Silence by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis

Silence Alice Munro

“Silence” is a short story by Alice Munro, one of three in a triptych about a woman called Juliet. The first are “Chance” and “Soon“. All three are published in the Runaway collection (2004).

[“Silence”] brings to the foreground a theme that runs through many stories by Alice Munro—the role of silence within the network of domestic relations.

Corinne Bigot
From 'Woman's Day with Woman' May 23, 1960. There's a new quietness in your home
From ‘Woman’s Day with Woman’ May 23, 1960. “There’s a new quietness in your home.”

Read “Silence” online at The New Yorker.

Structurally, “Silence” is a mythic journey which spans approximately half of a woman’s entire life. The story opens with Juliet off on a trip in order to find information. Along the way she meets allies, opponents (most characters are a mixture of both), then returns ‘home’ a changed person after solving part of the mystery and learning something important about herself.

Usually when I break down a story into classic structure, there’s a fairly clear line between each step. One masterful thing about the work of Alice Munro: lines are not there. “Silence” makes an excellent case study of a short story in which the ‘Anagnorisis’ phase melts in to the ‘New Situation’ stage. The reader keeps having revelation after revelation, then bang, there’s the big gut punch, right at the end.


After a short note for the first time in six months, Juliet is off to see Penelope. The arena of this mythic journey includes:

In the opening scene, the main protagonist, Juliet, is on a ferry, crossing over to Denman Island to meet her daughter who has been spending six months on a retreat there. The crossing clearly signals a passage: Juliet will find Penelope gone, and this will change her life for ever.

Corinne Bigot
  • The story opens in summer. (See also The Symbolism of Seasons.)
  • Later there’s a severe storm which kills her husband while he’s out at his fishing job. Munro is careful to vary the weather when describing scenes which span a lifetime, which not only marks her life stages into different parts for the reader but also works symbolically, because life is full of ups and downs.
  • Spiritual Balance Centre, a retreat reminiscent of a church and a hospital both at once, where people stay for months at a time. The retreat is an old church covered with stucco. There’s another shabby building with a slanting roof. Munro is expert at describing those very ordinary buildings we see often but rarely stop to notice.
  • The woods. Junipers and poplars. (See also: Symbolism of The Forest in Storytelling.)
  • Juliet’s city apartment, which feels like a prison once she’s surrounded by memories of Penelope, but no Penelope.
  • The apartment juxtaposes against Heather’s large, luxury mansion.

The Aethiopica opens onto and leads us into another space, into the world of literature and myth, reversing the movement from open space to enclosed space on the diegetic level—from the house in Whale Bay to increasingly smaller flats to a basement flat.

Corinne Bigot
  • Her old friend Christa lives in Whale Bay, Kitsilano, in an assisted living facility due to multiple sclerosis. While Kitsilano is a real place, not sure about Whale Bay. I believe the area is well-known for whales, if the bronze statue of the killer whale outside the Granville Island aquarium is anything to go by. At the living facility, wisteria conceals the garbage bins a beautifully succinct and telling detail which shows the reader this place is comfortable on the outside, but hides less pleasant things beneath. (Wisteria is often usedactually and symbolicallyto create the feel of a suburban idyll. Desperate Housewives uses this symbolism to the maxthe setting is Wisteria Lane.)
  • Penelope is revealed to have relocated about as far north as humanly possible. See also: The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.
George Cochran Lambdin, Wisteria on a Stucco Wall, 1873


Meta commentary on dramatic irony

“I feel stupid. That woman intended me to feel stupid, of course. Like the character who blurts put something in a play and everybody turns away because they all know something she doesn’t know—”

“They don’t do that kind of play anymore,” Christa said. “Now nobody knows anything.”

Munro is avoiding dramatic irony in this story, and tells us so. We know nothing more than Juliet herself; we also don’t know if Juliet is a reliable narrator. (I conclude she is notat the very least, we need Penelope’s point of view, which we don’t get.)

Though they may close with the sleepy loose ends of secrets and dreams, these stories, like life as it is recalled more than as it is lived, move forward with speed and excitement: there are train, boat, and car wrecks; weddings and affairs; the ever present whiff of suicide. They are determinedly full of the marks of change—cultural and emotional—upon individuals who are as startled by them as any reader.

The Atlantic

Munro’s tone can be bracingly dry. She has no time for those implausible feats of memory often enacted by fictional protagonists; she simply tells us, with unhesitating naturalness, about her characters’ early lives, including many things which they themselves will later remember differently, if at all.

The Guardian

In short, if you want your story to feel realistic, don’t give your characters really good memories for ancient detailseven if you’re writing with a third person narrator. It will seem like subtle authorial intrusiona fakery.


It is revealed, but not until after the fact, that Juliet lost her composure in her scene with Joan. She doesn’t tell Christa this either. But now we, the audience, know. First of all, this may lead us to doubt Juliet’s ability to tell the truth of a situation. (Hints of an unreliable narrator.) If Juliet’s close third person narrator can withhold telling us things as they happen, only ‘casually’ mentioning them later, there may be things we’re not told at all. (Note how I put ‘casually’ in inverted commas, because nothing in Munro’s writing is there by accident.) Rather, the reader is given the impression of accidental revelation. Munro does this by detailing a scene, but leaving an important part out, telling it later (rather than showing), as part of subsequent narration.


Sometimes, all you really need to do as writer is include two contradictory things. The real challenge is subtlety.

[Juliet] insists on Penelope’s compassionate if not angelic nature: “she has grace and compassion […] She is also angelically pretty” Yet the silent speech simultaneously undermines the contentions it puts forward, giving the lie to this vision of Penelope.

Corinne Bigot

Speaking of subtle, Munro is making use of allusion, as well, to tell us we’re listening to an unreliable narrator:

A comparison with a caryatid (“Molded, I should say, like a caryatid”) apparently aims at stressing Penelope’s classic beauty; yet the association with a marble or stone pillar also suggests there is something hard in her nature. Since the word “caryatid” comes from the Greek Karuatis, a priestess of Karyae, a temple dedicated to Artemis, the comparison also indirectly links Penelope to Artemis, a rather revengeful goddess according to Greek mythology where she kills Acteon and Adonis for revenge. The simile, therefore, foreshadows Penelope’s metamorphosis into a hard, implacable maiden who will strike her mother by proxy.

Corinne Bigot

Juliet immerses herself in ‘the Greeks’. She’s filling her life with personal interests as a coping strategy. The narrator summarises a romance called Aethiopica (also known as “The Ethiopian Story”). Munro is now using story within a story technique (metadiegetic narration). In some ways this myth reflects Juliet’s own life, but not exactly — not in a way that draws away from the realism Munro has created.

The ‘stage’ metaphor is also a kind of story within a story:

Following the map, Juliet will come to what is, literally, a stage—“found herself parked in front of an old church […] a simple stage”—and then, by assimilation, a hospital ward: “private cubicles, as in a hospital ward”. On this stage and in this hospital ward, Juliet meets the woman who will engage her in a big struggle, using Penelope’s absence and her own reticence as weapons with which to fight her.


During the ceremony of burning Eric’s body on the beach, Ailo is said to be playing the “role of Widow of the Sea”; and Juliet thinks of Eric’s death and the burning of his body as being “like a pageant she had been compelled to watch”. The comparison with a pageant turns Eric’s death into a play and a tableau. The nominal phrases—“the storm, the recovery of the body, the burning on the beach”—make the description read as possible titles for tableaux, and freeze the scenes into tableaux, as if Eric’s death was being etched on her memory. The whole scene then grafts Eric’s death onto a literary myth since looking at the pyre, Juliet thinks of the burning of Shelley’s body.

Corinne Bigot

By the end of the [scene between Juliet and Joan], the “striking-looking woman” of the first page will have become a stricken woman who walks away in tears, having been defeated by Joan’s final silence

Corinne Bigot

Munro tells us about marriage problems. But Juliet and Eric did not divorce over these problems. He went missing at sea in a storm.


Munro delves into the psychology of infidelity and the effect it has on a marriage, focusing on the ups and downs. The magnificent love making fuelled by grief, then the next moment they’re plunged back into misery.

The morning after the storm is clear and calm. This is an example of pathetic fallacy. Stormy then calm describes their marriage over the past twelve years. Either way, she lost her husband in the “storm”, metaphorical or real. Because his body is not recovered until the third day, Juliet imagines he may still be alive.


The way Alice Munro works with time in her stories reminds me of this winter solstice gif:

winter solstice

Decades collide, intersect, are placed side by side in a charged and vibrating conversation. (Munro has said she sees stories architecturally, as a house whose various rooms one can roam in and out of, forgoing any prescribed order; this surely accounts for the nonlinear aspect of so many of her narratives. That memory and passion re-order a life and cause events to fall meaningfully out of sequence in the mind often seems to be Munro’s point.)

The Atlantic

“Silence” is an excellent example of this in-and-out treatment of temporality, though compared to the rest of her work, it is unusually chronological. She tends to start in one place, shifts back, returns to the present then forward. Munro is a magician with time. But what gives me that feeling? Especially when:

The story has a very linear, chronological structure, with the exception of one flashback to the death of Eric, Penelope’s father, some ten pages into the narrative.

