.
The first clue we have that not all is perfect in this world is mention of the ‘poisonous air’ of night-time. It was common long ago around the world for people to believe that illness was caused by ‘night vapours’. Darkness itself was feared, as much as the things that come out of the dark.
MAKING USE OF THE MINIATURE
John Steinbeck likes to remind readers of differential scales — he did it in “The Leader Of The People” and he does it in the opening, as Kino observes the ants, transforming himself into ‘god’.
The ants were busy on the ground, big black ones with shiny bodies, and little dusty quick ants. Kino watched with the detachment of God while a dusty ant frantically tried to escape the sand trap an ant lion had dug for him.
For more on The Miniature In Storytelling see this post. But why does Steinbeck use it in this particular story? Abundance does not cause satiation in humans; it causes anxiety and greed. The size of the pearl, and the size of Kino (godlike in comparison to the ants), coupled with the dream of the massive book with giant letters, all serve as symbols of (over) abundance.
The pearl in this story is as big as a duck egg, beyond anything known at the time. FYI, the world’s biggest clam pearl was found in 2006 in the Philippines and sold for $130 million. The pearl in Steinbeck’s story should, by market value, provide Kino’s entire community with enough to live on for generations to come.
Kino and Juana are classic fairytaleunderdogs — they show no moral shortcoming. Nor do they show much in the way of psychological shortcoming, other than Kino taking his anger out on the gate and splitting his fist. (He may suffer from a self-destructive temper.) Instead, this pair have a problem: Their baby’s life is in danger after being stung by a scorpion. Apparently scorpions can cause convulsions and shortness of breath — these two are right to be worried about their baby.
Their related problem is that they have no money to pay the doctor.
Chapter One, which ends with Kino punching the fence in frustration, is almost a self-contained story in its own right, complete with problem, desire, plan, opponent, big struggle and a tragic ending. The only thing it doesn’t contain is the anagnorisis. For that we must read the rest of the novella.
However, though my modern lens, I find Kino’s violence wholly unacceptable. I put forward two main reader interpretations of Kino’s character after we see him punching the fence:
Kino is expressing his frustration in an appropriate way, since fences are not able to feel pain and he is justifiably angry.
Kino’s physical expression of rage hints at an uncontrolled temper, dangerous for his wife.
I went with number two, because I don’t trust people who punch anything out of rage. Sure enough, later in the story Kino bashes his wife’s face to the point where her wounds are attracting flies the following day. To me, Kino was never a pure-hearted fisherman corrupted only after the pearl was found. I suspect he was always a wife beater, hence his wife’s manic vigilance, conveyed via the creepy spectacle of her watching her husband each morning, then springing into action with a cooked breakfast once he awakes.
This is a story of escalating desires, and the human tendency to be dissatisfied, which Steinbeck’s narrator tells us is the reason we are elevated above the animals (who are happy with their lot). Permanent lack of satiety is both our shortcoming and our strength.
Because this is a major theme, Kino’s desires escalate as the story progresses, beginning with a man who wants for nothing.
Kino and Juana are happy as they are, but when their baby is bitten by a scorpion they would like a doctor to make their baby better.
They would like money or a valuable pearl to pay the doctor.
After finding the pearl, they want to fetch enough money to pay for their son’s education.
Kino wants to escape the faceless, unnamed evil coming after him in his own village.
The first opponent is the doctor who refuses to heal their baby without payment. He tries to persuade Kino that their baby’s eye is blue. I’m reminded of the people who call from ‘Microsoft Windows’, who then tell you to go into the bowels of your computer to view all sorts of normal running messages, then try to tell you that your PC is riddled with viruses.
The second opponents are the pearl buyers whose mission is to pay as little as possible for anything, despite being salaried themselves. Like the doctor, these are tricksters who make use of Kino’s lack of knowledge about pearls to try and persuade him that his pearl is defective under a magnifying glass. Anyone with basic knowledge of pearls understands that pearls are supposed to look unusual when magnified — this is the very thing that distinguishes them from fakes.
Even the obedient wife Juana becomes Kino’s opponent when she tries to get rid of the cursed pearl.
Why are the pursuers faceless and nameless? Wouldn’t it be more thrilling if the reader knew who these men were and what they are capable of? Perhaps, in thriller tradition, yes. But by remaining faceless these men better symbolise the evil that resides within Kino himself.
The plan to take their baby to the doctor fails so Kino and Juana try their luck finding a valuable pearl. They are magically rewarded with a massive pearl, which seems to cure their baby instantly.
Kino plans to sell the pearl so he takes it to local pearl sellers, but he can see they are trying to swindle him.
The next plan is to take it to the city, which scares him. He has never ventured outside his own village. But that night he his thwacked in the head. Juana tries to throw the pearl into the sea but Kino stops her and hits her.