Corinne Bigot

(A linear plot shape is typical of a mythic structure.) Munro has reversed the gender role in the most classic myth of them all:

Penelope is not she-who-waits as she was in the traditional myths.

Here, Penelope travels like Odysseus, leaving loved ones behind, in Juliet’s case, waiting and wondering, though not weaving.

Buried In Print

To underscore the theme of silence (what is not said) in this story, Munro is making much use of the technique of side-shadowing, in which a character considers doing things, then doesn’t, or in which the narrator makes a conjecture about what could have been, but wasn’t.


The main character is Juliet. When “Silence” opens, she appears regularly on the provincial channel as an interviewer on Issues of the Day. This is Juliet in the prime of her life, though Munro will soon show us that this successful woman’s life is not so successful when you scratch the surface. And she’s on a downward trajectory.

Notice how Munro makes use of the language of violence. Juliet is a ‘striking’ looking woman.

Inciting Incident: Once inside the retreat, Juliet learns her daughter is not here. Joan sounds ominous, as if Penelope has died.


Munro has given Juliet a very strong desire line she wants to reconnect with her daughter. Later, she downgrades her desire, and only wants to know she’s doing okay. Once she’s achieved this much, the story is over. (If you’re wondering where to end your own short story, the story ends pretty soon after your main character either gets what they wanted or not.)


Twenty-year-old daughter called Penelope who Juliet misses terribly is the absent, out-of-the-frame opponent. If only Penelope had told Juliet why she had cut ties, this might help Juliet out. Note that this is also a mystery story. It is not mystery ‘genre’, because there’s not a through-line of investigation:

There isn’t really any investigation element in the story, so don’t go into this thinking that there will be a mystery to solve.

Short Story Addict

The mystery is: What happened to Penelope, and why won’t she talk to her mother? We might consider mystery and opposition one and the same, introduced at the same point, functioning for the audience in the same way.

One of the things Munro seems a total master of is the ability to tell us a great deal about her characters while still leaving their central human mystery intact.

The Reading Life

But because Penelope is not available as an on-the-page sparring partner, Juliet turns Joan into a bigger opponent than she really is. Joan is the maternal figure of the retreat, sycophantic and insulting at once. This admixture of traits makes her a great fictional character. Juliet responds to her by slipping into interviewer mode, treating this woman as her subject, but failing to make her usual good job of it, because of her closeness to the subject.

It is revealed that the character of Joan easily fits into this role, because of someone Juliet used to know. Joan reminded her of that person. (The character of Ailo is the white haired opponent of their marriage, and I deduce Juliet has imbued Joan with many of the same evil qualities.)

Joan’s moniker changes over the course of the story, as Juliet learns to think of her differentlyfirst fully culpable, later just an annoyance. (Pope Joan, then Mother Shiptonan English soothsayer and prophetess. Quite who Mother Shipton was or what exactly she said is not definitively known. )

The Great Prophecy of the End of the World Mother Shipton

In the most interesting stories, especially realistic ones, characters are opponents and allies at once, or they take it in shifts over years.

Christa is a sometime ally, sometime opponent. Christa reassures Juliet and encourages patience she is a fairytale mentor. To complicate matters, Christa slept with Juliet’s husband before Juliet was with him, then didn’t tell Juliet about that later. In the hands of a lesser writer, this information would have come off as soap-opera-salacious, but in a nuanced story like this, the reader is encouraged to wonder if Juliet should have been told, or if Christa and the husband were right to withhold it. How much of your partner’s former sex life is your business? Are the rules different for your female friends?


‘Coping’ might be a better word than ‘planning’, because what can a parent do when their child goes missing?

  • Juliet always checks her answer machine as soon as she gets in.
  • She puts her daughter’s things in the bedroom.
  • Eventually she moves apartments, and puts Penelope’s things in storage. In other words, she’s compartmentalising. If she doesn’t see Penelope’s things, she’ll be able to cope with the loss.
  • Eventually she will become so good at compartmentalising that she doesn’t talk about Penelope, even with her new partner.
  • Heather gives Juliet some information about Penelope. Part of Juliet would love to be the crazy woman she imagines when she finds out approximately where her daughter is living, she’d love to track her down. She’d have to do it in an underhand, stalkerish kind of way, but she is above that. So she does not. This plan plays out only in our main character’s mind a type of literary side-shadowing.
  • Juliet’s continued plan is to keep compartmentalising, thinking of Penelope only occasionally, living a simple life in the best way she can.


The Battle scene comes right before the Anagnorisis sequence, which makes it the conversation with Heather.

Heather tells Juliet she ran into Penelope in Edmonton. She doesn’t appear to know Penelope and Juliet are estranged. (Or, about ‘The breach’ as Juliet thinks of it.) Heather reveals that Penelope loves way up north and has five children.

The battle is not with Heather as such, but the tousle between what Juliet thought must have happened to her daughter versus what really has happened. The climax is the discombobulation of finding out by surprise, and the self-imposed requirement she keep up appearances to Heather.


First comes the plot revelation about the mystery of Penelope. (These are probably called ‘reveals’ to distinguish them from character ‘revelations’.) Juliet never gets the full story, but enough to satisfy, and it must be enough to satisfy us, as reader. If we want more, well, so does Juliet. We empathise.

Juliet processes Heather’s snippets of information and realises the life she has imagined for her daughter must be completely wrong. Not a spartan life but a wealthy one.

This leads to her anagnorisis.

Munro is a world leader in the art of the short story. One of the things which makes her so: The anagnorises of her characters are remarkably complex. Be careful not to turn that sentence inside out: I’m not saying a simple anagnorisis indicates a simple, unworthy story. But if you’ve pulled off a complex one, you know you’ve written a complex story, and one which is probably highly original. Anyway, here it is:

The fact was surely that she had laughed too much around Penelope. Too many things had been jokes. Just as too many things—personal things, loves that were maybe just gratification—had been tragedies. She had been lacking in motherly inhibition and propriety and self-control.

I’m starting to notice that in the best short stories the Anagnorisis phase can be broken down into three clear parts:

  1. In a mystery set up, the mystery is solved and the main character learns the truth of their situation. This is more of a PLOT revelation than a SELF revelation, but is the first phase of understanding something big about themselves.
  2. The anagnorisis comes after. They, or the narrator, will spend maybe a paragraph (as demonstrated above) telling the reader what they know about their own psychology now (and did not know before). Or, in a tragedy, the narrator fails to take any lesson away from their experience and/or comes to a completely wrong conclusion. They could sit anywhere on the ‘insight’ continuum they might get half of it, a bit of it, most of it.
  3. If the character does not have a ‘full’ realisation, that shortfall is completely wasted unless the reader understands how much they could have learned. So after the character/narrator offers their part, there’s often a bit that comes afterwards in which the reader is encouraged to know even more than the character does about their situation. This tends to be done in penultimate scenes. In the case of “Silence”, we’re told that Juliet partners up with Gary, Christa’s brother. Here’s my revelation, which Juliet may not have grasped herself: Is this her subconscious’ way of getting even with Christa for sleeping with her husband? Further revelation: This relationship is doomed. Juliet never tells him she even has a daughter. Christa May have told him but Gary never mentions her. (What do you think? Did you have the same thoughts as I did?)

In these stories, as in so many of Ms. Munro’s fictions, people’s lives change abruptly: sometimes by spontaneous choice, sometimes by calculated risk, sometimes by accident by illness, bad luck or someone else’s carelessness or malice. Indeed, this is a theme sounded again and again in her work: that life is precarious, that flux is a given, that certainty will always be elusive. Some of her characters find this realization frightening: it leaves them with a kind of emotional vertigo, the fear that their lives could crack apart at any moment. But others find this realization oddly liberating: the knowledge that things can fall apart also means that change is possible, that new opportunities to reappraise, maybe even reinvent, their lives may lie down the road.

The New York Times

Juliet belongs to the second category of anagnorisis.


The New Situation phase overlaps with the ‘Reader Revelation’ phase. Munro’s final sequence is doing double duty, which is truly masterful. The double duty is this: We learn that Juliet ends up alone. We also learn that if only Juliet had been able to talk to Gary honestly (and to everyone else honestly including to Penelope, no doubt), her life could have been completely different.

As it is, Juliet remains unable to talk to Gary about this huge chunk of her life, so she breaks up with him. Munro again uses the technique of side-shadowing by giving us the conversation they should have had—the one which would have allowed them to stay together.

Two silent speeches feature prominently in “Silence”. The first speech occurs while Juliet is speaking to a woman on the ferry to Denman Island. They are the words she “could have said” about Penelope and their relationship; its very presence foretells Juliet’s later silences. It is echoed by a second silent speech, the words Juliet “might have said” if she had been able to speak about Penelope to Gary. It reinforces the vision of a woman whose secret forces her to resort to silently speaking in her head. Italics suggest that these are not so much silent speeches as “silenced” ones—the words that Juliet cannot say aloud. They remind us that Juliet is denied the possibility of speaking to and about her daughter, they suggest that she has been “silenced” by Penelope’s silence.

Corinne Bigot

This is such a sad, poignant few paragraphs, because we realise (notereader revelation) that sometimes the difference between a relationship and a permanent estrangement is the difference between having a very short conversation and not having it.

Juliet is eventually left with Larry, as a friend, not as a lover. She views him as asexual (with the subtext that he’s probably gay but doesn’t talk about it). He is a lot of fun, but in any case, he is also someone who lives on the fringes, living with his own silences.

At the end of the story, Juliet is a little short of money and, unable to retire, works at a cafe while studying the Greeks. In this way she finds her own happiness. Despite this, there is no real emotional closure for Juliet:

The reader is also refused closure, just as the characters of “Silence” are. Eric dies in the middle of their quarrel, leaving matters unresolved. Death has silenced the quarrel, but has prevented its resolution, foreclosing forgiveness and reconciliation. Since Juliet is refused confrontation with her daughter, since nothing is said about their feelings, both mother and daughter are refused closure—the possibility to let go of their grief or anger. The final paragraph simultaneously offers hope and, with the word “remission”, reminds us that Juliet does not emerge unscathed.

Corinne Bigot


Julieta is a 2016 Spanish film written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar based on “Chance”, “Silence” and “Soon”, the three interlinked short stories from the book Runaway by Alice Munro.

The backstory  of Juliet and Eric reminds me of another of Munro’s short stories, “The Bear Came Over The Mountain”. In both stories, old infidelities still hurt, even though one of the involved party is living in an assisted living facility, and we might expect time to have healed, considering. (Ester Perel is fond of saying that time does not heal youit’s what happens inside the time “Time never exists on its own. It’s what happens in it. You have to give it meaning. You have to shape it.”)

“Deep Holes” is another short story in which Munro explores parent/child estrangement this time between mother and son.

Lemon girl young adult novella


The Weirdness of Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma

Yotsuba 1 cover

The other day someone in a book recommendation group wanted suggestions for a 10 year old who loves Hayao Miyazaki movies.

This basically describes my own kid, who’s been a Miyazaki fan since the age of three, before she even knew transmogrification wasn’t a thing. My kid enjoys Yotsuba&! (among other things, so I recommended that.

Yotsuba&! is a manga series which has been translated into English to capture an international market. We can deduce: Yotsuba&! is actually one of the least ‘weird-to-Westeners’ stories produced by Japan.

Someone else said, “Oh I love Yotsuba! She’s so cute.” Another person mentioned the general weirdness of Japanese media for kids. (It’s worth mentioning at this point, our kids generally love this stuff. Adults find it weird.) In any case, I should probably have recommended the series ‘with reservations.’

Because of my interest in storytelling, I wondered if I could attempt a theory on why, so often, adult English speakers find Japanese stories so… inexplicably weird.

  • What do we mean when we call something ‘weird’?
  • Why does a culture find some story elements ‘plausible’, but elements from another culture ‘weird’?
  • What are the different expectations of ‘a story suitable for children’?

Any insight I have on this subject comes from 10 years of Japanese study, including a couple of years living in Japan — first as a high school exchange student living with a host family, next at a Japanese university living in a dorm Then I taught Japanese at high school level, though I’ve had little to do with Japan since the 2000s. I can only guess at the general trajectory, as more and more young Japanese people spend part of their youth abroad, many learning English to a high level which no doubt leads to a more internationalised Japan.

Conversely, is the West becoming a bit more accepting of Asian entertainment? I know white people who listen to nothing but K-Pop, and others who spend a lot of time playing Nintendo games from the 80s and 90s. Western fans of Japanese entertainment tend to be uber fans.

Japanese Weirdness and the Western Media

My general thoughts on Japanese ‘weirdness’ is this: Our Western media loves to paint Japanese people as downright quirky. We’ll pick up any out-there news article and disseminate it with glee, to bolster our view that these people are somehow ‘Other’. Oftentimes, our media’s ‘proof’ of Japanese weirdness is a complete misunderstanding of intent — Japanese people love to poke fun at themselves. Where they’re poking fun, we’re imagining they are taking themselves completely seriously. Either that or we can’t possibly see the joke because jokes are so culturally specific.

Yotsuba&! is a great introduction to Japanese ‘weirdness’.


Yotsuba&! is centered on Yotsuba Koiwai, a five-year-old adopted girl who is energetic, cheerful, curious, odd, and quirky — so much so that even her own father calls her strange. She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings.This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.

Wikipedia overview

Yotsuba means ‘four leaf clover’ in Japanese, which explains the green hair and four pigtails.


Well, the first weird thing is the title. An English speaker would not shove an ampersand into that title unless it meant ‘and’. What’s it doing there?

Well, that symbol means ‘and’ in Japanese, too. It’s just used a little differently here. Japanese orthography doesn’t put spaces between words (because there are three different ‘alphabets’ and it doesn’t need to).

The phrase Yotsuba to means “Yotsuba and,” a fact reflected in the chapter titles, most of which take the form “Yotsuba and [something].


First of all, Yotsuba&! is full of onomatopoeia and mimesis, which is amazingly rich in Japanese. The English version keeps the Japanese (written in Japanese) and adds its English transcription in small letters. For an English speaker, this still won’t be enough. We do fine with the echomimesis, but need further translation for ideophones such as ‘kuru’ to represent the turning of something. (This comes from the Japanese verb form of ‘to turn’, thus making perfect sense to Japanese readers.)


Japanese is so different from English that wordplay never translates. Yotsuba is young and gets words wrong, which presents a problem for the translator to the point where jokes simply do not work. Sometimes the translator gets around this by describing the problem in marginalia. In Yotsuba&! number one, Yotsuba mistakes her father’s job ‘translator’ for ‘jelly maker’. This works in Japanese because the words sound very similar. (Even the translation of ‘jelly’ doesn’t work — konnyaku is not what Westerners think of when we hear the word ‘jelly’ — it’s a grey, black flecked substance made from potato starch.) On a meta-level, it’s ironic that the character of the father is a translator, yet the joke about his job simply doesn’t translate.


The fictional child orphan is a very American trope. Yotsuba as a character doesn’t fit this trope at all, though. This backstory (such as there is) feels foreign. The father just kinda picked her up from someplace.

Yotsuba is not really a… real child? She’s more like Ponyo of the Hayao Miyazaki film — someone who just turns up and joins the family. She seems to have come from a different planet. In the world of the story, she’s understood to simply be ‘foreign’:

She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings. This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.

This particular character trope isn’t entirely foreign to a Western audience. We’re seeing a lot more comedy about characters who don’t seem to know what on earth is going on around them. Some of these characters are coded as autistic, which I go into more thoroughly here.

Because Yotsuba has no mother, and because her adopted father is so useless, the girls next door step in and they perform much of the emotional (and housework) labour a mother would otherwise provide. I don’t believe this is a specifically Japanese phenomenon at all, but it is an unusual family set up to see in contemporary Western children’s literature. Hopeless Dads are dime a dozen, but Dads who kind of fall in lust with their children’s informal babysitters next door? Not so much. (See below.)


In Yotsuba&! volume one, the story takes place over summer. Summer in Japan has its own specific atmosphere — after the rainy season of June comes a very hot and humid time, and unless you live in a very built-up area, summer sounds like cicadas. (Cicadas and frogs.) A ‘typical’ Japanese summer includes eating watermelons with family, wind chimes and festivals. This summer experience is depicted clearly in Yotsuba&!, though may not be coded as specifically ‘summer’ by readers who haven’t experienced the specifically Japanese summer. My Australian summer includes many of those things, too, but an Australian ‘vision of’ summer is different: the beach, swimming, surfing, shorts, sunscreen, icy-poles, thongs, beer. Each culture has its own Symbolism of Seasons, and Japanese symbolism is a little different even when summer itself is basically the same.


As a high school exchange student, I was surprised to see teachers thwack students across the head. Touching the head is taboo in my own culture, especially when it’s a teacher to a student. Yet I saw it done mostly in jest.

Likewise, in Japanese entertainment, when one character hits another over the head, this is coded by the audience as funny. It’s one character ‘owning’ the other, usually as the conclusion (or as the main part) of a joke.

This joke is used numerous times in Yotsuba&!, first with one sister hitting the other on the head in the chapter where Yotsuba thinks she’s being abducted by the girl next door. (She doesn’t know that yet.) Later, Yotsuba insists everyone goes cicada catching. She jokingly ‘Catches an Ena’, which involves capturing her neighbour’s head in a net.

In another gag, Yotsuba’s father ends up with underpants on his head and pretends he’s some kind of underpants monster. This version of the joke translates the best out of all of these ‘head’ gags — probably because a young Western audience is also laughing at the inversion of a clothing article meant for the butt ending up on the head. For a Japanese audience there’s an added layer of embarrassment around showing your underwear to someone in your out-group — for girls and women especially, this is taboo. While modern attitudes are various, some Japanese women will never, ever show anyone their underwear, to the point where they won’t hang underwear on the line. (Therefore, a joke about the father’s underwear exposed to a non-family member works as a joke, but I doubt it would work if the underwear belonged to a girl.)

There’s a huge irony in this, which I’ve never been able to reconcile: Whereas the underwear of a post-pubescent Japanese female is absolutely taboo, the white, voluminous underpants of a little girl is considered cute, whereas in the West, adult women get to show their bodies as a form of empowerment, but when it comes to little girls, we are very protective of them. Pixar would never show the underpants of a little girl flying on a broomstick or falling comically from a height, but Hayao Miyazaki has no such qualms.