When Juan accidentally kills a man who attacks him he and his small family take refuge in his brother’s hut while everyone else speculates about what happened to him.
Kino comes to the conclusion (too late) that his wife was right — the pearl brings evil. He gets rid of it. He has seen the evil in humanity and within himself, no longer godlike, as he saw himself at the beginning of the story, overseeing those shiny black ants.
There are a lot of similarities between Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Kino — both men tell themselves that they’re doing what they do for their family. But there’s a saying that there are always two motives for doing anything — one is the noble one, the other is the real motive. The ‘noble’ motive in both cases is ‘I’m doing what I do to provide for my family’ but the real motive is ‘power’.
Milly Molly Mandy remains one of my mother’s favourite books, but even then it was old. Milly Molly Mandy is in fact the great-grandmother of today’s child readers. I’m not sure how popular these stories are among the contemporary audience, but I can say for sure, Milly Molly Mandy entertained at least two generations of children. I never got into them myself, but I did fall in love with the endpaper hand drawn map. There is something so unbearably hygge about that little village. Even now, I open a Milly Molly Mandy book and I want to go back to that village. I may have been too old by the time I encountered my mother’s book. But the impact was clear. I was ten years old and started making maps for my own made-up stories.
My mother’s version features illustrations with coloured-pencil scribbles. The black and white line drawings do look like a colouring-in book. The Milly Molly Mandy series has been reprinted in various formats and some of those are now colour illustrations — sometimes in pastels, sometimes in the limited palette of 1950s and 60s. I still prefer the black and white.
The illustrations were done by the author herself. I believe Joyce Lankester Brisley was a better draughtswoman than she was a prose stylist, but in the end, her greatest strengths were:
Storytelling (in the voice of an oral narrator). Enid Blyton possessed this exact skill.
Knowing how children occupy their time
Lankester Brisley either surrounded herself with children or remembered in amazing detail the experience of being a child. The children in the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories can be found engaged in tasks such as:
Keeping ducks company
Making mud by pouring water onto dirt
Getting wet in the rain, then flapping and quacking like ducks
‘Mending’ a puddle in the road by throwing twigs into it
Making their own little loaves alongside the big family loaf
Likewise, Lankester Brisley understood the psychology of children:
Revelations such as the insight that your strict teacher at school is a normal human being and even has her own mother.
The desire to do something very useful, to impress the adults in your life (like making stepping stones on a rainy day, for ladies without rubber boots).
But we know virtually nothing about the author’s life. She was born in 1896 in a small seaside town at the bottom of England called Bexhill-on-Sea. Look at historic photos of Bexhill-on-Sea and apart from the fashions, it’s not so different from taking a Google Earth tour of the town on foot. It remains a town known for its historical significance.
We know that as a young woman her parents divorced, which in those days meant automatic poverty for the woman, especially when the woman is supporting three daughters. The daughters were all trained in art, and perhaps the reason their work made it out into the world is precisely because they were forced to seek out income, having lost their father’s income as a middle-class pharmacist.
Joyce died at the age of 82, and 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of her death. Her natal family were big into the Christian Science church. Was Joyce a Christian scientist her whole life? It seems she was, publishing Christian texts along with the more general stories such as Milly Molly Mandy. Did she marry? (Where does the Lankester come from? Her husband’s name?) Did she have children of her own?
In my imagination Joyce was close to her sisters. She died just a few months after one of the sisters, which is either coincidence or a sign of emotional closeness, or both. I imagine Joyce was active in the church and perhaps taught Sunday school, so if she didn’t have children of her own, I imagine she saw many children regardless.
NARRATIVE VOICE OF MILLY MOLLY MANDY STORIES
The stories are written in conversational, oral storyteller style with plenty of parenthetical asides, as if the storyteller has forgotten to explain one bit, but they’re shoving it in now to clarify.
However, each story absolutely includes the seven minimum steps of a complete and satisfying story. In fact, Lankester Brisley is often very clear about these steps, whether she knew them consciously or not. Modern stories for a young reader tend to be less obvious about where the steps occur. I think this is partly because contemporary books are expected to entertain adult co-readers as well as children themselves, and adults have seen far more story. (To be fair, even today’s children have been exposed to far more stories than children of the 1920s were.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF MILLY-MOLLY-MANDY GETS TO KNOW TEACHER
It has been arranged that the new teacher stay with Milly Molly Mandy’s family for a few nights until she gets herself sorted with accommodation. Milly Molly Mandy does not want this.
This is an example of a desire not to have something. To cast it the other way around: Milly Molly Mandy wants the freedom to be her normal carefree house while in her own home. School is school; home is home.
Milly’s plan is to be on her best behaviour and to impress the teacher. Ultimately, the character of Milly Molly Mandy is a good little girl, serving well as a model for behaviour. But what makes her real, and what keeps the character away from didacticism, is her ‘imperfect’ psychology. Milly has doubts, fears and anxieties like every other child, but despite all that, she does her best.