In Yotsuba&! we see examples of butt shots used comically:

funny butt

But my Western sensibilities come to the fore in the relationship between Yotsuba’s ‘father’ (according to the story he simply found her and decided to keep her), and his reaction to the triad of adolescent/teenage sisters who live next door.

In the first, minor example, the comically inappropriate Yotsuba refers to one of the sisters next door as the pretty one, the other as the ‘not pretty’ one. The father says, “You’re right, but you shouldn’t say it that way…”

not so pretty

My Western sensibility wants a Good Dad to tell Yotsuba that all the sisters next door are beautiful in their own way, but this father is more pragmatic, instead acknowledging that yes, he has noticed and yes, some girls are pretty, others not so much. I’ve noticed in the West, a general lack of willingness to accept that some people fit the Beauty Cultural Norm better than others. The problem with that: Unless we accept Beauty as a concept, we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege. If we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege, we can’t go out of our way to move past it.

Besides, this father is not your typical father. He’s more of a young guy who isn’t quite up to the task of taking care of a kid. This kid regularly finds herself in perilous situations, because the father is asleep or busy working or whatever. A permissive, indulgent parent is useful to a writer of children’s literature, because it’s really hard to realistically get adult caregivers out of the way. Modern kids, in real life, are rarely afforded the opportunity to head off on their own adventures. Not so Yotsuba, who goes off on her own around the neighbourhood. “Don’t worry, she eventually comes back,” says Father to the concerned girl next door. While he’s sleeping, Yotsuba’s getting herself locked in the toilet, then escapes by tottering precariously along the rail of the balcony. Instead of fixing the lock on the door, the father leaves it be, paving the way for further embarrassing window-escape adventures. An adult Western reader may well look at this father-daughter relationship and have grave concerns. Has the creator removed the father from Yotsuba’s life in a way that doesn’t set us on edge? What is he even doing with this little girl? Does her origin story need to be explained a little more? Readers will vary on this point.

More salient: Is Yotsuba&! even for kids? At first glance, of course it is. Japanese publishers have definitely aimed it at a young child market: We know this because they include the ‘kana’ readings over the Chinese characters, which is a sure sign a book is aimed at emergent readers. (Around 5-8.)

The main character, Yotsuba is also five. But Yotsuba is five in the way Junie B. Jones is five — her particular quirks appeal to older readers.

Here’s a scene Junie B. Jones would never include: The father’s friend comes round to the house, sees the girl next door with the father and makes a comment about ‘jail bait’.

jail bait yotsuba

This is icky to me, especially after the way in which this girl is introduced to Yotsuba’s father — and to the reader:

Yotsuba up skirt shot

I’m no manga apologist, but it’s possible that within manga culture this is such a normalised objectification of a teenage girl that it doesn’t really even strike the manga-enthusiast as a sexualised pose. I recall my year as an exchange student, in which I wore the school skirt a lot lower than any of my Japanese classmates. I wore it just below the knee, whereas they rolled theirs up. Some concerned classmates offered fashion advice, and tried rolling it up at the waist to achieve a more acceptable look. The girls themselves have internalised the idea that women’s legs are to be looked at.

To me, this pose is very gazey and, depending partly on the viewer, absolutely sexual. I was prepared to look past it until the ‘jail bait’ section, but considering the story as a whole, the creators are well-aware of their intent: To depict these teenage girls in a sexual manner to appease the male gaze. Although we do see examples of the male gaze in Western children’s literature, it’s been a long time since I saw something this blatant. This is manga culture pulled down into children’s entertainment.


Yotsuba&! is the perfect example of an ‘episodic’ story, found quite often in middle grade fiction, especially that aimed at (and starring) girls. Boys more often go off on linear adventures, but in Yotsuba&!, each chapter is its own self-contained story. Apart from the first chapter, in which Yotsuba moves house and meets new people, any of the others could easily be switched around.

‘Episodic’ is often used as a negative descriptor when it comes to fiction — as a synonym for ‘boring’ or ‘goes nowhere’. Modern middle grade novels in English tend to have a single driving thread even if it includes subplots which seem to take the reader off on self-contained tangents. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good example of a Western counterpart. I’m also thinking of Clementine — also about the quotidian life of a girl. The difference is, each of the Clementine books has a single plot thread with means the chapters could not be switched up.

In general, Japanese audiences accept a slower pace. There’s a long history of very long Noh and Kabuki plays, in which the audience happily leaves part way through, goes to eat a meal, then comes back to see the end.

But partly this is because of the huge crossover appeal of its anime, manga and also pop music, which tends to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. To generalise, even children’s media ends up with a more adult pacing:

Toy Story – 76 mins
Brave – 84 mins
Monsters Inc. – 85 mins, 8 secs
Toy Story 2 – 85 mins, 32 secs
Inside Out – 87 mins
A Bug’s Life – 88 mins
Up -89 mins
Wall·E – 90 mins
Finding Nemo – 93 mins
Toy Story 3 – 94 mins
Monsters University – 94 mins
Cars 2 – 98 mins
Ratatouille – 103 mins
The Incredibles – 107 mins
Cars – 108 mins

Pixar Running Times

Summer Wars – 114 mins
Wolf Children – 117 mins
Spirited Away – 125 mins
Paprika – 90 mins
Totoro – 86 mins
Ponyo – 101 mins
Your Name – 106 mins
From Up On Poppy Hill – 91 mins

My comparisons aren’t perfect, because ‘animated’ doesn’t mean ‘for kids’ in Japan. Summer Wars is more for an adult audience despite being anime, in line with Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill, whereas all of the Pixar films are made solidly for kids despite humour that only their adult co-viewers would get. Totoro is Japanese anime made solidly for kids, making for a better Pixar comparison, and Totor’s runtime lines up nicely with the films of Pixar. My wider point is: A more diverse story structure is accepted by audiences in Japan, with younger audiences enjoying films of ‘adult length’. (Spirited Away is enjoyed by children, but you won’t see a Pixar film of 125 minutes.)

Why are some Japanese films much longer? Because they are ‘slower’. By ‘slower’ I mean there tends to be more emphasis on scene-setting. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his emphasis on food scenes. Food is important across all children’s literature from any part of the world, but the emphasis on food preparation and the sharing and consumption of food is not something you’ll find easily in the West.

However, emphasis on food culture is not specific to Miyazaki. Keep looking and you’ll find it holds true across all aspects of Japanese entertainment. It’s true of Yotsuba&!, too.

The word ‘pillow shot’ was first used to describe the films of Yasujiro Ozu:

A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.

Dangerous Minds

Although it describes film, I like to apply the word equally to stories comprising static images (e.g. manga) because all the Yotsuba&! shots of first waking up, slurping on food, announcing one’s intention to visit the toilet… these are the quotidian aspects of life more commonly omitted from Western stories, even in stories for children:

I didn’t mean to pick a scene which literally includes a pillow, but there you go.

My Japanese teacher in Japan also taught English to Japanese students (that was her main job). She always found it uniquely Japanese that when asked to write an essay about their daily, her Japanese students would include details English speaking students would not: “I got up, went to the toilet, brushed my teeth…”

I have concluded over time that Japanese natives do a better, more thorough job of noticing the details of everyday life, and this is reflected in entertainment coming out of Japan.

In Sum

As you can probably gather, I have mixed feelings about the Yotsuba&! series as a middle grade text. Yotsuba as a character is a satisfying character for girls in particular — she’s irreverent (especially by Japanese standards of politeness), she’s energetic and her family situation means she’s often out on interesting hi jinx. Yotsuba herself is not sexualised — in fact she’s dressed in hardy shorts and is wholly unlimited by cultural gender expectations.

All of these wonderful things about Yotsuba are undermined by the dynamic between Yotsuba’s young, adoptive father, the father’s creepy best friend and the triad of teenaged sisters next door. I believe the creator has been influenced by manga culture to the point where he perhaps doesn’t even realise this dynamic could be read as anything other than innocent.

I suspect a proportion of Japanese parents would share this view in common with me, and to finish off, I’d like to emphasise that ‘manga’ culture is not synonymous with ‘Japanese culture’.

The Nightfish by Helen McCosker Analysis

The Nightfish Helen McCosker

The Nightfish is an Australian picture book written and illustrated by Helen McCosker. Published in 2006, this children’s story makes a good counterpoint to There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984). In Margaret Wild’s 1984 story, a boy takes a shell home with him from the beach and — as a child of the eighties I can tell you — no one thought twice about taking souvenirs from nature.

Unpacking Seashells New Yorker Magazine cover. September 12, 1953. Mary Petty, illustrator
Unpacking Seashells New Yorker Magazine cover. September 12, 1953. Mary Petty, illustrator

Our current generation of children are more environmentally aware. Now they have at least bumped up against the idea of ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. This change of societal attitude is reflected in their picture books: If you take something from nature you must return it, otherwise you’ll upset the environmental balance and all hell will break loose.


The setting of this picture book is an interesting mixture of cosy and scary. The little fishing village, nestled at the end of a bay, is cosy. The off-kilter perspective can go either way in illustrations, seeming either childlike or scary, depending on context. The colour palette of purples juxtaposed against orange hues reflects that mixture of cosy versus scary.

Unlike Margaret Wild’s There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea, or The Sailor Dog, The Nightfish uses the depths of the ocean as an arena rather than sticking to the surface, which in many stories might equally be a flat plain of earth.

A note at the back of the book explains to fans of mimesis that the author/illustrator has taken liberties in creating her fish, which is based on the baby angler fish, usually found in far deeper waters, and here called a ‘nightfish’ rather than a ‘lightfish’. This is an interesting thing to do if your fantasy elements are a not so far removed from reality that a reader might think, “Hang on, that’s not right!” Do as you wish for the purposes of story and add a disclaimer. Simples.

This setting could easily be anywhere, but Helen McCosker has gone out of her way to make it Australian by repetition of the particularly Australian exclamation of surprise, “Hooley dooley!

Helen McCosker is also making use of the miniature in storytelling, though it’s subtle. The boy is introduced in the first line as Adrian Nicholas Timms, but on page two his name has been shortened to ‘Ant’ — ants are tiny, living vulnerably in a much bigger world than they’d realise. Our main character is therefore also tiny, depicted as such on the establishing two-page spread, but also in relation to the vast depths of ocean, hinted at throughout the arena of this particular story.

Helen McCosker depicts the night as a magical, sparkly sort of place, and it is until Ant does something he shouldn’t. I’m always interested in how illustrators depict the night-time, because if we depicted night as it really is, no one would see anything much. There’s a wide variety of palettes you can use to illustrate the dark.



Ant’s shortcoming is that he doesn’t understand what he is taking.


He wants to collect something to keep in his own room, as a pet for himself. But he doesn’t realise the creature has its own social connections.


Ant’s opponents are the scary deep sea creatures who come to collect their baby.


Ant doesn’t have a plan, except to keep a hold of the fish. In stories like this, the opponent must have the plan. The fish tell Ant to give their baby back, and when he doesn’t…


Twice, the fish wreak havoc on the village, taking first the lesser sources of light, then coming back for the main ones (the street lights and lighthouse).


Ant puts two and two together and realises he’d better give the nightfish back. So he does.


This part of the story is truncated. But we can extrapolate: Now that the precious fish has been returned to the sea, the scary, deep sea fish will stop wreaking havoc upon the village.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques


Last month I wrote about the film American Honey, set in America but written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who is English. If there’s an Australian equivalent of American Honey, Somersault is it. Somersault is a 2004 film written and directed by another (all-too-rare) female filmmaker, Cate Shortland.


  • Both are written from a female point-of-view, with a feminine sensibility
  • Male characters are often the cause of the downfall, and definitely the cause of the downfall at the beginning. In both we have a step-father figure sexually assaulting the young woman supposed to be in his care.
  • The older women in these young women’s lives are hugely problematic and can’t see past the system which pits young women in sexual opposition to older women, seeing themselves not as mentors but as opponents.
  • The young woman — the hero — sets out on a mythic journey of her own, pushed out of what sufficed for a home by her wicked step-mother archetype.
  • Along the journey she meets a range of opponents and allies — her challenge is to understand who is a true opponent and who is a true ally. This is not an easy task, because the people she meets are problematic characters in their own right, with dishonesties of their own. More complicated than that, problematic people can prove allies in their own warped way, by offering a lesson in how not to lead a good life.


The major difference between Somersault and American Honey is the ending, but it’s only a surface difference: In American Honey, Star never returns home. She has found a new home, on the road. But Heidi of Somersault returns home to her mother, in a presentation of a happy ending. I don’t see this as a happy ending. It depends on whether the  mother has undergone some sort of revelation in Heidi’s absence. Heidi may be better to stay away from her mother. But this is left off the screen.


The setting is different, of course. Somersault is set in Jindabyne, or ‘The Australian Alps’ — probably not the image of Australia most non-Australian audiences would associate with this country. The narrative takes place at the end of winter, as work for itinerant workers is winding down. Abbie Cornish (who plays Heidi) spends about half the film wrapped up in winter gear and the other half naked as a baby (which I think is partly the point).

Behind closed doors, Heidi reveals her childlike side, conducting imaginary romantic dialogues with Joe in the mirror and poring over her scrapbook. Ms. Cornish, who suggests a teenage Naomi Watts, evokes the full spectrum, from vulnerable child to self-assured young woman, of Heidi’s personality.


See also: The Seasons Of Storytelling

Jindabyne feels like a heterotopia even to Australian audiences. There’s a creepy-as-all-get-out crime film, also set in Jindabyne. (The film is called Jindabyne., because that’s all that’s required for a creepy title.) Jindabyne is cold when the rest of Australia remains warm. Three hours from Canberra, even Canberra feels removed to the major cities of Australia, so that’s saying something. (I live near Canberra myself.) As a ski town, Jindabyne is busy at some times of the year. The snow melts and it quickly returns to its semi-deserted state. Horripilation is inherent to such places, which is why Stephen King knew to set a story in a resort town at its deserted time of year. Birds, humans, any kind of wildlife know, instinctively, that when a place clears out, something feels horribly off. It’s probably primal.

The Shining movie poster

There has been heavy post-processing with Somersault, with the blues and whites as a symbol for emotional detachment.


Australian filmmakers are often good at writing authentically naiive dialogue. Their young characters are not mini-adults. They are authentically young. Another excellent example is Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). It’s pretty painful to watch, actually. If only the characters could communicate better, they could live happily ever after. But we talked exactly like this at their age. We didn’t know what we wanted. We certainly did not know how to get it, and neither does Heidi. Nor does Joe, played by Sam Worthington.

Cate Shortland’s Somersault reminds me of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. Both are stories about sexual violence against women. Both writers have been careful to include a wide spectrum of men, each representing an archetype. In Somersault we have a lot of bad men, but each is bad in his own way:

  • The mother’s boyfriend sees nothing wrong with doing sex to his teenage step-daughter when he gets the opportunity. The opportunistic, unthinking, but still very damaging man.
  • Joe is a product of a masculine culture in which being manly is the only option. His same-sex kiss gives the audience insight into how Joe must be struggling to conform to this role. Joe steps in to be the hero when Heidi is in danger of being raped. Punching a guy in the face is the only tool he has.
  • Joe’s father is no help to him. We see him briefly, reading the paper, doggedly avoiding any sort of emotional connection with his son, even though the son is desperately seeking that with him. ‘Don’t wake your mother.’ This is a man who fulfils the role of husband and father, but probably only on the surface. He goes through the motions of being a good man but his head is down the whole time.
  • Joe’s friends exist to show the masculine friend dynamics. Their bonding is done via women, exchanging information about who is sleeping with who, treating sex like a conquest and boast-worthy achievement. Screenwriting gurus will tell you the hero needs a big argument with an ally at some point. The friend will interrogate the hero’s decisions. Heidi has no friends in Jindabyne, so as proxy, it is Joe who has the big argument with one of his friends about how he is living his life. Joe definitely has his own character arc in this film.
  • Off-screen, we have Irene’s son who has murdered a man. This guy is your ultimate, clear-cut villain. But he’s not interesting. We never meet him. The shades of grey are far more interesting for women writing stories about rape, the male gaze and everything in between.
  • The guy credited only as ‘staring man’ represents the male gaze in general, and foreshadows something even more creepy when Heidi asks for a job at the ski supplies shop.
  • Turns out this creepy guy (revealed later to be Bianca’s father figure) is another opportunistic type. At first I thought he was a replica of Heidi’s mother’s boyfriend, only in another town. But unlike Heidi’s mother’s boyfriend, this guy is older and knows exactly what he’s doing. Bianca’s father is deliberately (rather than stupidly, inadvertently) destroying the relationships women have with each other. He goes home and lies to Bianca that Heidi made a pass at him. He is disgusted by his own aroused response to Heidi and turns it outward.
  • Likewise, Cate Shortland takes the storytelling opportunity to make a distinction between the two men who Heidi ‘invites’ back to her room. One of them suggests they leave, knowing that sex with a stoned person can never be consensual. But when his friend goes ahead with it, he collapses into laughter, prioritising the friendship with his mate over the safety of the young woman. Both are bad; one is slightly worse. On the other hand, is one really worse? Neither of them pull back from the situation.

Heidi is invited back to Bianca’s house and we are introduced to Bianca’s little brother. Bianca’s mother is training him with flashcards to read faces. (An ineffective exercise, by the way, since a description of the expression is written right below the face itself. Presumably the kid can read words if not faces.) Bianca explains to Heidi later that her brother is autistic. In an outdated, 2004 explanation of autism, she explains that her brother lacks ’empathy’, unable to read other people. This is completely inaccurate — we know that now. Bianca describes not empathy (which autistic people have in spades), but social-emotional agnosia.

With increasing autism awareness, storytellers are now making use of autistic characters to say something deeper about their themes. I believe Cate Shortland has written these characters to show us all the different ways in which people misunderstand each other. The autistic boy shows us an exaggerated form of misunderstanding, which means the theme is hammered home strong for the audience.


Stephen Holden, writing for the New York Times, describes this story as ‘a movie about the looks on people’s faces and the disparity between the surface and the roiling chaos beneath.’ People are different underneath. People are hard to read, even without their clothes. People tell lies. They leave things out.

The anagnorisis for Heidi is not made clear to the audience. What, exactly, has she learned from this experience? She tells her problematic proxy boyfriend she’s glad they met. She’s definitely meant to have learned something from this guy. But what? I believe this is left to audience imagination. I don’t believe she’s learned much about boyfriends, unfortunately.