There is no traditional Battle sequence in this cosy story, but we have the proxy conflict of the baking scene in which teacher is cast as the inverse of everything Milly Molly Mandy thought she was.
Ultimately, teacher is wearing Mother’s apron, which casts her firmly in the role of someone familiar and knowable. Moreover, by learning how to make turn-overs, the teacher is cast in the role of student — a complete and utter inversion for Milly. Billy Blunt says, “Fancy a teacher playing with dough!” The children now realise that teacher was once a child, too. She is all the human things at once — a complete person.
This big struggle takes place entirely in Milly’s head as she makes her own (failed) dough creations alongside.
Child characters more often have revelations about life in general than anagnorises.
The revelation is that Miss Edwards is a regular human. Though this isn’t a anagnorisis as such, the lesson teaches Milly Molly Mandy something about humankind, and by extension, this is about herself. Though this is not on the page, it’s clear that Miss Edwards is acting in a certain role while she is at school. This is the first time Milly Molly Mandy has realised that people play roles according to expectations. This links back to how Milly Molly Mandy has been on her best behaviour with a teacher in the house. She, too, has been playing a role.
Sometimes the revelation phase of the story simply means the main character has changed their mind about something. In this case, Milly is sad to see her teacher leave. The valence has flipped from negative to positive.
The Little Golden Books series was launched in 1942, just as the second world war ended. Children needed to hunker down with cosy stories (along with their parents). Scuff The Tugboat was one of the earlier publications of this highly successful franchise, first printed in 1946, and the epitome of ‘cosy’. Now you can buy an edition with a big 75th Birthday Celebrations on the front.
What makes this book a classic? Is there anything special about it, to be replicated by modern picture book writers?
But apart from the ‘pull along’ drag of it, in which there’s no going back, the river in this story could easily be a road and the main character could easily be walking down a path. Scuffy The Tugboat is your classic mythic structure: A character leaves home in search of something, meets various trials and tribulations along the way and either returns home or finds a new home, having learned something new about himself.
But this is the little kid version of a mythic journey — all suggestion, nothing followed through or explored in depth. A cosy myth, in other words. The illustrations by Tibor Gergely are also cosy in their palette and subject matter. (I like the concept of hygge to describe ‘cosy’ in picture books.)
This is a case of a character mistaking their malaise (desire) in their self-diagnosis. Scuffy thinks he wants to go out into the wide world, but he’ll learn that’s not what he wants at all. That’s what he wants on the surface, but deep down he wants a family.
I was meant for bigger things.
The journey will teach him what those bigger things are.
Scuffy’s plan is to float down the river. He is self-important and speaks as if he owns the river. But eventually, when he realises the river is pulling him along and that he is stuck on this journey, he realises the plan belongs to the river, not to him.
The river moved faster and faster.
“I feel like a train instead of a tugboat,” said Scuffy, as he was hurried along.
The Battle sequence begins with the pathetic fallacy of the rain coming down, which tends to make water choppy and dangerous.
Faster and faster it flowed.
The river itself, which started out as a brook, is now perilous for a tiny boat. Men come rushing to fight the flood with sandbags and whatnot. This is the big Battle scene.
The man with the polka dot tie has known all along that Scuffy would want to be saved right before the perilous journey into the sea, so in a scene that’s basically deus ex machina, the man with the polka dot tie plucks Scuffy out of the water and saves him.
Now that Scuffy has been on his big journey and learned how small he is compared to the world, he is happy to float in the bathtub at home.
WHERE DOES SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT FIT IN THE HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Scuffy The Tugboat presents to young children a world which is big and scary. It ultimately says: The world is big and scary — way more scary than you know. You may have dreams, but the best place for you is at home, safe with your family.
I suspect this is how many people were feeling in the aftermath of the second war. Older adults had lived through two major crises. Most of the book buying public had suffered great loss.
I suggest that is why there’s nothing subversive or daring about this book. Scuffy the character does something bold, but child readers are not expected to emulate his attitude, which is presented to the reader as arrogance rather than confidence. By the end of the story Scuffy’s arrogance has been ‘fixed’. He knows his place.
Scuffy the Tugboat feels quite different from anything published today, in which children are respected to the point where they are told they can save the world — if not today, then one day. In contemporary children’s books, when children return to the safety of home, they are more likely to have earned independence, and the reader extrapolates that this journey out into the world was the first of many more.
Ironically, modern children have far smaller worlds than the baby boomers who were reading Scuffy the Tugboat. For many of today’s children, the most freedom they ever get ‘out in the world’ is the world they see through books and other media. Perhaps there’s no irony here at all. Perhaps we can expect, in any era, children’s books to afford exactly the freedoms denied to the young readers who enjoy them.