Here’s what she has definitely learned: She cannot be her authentic self if she goes through life telling lies. Irene has learnt this too. They learn it together. The Battle scene which leads to this anagnorisis is the argument between Irene and Heidi in which Irene evicts Heidi for inviting young men in the middle of the night. These boys create a scene. (The attempted rape and punch to the face is the first stage of the Battle scene, but is not the part that leads to the anagnorisis.) Only then does Heidi’s mask come off. (Masks are very important in storytelling, especially in certain genres, especially at the Anagnorisis stage of a story.) Heidi admits to Irene that her mother is not dead. In turn, Heidi reveals to Irene that she knows Irene’s son is in prison, and demands to know exactly why. Only when the two women are completely honest with each other are they able to find temporary peace. Although I suspect Heidi went on to have many more terrible boyfriends, I imagine she’s more truthful with herself and to them. This alone will have helped her a bit.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Runaway by Alice Munro Short Story Short Story Analysis

Runaway cover Alice Munro

“Runaway” is the first short story of Alice Munro’s 2004 collection. It was also published in The New Yorker, where you can read it online. “Runaway” makes for a great mentor text for the following reasons:

  • Nuance of human motivations. The desire is at the ‘complex’ end of the spectrum — our main character doesn’t actually know what it is she wants. How do you write that kind of character, when we’re told over and over that our main character has to ‘want’ something? Carla is a great case study.
  • A Plan which is actually a fantasy plan, but still works as a proxy.
  • A Battle scene which follows the ‘real’ big struggle.
  • A Anagnorisis had by two characters first presented as ‘parallels’, now revealed to be ‘inverse’ characters. One achieves more insight into her own psychology; the other — we extrapolate — never will. The latter does realise something — a proxy revelation — just not about herself.


horse fog

Stories which place a rich and poor character side-by-side make for excellent conflict. Annie Proulx made the most of this in her collection Heart Songs, in which rich city folk come into poor rural areas and buy up expensive properties, trying to bend the existing world to their whims — and often succeeding, with casualties.

Rural areas are perhaps the most realistic place you’ll find rich and poor living literally side by side. Farmers themselves fall outside the traditional socioeconomic delineations used by economists — while wealthy in assets they are often living frugally. In Munro’s short story “Runaway”, we have a genuinely well-off woman of the academic class living on a bit of land next to a young couple with nothing but dreams of running a horse farm. Clark has managed to save enough to buy the land, but they live in a trailer on it. This rich-next-to-poor scenario is common in rural areas — the owner/renter divide is very real in urban areas too, but amplified in the country.

The country is Canada, the nearest city is Toronto — Munro’s familiar territory. We can expect harsh season changes with plenty of snow, though in “Runaway” the fog is utilised to create a faux-supernatural event which aids in character epiphany. Overall we’re told ‘this was the summer of rain and more rain’. I did wonder if it can be raining and foggy at the same time — here is the answer to that. (It’s low humidity where I live, which explains why I’ve never seen heavy rain and fog at the same time.)

The character of Clark is connected to the rain:

But they talked about [their extortion plan] the next day, and the next and the next. He sometimes got notions like this that were not practicable, which might even be illegal. He talked about them with growing excitement and then—she wasn’t sure why—he dropped them. If the rain had stopped, if this had turned into something like a normal summer, he might have let this idea go the way of the others. But that had not happened…

Clark is like the rain in that he is relentless. He also reminds Carla of the rain because in her eyes he is being unusually relentless. He drops mad ideas, but not this one. But I don’t believe the reader is meant to see this episode as unusual — this is Carla’s new normal. We know this by the end of the story.

Plot wise, the rain also prevents Carla and Clark from earning money in their horse business. It also contrasts with sunny, laidback Greece, where Mrs Jamieson has just come from. Mrs Jamieson lives in a different world (even when she’s home in Canada).



For my purposes, the main character of “Runaway” is Carla. But you could equally argue that this story stars Mrs Jamieson equally, because both Carla and Jamieson learn something. They both undergo a character arc.

Carla’s psychological shortcoming: She is naive, unable to stand up for what she knows to be right in her marriage, is isolated from her family (and effective orphan).

She also has a clear moral shortcoming: She is playing along with Clark’s plan to extort money from a recently widowed neighbour, and to tarnish the reputation of a dead man.

Munro encourages us to dislike Carla very much. Then we see a complete turn-around once Carla gets to Mrs Jamieson’s house. She’s either had a spontaneous change of heart, or always planned to spin a different story, casting her own husband in the bad light, but in any case, Carla is dangerously flaky. She’s not just dangerous to herself, but to those around her.

We can’t speak of Carla without mention of the goat. For storytelling purposes (though not in any sort of fantasy way), the goat is the spirit animal of Carla. They are linked visually by the ‘dandelion’ descriptor — Carla’s hair looks like a dandelion, because of the strands too short to fit into her braid. Later, the goat turns up  and ‘transformed itself into soemthing spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward…’ Then of course there is the running away from a violent man aspect, and their mutual return.


Surface desire: Carla wants money, because she and her husband are lacking funds to live. They’re not finding it easy to muster up coinage for the laundromat, instead using musty towels.

Deeper desire: Carla wants to hide in the security of her existing marriage, even though that means much sacrifice on her part, with her husband’s volatile nature having a direct influence on the amount of custom they can expect, among other things.


Alice Munro introduces the opponent as a mystery in the opening paragraph. We wonder who Mrs Jamieson is and why Carla is so interested in her. The existing corpus of narrative may lead us toward the conjecture that Mrs Jamieson has been sexually involved with Carla’s husband. I think Munro may intend this, because she focuses on Mrs Jamieson’s physical description:

Carla got a glimpse of a tanned arm bare to the shoulder, hair bleached a lighter colour than it had been before, more white now than silver blonde

But if we think that, Munro will soon subvert those expectations. Mrs Jamieson is an example of the most humane type of opposition: Like a parent in a children’s book, she does want what’s best for Carla. But because Carla wants something different, that casts Mrs Jamieson as an opponent.

In opposition to Carla’s desire, Mrs Jamieson wants Carla to leave her husband. But more selfishly, she probably wants to feel responsible for someone else and immerse herself for a little while in someone else’s problems, helping Carla to ‘fix’ them, as displacement activity after losing her own husband.

In some ways, Carla and Mrs Jamieson are living in parallel — literally side by side. But they are revealed to be the inverse of each other. Young/wise, wealthy/poor, uneducated/educated. Importantly for this plot, one has just lost her husband — the other fights to keep hers, no matter what.

Carla’s husband Clark is an interesting romantic opponent because of his duality: He is friendly with people at first then turns on a dime. We will see this in action during the Battle with Mrs Jamieson (when the goat reappears), but Munro gives us some vignettes which describe his character beautifully — Clark in the pharmacy, Clark alienating clients, Clark almost scalding a child with coffee which he then denies.


Carla and Clark, though mostly Clark, concoct a fantasy plan. They will extract money from Mrs Jamieson by saying her semi-famous dead husband was sexually inappropriate with Carla. At first I was a little wary of this storyline. I’m absolutely done with stories about women who ‘cry rape’ for personal gain. I’m done with Gone Girl stories, in other words. They contribute to a mainstream, real-life narrative (false) in which people really do think women lie about rape on a regular basis. But Alice Munro — of course — has a far more nuanced understanding of human nature. Carla is playing with a kind of rape fantasy, and it’s the husband who picks this up and runs with it. This does actually accord with what tends to happen in the few real-life instances of false rape accusations — about half of the total of false rape accusations are lodged on behalf of a woman, not by the woman herself.

I’ve noticed that for storytelling purposes, an imagined or fantasy plan is as effective as an actual plan, because the reader doesn’t know at first that it’s nothing but fantasy, so the fantasy plan still works to propel the action along.


Carla gets her Battle, but it doesn’t look like a fight — Carla’s big struggleground is sitting in Mrs Jamieson’s house playing at posh ladies, probably turning over in her head whether she should leave Clark or not. I believe she means to leave Clark at the time.

The clear Battle Scene (the scene that looks like a Battle) is not between Carla and another character but between Clark and Mrs Jamieson. This feels very true to Carla’s character — Carla is staying with Clark because she knows he’s always going to fight her big struggles for her, whether those big struggles are worth fighting or not.


It’s not until Carla leaves Mrs Jamieson’s house she realises she can’t leave Clark. But the reader is kept out of Carla’s head for that little epiphany. Instead we learn of this decision at the same time Mrs Jamieson learns it. By this stage of the story, our sympathies are clearly with Mrs Jamieson. We know far more than she does about the whole situation as Munro has kept us in audience superior position, starting off with Clark and Carla, and only later switching to close third person on Mrs Jamieson as she goes to sleep on the couch and is rudely awakened by Clark.

It can be a real writing challenge, depicting the Self-Revelation phase in a short story. The writer doesn’t have much room to lead up to it, and it can feel contrived when a character suddenly realises something without much in the way of preamble. In “Runaway” Alice Munro gets around the ‘suddenness’ of Mrs Jamieson’s anagnorisis: that she has been too heavily involved in Carla’s life, by showing the reader the note that she left for Carla afterwards. Again, this works for the character because Mrs Jamieson is a writerly, academic type with sufficient life experience to be able to craft an apology.

Carla’s epiphany is more brutal, and is to do with Clark, not Mrs Jamieson. She realises Clark may have killed her beloved goat. Yet for Carla this doesn’t lead to change. She is stuck now. Earlier we’ve had a brief snippet of conversation between Carla and her mother. When she left her natal home it was in search of a life ‘more authentic’ than the suburban idyll she learned to despise. Alice Munro seems to be questioning what it means to lead an ‘authentic’ life. Is an authentic life one full of misery?

I don’t want to give the impression that Mrs Jamieson’s epiphany is complete whereas Carla’s is not. Each woman’s revelation is incomplete in its own way. Mrs Jamieson thinks she’s discovered something about herself, but remains blind to Carla’s real situation. She mistakenly attributes the appearance of the goat to Clark being not so bad after all — she thinks she was scared and uncomfortable mainly due to the time of night and her vulnerability, standing there in her long t-shirt. When he touches her shoulder, all is forgiven. Really, Mrs Jamieson should be more worried about Carla than she was even before. But Mrs Jamieson is probably happy to have the young woman nearby, as she has a bit of a crush on her (though she has rejected that terminology, feeling it’s not sexual).


The reader can extrapolate that if Carla hasn’t taken the opportunity to leave Clark now, she likely never will. Especially after she learns he may have killed her goat. Notice that Carla and Clark both have names beginning with the same letter. This binds them together in our minds.

Carla no longer cleans for Mrs Jamieson, so we can expect the two women to live side by side but separately from this point forward. When written in close first person from Carla’s point of view, Mrs Jamieson is referred to by her last name, which sets her apart from Carla.

Like Annie Proulx, and most famously Joseph Conrad, Alice Munro makes use of ‘delayed decoding’, in which the reader doesn’t understand the full extent of the situation until after reading the entire story. This is why short stories need to be read twice.

[Delayed decoding serves] mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness in each step of the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was closed in their consciousness. This technique is based on the pretence that the reader’s understanding is limited to the consciousness of the fictional observer.

Literary Lexicon

In other words, delayed decoding mirrors the way in which readers may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. I believe the term ‘delayed decoding’ is another word for ‘foreshadowing’, though ‘foreshadowing’ refers to writer technique, whereas ‘delayed decoding’ focuses on the experience of the reader. I think it’s best described as ‘extreme foreshadowing’ — an entire paragraph or scene may not make sense on first reading. We’re not talking about brief mentions of guns here.

On second reading of “Runaway” it’s clear to me that Clark is abusing the animals. He neglects the boarding horses, but is taking his frustration out on the goat, who in Carla’s dream has a hurt leg. But is the dream based on fear and on reality? When we first read it, it’s just a dream. (In short stories especially, dreams are never ‘just dreams’.) We are given another clue to the abuse when the goat likes Clark at first then attaches itself to Carla, henceforth less skittish. By the time Carla wonders if Clark has killed the goat, we know it to be true.

We can also safely extrapolate that Clark will abuse Carla, and if not Carla, their future kids. That’s if Clark does not kill Carla first, as he has killed her spirit animal, the goat. For now, Carla will live on eggshells. Or as Munro writes it:

It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there.

In the final scene, Munro makes use of a technique I’ve heard described as side-shadowing. In one version of the ending, Carla finds the skeleton of the dead goat and visits it as if she visits a grave.

Or perhaps not. Nothing there.

Other things could have happened. He could have chased Flora away. Or tied her in the back of the truck and driven some distance and set her loose. Taken her back to the place they’d got her from.

Another short story making use of this technique, in which the reader is given a variety of possible scenarios and invited to pick the most likely, is “The Wrysons” by John Cheever.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Cat Skin by Kelly Link Analysis


“Cat Skin” is a short story by Kelly Link, included in the collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, published 2010. Link says in her paragraph at the end of the tale that this is a brand new fairytale, based on on none in particular, but owes a debt to “Catskin“, “Donkeyskin” and “Rapunzel“. Link also acknowledges the influence of Angela Carter and Eudora Welty. I see similarities to Spirited Away.

“Cat Skin” is a trippy story and probably has many interpretations. This is what I get out of it, anyway.

Catskin, Arthur Rackham, 1922
Catskin, Arthur Rackham, 1922


Like The Cat Returns, this is a story about the underworld of cat magic, in which cats are mysterious gangs who shapeshift and who knows what. “Catskin” opens with a description of cats who live in and around a witch’s house. Apart from many cats, the witch also has children, which she hasn’t birthed the usual way, but from a boil on her thigh, or from bits of old rubbish.

The witch puts children together as others put together a chess set, which is an interesting analogy and one I’ve heard to describe fairytale archetypes.  G.K. Chesterton said that Aesop’s animals can be considered pieces of games in chess. (Farmer, man, boy, widow etc.) Aesop’s use of animals in this way expressed a rather cynical view of human nature which has been influential in stories ever since. Marina Warner said the same thing when writing about ogres:

Ogres are used as stock in his stories: the word orco or orca designates a character in the same fairytale shorthand as ‘king’ or ‘princess’ or ‘prince’. As with a chess piece, the naming prescribes a certain position on the narrative board, and narrows the possible moves.

No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

Link takes features of the oral tradition and addresses the reader directly:

If you are looking for a happy ending in this story, then perhaps you should stop reading here and picture these children, these parents, their reunions.

Are you still reading?

This direct address marks the switch from iterative to singulative. We learn that the witch is dying. One of her powers is ‘snatching Time’. She snatches it from here and there. I feel this is a modern update on the classic fairytale. From what I’ve read, the really old fairytales (more than 150 years old, say) don’t play with time very much. But because of modern astrophysics (and since Einstein) we now know that Time is way trickier and ‘spookier’ (to use Einstein’s term) than any layperson could’ve imagined. Link utilises the weirdness of Time, capitalising it in the German way. As soon as Time can be manipulated, this leads us to a fatalistic view of events. Link intends for us to make that link (heh):

Once the question of this revenge had been settled to her satisfaction, the shape of it like a black ball of twine in her head, she began to divide up her estate between her three remaining children. […] She could see Flora’s life, flat as a map. Perhaps all mothers can see as far.

By the way, Link is inverting the usual gender of fairytales it is usually Kings and Fathers who perform a deathbed division of their property in fairytales. The only way a woman can have any real power is by being a witch. So this witch has her own property, living like an outcast King.

The children are introduced:

  • Flora with red hair (The witch favours red hair), a modern sort of woman who has been waiting for her mother to die. She inherits the automobile and a Magic Porridge Pot sort of purse which will never be empty so long as you leave a coin in the bottom.
  • Jack, who can’t read but who inherits the books.
  • Small, the youngest, who still sleeps in his mother’s bed but who is ‘not as young as you think’. I’m thinking of Pope from Animal Kingdom. Small is described in a feminine manner he does the care of their ailing mother witch. But he is pragmatic about death. He asks only for the mother’s hairbrush, as Beauty asked only for a rose, and Aschenputtel asked onto for a hazel twig. A marker of fairytale virtue, or stupidity? We’re yet to find out.

The witch tells them the house will be of no use to any of them because without her in it, it will pine and grow sick. She created it long ago from a doll house, with a staircase that goes nowhere. The cats will know what to do with it, apparently.

The witch vomits up all sorts of things as she dies things that aren’t edible, like she’s a human shaped trash heap. I’m reminded of No-Face from Spirited Away.

The witch dies and the children bury her in ‘one of her half-grown doll houses’. Small prepares her body for burial, and puts on every single one of her dresses. This layering seems significant we each have many layers, different dependant on the day. While the children rig up her coffin, we get short paragraphs about what the cats are up to all this time. They’re agitated, coming in and out, getting sicker and sicker. They’re carrying Time, which is heavy. Time is treated as a concrete thing they build nests out of it.

Flora and Jack flirt, which feels uncomfortably incestuous, because they were both ‘birthed’ from the witch. But they each speak of finding ‘their parents’, which suggests they’re not really related if they came from a witch. Flora and Jack drive off in the opposite direction their witch mother ordered. (They drive North see The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.) Small stays behind to look after the cats, even though the house looks frail and unwelcoming.

Jack sleeps outside with the cats, but finds they’re not good company. Still, they seem to be looking after him, making him a nest with their fur. One day he wakes up and sees a familiar-feeling cat. We know this is the reincarnation of the witch because the cat has red tufts and we’ve been told the witch favoured red. ‘”You may call me Mother,” she says.’ Link refers to this cat as ‘The Witch’s Revenge’ from here on.

The Witch’s Revenge says to burn down the house. This is a gruesome scene, as the witch’s cats have crowded inside. They’re burned, too.

More direct address the reader is told not to do any of this. Direct address as cautionary tale.

The house won’t burn down but the windows melt down the walls. The Witch’s Revenge goes inside and comes back with a cat skin. It keeps coming back with more and each contains a lump of gold. I’m reminded more and more of No-Face from Spirited Away. This Revenge seems to be rewarding Small for small generosities such as brushing its fur, just as Chihiro was rewarded for basic civility at the bath house.

The Revenge digs up buttons and makes Small a suit out of cat skin. She tells him this bit of land where they sleep was once the site of a big struggle. Together they go into the forest, where a witch called Lack lives.

On the hells of Spirited Away, there’s environmental commentary in “Cat Skin” when Link tells us the forest is smaller than it used to be. It’s been encroached upon by human development. (Small is also growing bigger, metaphor for more powerful.)

Now we get the link to Rapunzel. The witch explains that people made houses to lock their children away. But instead of a tower, Link creates basements. Link takes a familiar expression, ‘house cat’ and invents super creepy etymology:

Now people mostly bury a cat when they build their house, instead of a child. That’s why we call cats house-cats.

The coat is still alive with cats, meowing. As they walk, Small is turning into a cat himself. They live like wild animals, drinking from streams, and at night they sleep in a catskin bag, which carries Time.

Small and the Revenge lift the lid on a small forest house and set whatever’s inside free. They can’t see it, but it arrives in Small’s dreams. He imagines it’s following them now.

We are introduced to Lack. Supernatural fairytale creatures tend to be strongly gendered in our minds witches are female, wizards are the ‘male equivalent’. But in this story Lack is a male and also a witch. (Throughout Europe, a proportion of people burned at the stake were male most often they were burned because they were associated with female ‘witches’ so there will always be a gendered aspect to witches.) Lack is a bugaboo he has stolen his children from their beds, apparently unable to make them himself out of bits and pieces, as can a female witch.

Revenge intends to live at Lack’s house. There’s been some history between them, but we’re told no one knows what it is. Presumably this is where Revenge will take her Revenge. She instructs Small to behave like a pet cat for Lack’s children.

There’s not much build up like a cat pouncing out of nowhere, we’re told Revenge jumps at Lack’s throat and kills him.

The children scatter some mean to go back to their homes. But exactly what became of them ‘Small never knew, and neither do I, and neither shall you,’ which is one way of tidying up a narrative.

It is revealed that the children are cat children. Turns out Revenge is annoyed that children with mothers and fathers have been stolen. She intends to return them, but this is not a true desire, because we’re told she doesn’t care if she returns the right cats to the right parents. When she returns, she accuses Small of having sex with the female child of Lack. Revenge makes a cat toy which is more of a trap the remaining cats are made to run along behind, chasing it, as they leave Lack’s house.

The house is made of shit, which burns slowly. So although Small set it on fire it may be there still, we are told. Notice the present tense passages between the past tense ones the present tense points to the universal, the never-ending nature of the story.

There’s a summary which spans years of Small’s life, living with Revenge in a room rented off a butcher. The reader is left to imagine the form they take, because surely cats can’t rent rooms from butchers. They keep cats in cages, though Small takes them out for walks. One day he comes home to find one of the three cats gone. He is told it escaped through the window and a crow carried her off.

Then Flora and Jack destitute now arrive on the doorstep of their new house. It seems the witch’s children are forever children, but adult in some ways. They’ve fallen out of love with other creatures and so on. It’s as if they’ve lived full, adult lives, yet here they are, once again the witch’s children. Only Small does not grow up, which I guess is why Link called him Small. He goes to school every day on a bicycle. (He’s large, apparently, which means he doesn’t need friends.)

Small’s adult fur begins to grow in puberty, of course. The story gets really trippy now and I have trouble keeping track. This sequence, with the miniature naked prince and princess, and Small dreaming and screaming “I want my mother!” and the ants coming out of Revenge’s body remind me of the Battle sequence in a carnivalesque picture book the craziness comes to a head. Things start happening more quickly until nothing more crazy could possibly happen and then we’re at the story’s end.

Once  he’s planned to live in the belly of a fish who has eaten his tiny shrunken self, we are told ‘This is the end of the story’. We get a kind of an epilogue without it called as such, in which we wear about The Princess Margaret. In a Charles Perrault kind of summary we are told something true about life as the author sees it: ‘There is no such thing as witches, and there is no such thing as cats, either, only people dressed up in catskin suits.’

This story seems to be telling us that appearances are deceptive, and not really that important, as they don’t speak to the essence of a character.


To simplify it…


Small’s shortcoming is that he is forever childlike, even after he grows bigger. He’s dependent on his mother, even after her death, when she reincarnates as a vengeful cat. Small is under her spell and must go with her on her travels.


Surface desire: Small isn’t comfortable with the cruelties exacted by the mother cat, so he does what he can to ameliorate the lives of people she touches.

Deep desire: His nurturing nature indicates that he wants to be mothered himself. This becomes clear as the story progresses, obviated only at the anagnorisis phase.


Revenge, the reincarnated cat mother


The magic in this story is of the fatalistic kind. Small is bound to go along with a cat who he sees as a mother figure. It’s Revenge who makes all the plans.

At some point in every story, the passive hero usually makes a firm plan of some kind. They ‘come into their own’. When he realises that the thing in the forest crawled inside him he starts having nightmares. He then, finally, demands his own mother. He knows the cat has taken her and demands his mother back.


The ‘Battle‘ comprises the trippy in-and-out of bodies sequence where even size is variable, like something out of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.


Small has always wanted a mother, but is told eventually that he doesn’t have one, as the lullaby said (earlier in the story). The singer of that lullaby says she has no mother and nor did her mother have one and so on, far back into time.


Small has shed his cat body but morphed into something different, inhabiting the insides of a fish.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline with cat

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). Every word counts.

“When I’m writing for kids,” he says, “I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults, just in terms of word choices. I once said that while I could not justify every word in American Gods, I can justify every single word in Coraline.”

Neil Gaiman, Children’s Books Are Never Just For Children, The Guardian

This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the battle-free myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the big struggle-free myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.)


Coraline is a changeling story, but instead of the child being swapped, it’s the mother. There is a long history of changeling stories, which feeds upon a fear that our loved-ones are not who we think they are, or perhaps we are not who we think we are.

Coraline is a great example of an uncanny story. It is also a great example of contemporary gothic children’s literature. Gothic literature is often all about surfaces — tropes and trappings rather than psychic depths. For more on that specific thing, see Eve Sedgwick. You can read that paper for free if you register with JStor. See also the work of Catherine Spooner.

The influence of Fairy Tale: Hansel and Gretel as ur-Story

In general, male villains are WYSIWG. Even when they’re tricksters, we know they’re tricksters. But the villainous trickster who infiltrates the family home, pretending to be nurturer when she is no such thing, is a gendered archetype. In fairytales we see this woman played out as the step-mother, which is something the Grimm brothers changed (from plain old evil mother) to make the tales more palatable for a child audience. (Evil mums are more scary than evil step-mums.)

In Coraline, The Other Mother is sneaky, cunning, clever, intimidating, and seeks power. Just like many of the maternal figures in Disney movies or in fables (including Hansel and Gretel), the Other Mother is ugly (underneath) and craves power. These are two traits which are apparently bad for any women to have, and so she must be destroyed.

Alice’s adventures In Wonderland and Other Classic Tales

When an author wants to write their first fantasy novel for children, they’ll sometimes fall back on the books they themselves loved as kids. If they were Alice in Wonderland fans they might go the route of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. If they were partial to The Wizard of Oz they could do as Salman Rushdie did when he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Betsy Bird

In a discussion about another book entirely, Betsy Bird  happens to point out that Coraline has been influenced by Alice In Wonderland, which has a mythic structure underneath but weird things happen which seem random and disconnected. A girl goes ‘down a rabbit hole’ (or through a small door) into a parallel universe, not so far from home at all. The story is populated by eccentrics who follow their own logic. For critics, it is very difficult to analyse Coraline as a real child. Coraline eludes the adult critic – like Freud’s “Dora” and Carroll’s Alice. She’s often quite opaque.

Thomas Byrne offers a much wider list of influences on Neil Gaiman’s work, noting that Gaiman is one of the contemporary authors who creates more nuanced characters than usual:

If we were to take a brief look at a collection of popular children’s books from the past featuring similar themes to Gaiman’s work – supernatural creatures, magic, witches, or other unexplainable phenomenon, we might be drawn to such classics as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, or C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. All of these books are widely considered to be classic tales from previous generations, and all have elements of the supernatural, from explicit witches and wizardry to the unseen resurrection of characters. All of these books have villains or evil characters, and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most prototypical of the entire genre. Yet, despite the proliferation of such ‘bad guys’ in these books, they do not seem to have the depth and realism of fright of contemporary works. These classic stories have clear designations to show that what is happening is make believe, which diminishes the realism and impact on their readers. Children who read these books can more easily convince themselves that what is happening is fictional, as the parallels to the main characters as they are going through such adventures are difficult to draw. In essence, most of these books are examples of mild escapist fiction, where the author provides a magical world for children to live in, but from which they can easily escape. This view is supported by fairy tale expert Jack Zipes in his essay “Are fairy tales still useful to Children?”: “…the very act of reading a fairy tale is an uncanny experience in that it separates the reader from the restrictions of reality from the onset…”.

Thomas Byrne
The Specific Influence Of Mrs Clifford

Neil Gaiman has said that he was influenced directly by a tale written by Mrs. (Lucy) Clifford in a collection called Anyhow Stories (1882). This creepy tale is called “The New Mother”. The protagonists are called by Mrs. Clifford’s own children’s nicknames, Turkey and Blue-Eyes.

Alison Lurie writes of “The New Mother”:

In “The New Mother” … the frightening thing is that inanimate matter has become real. This tale draws on the primitive fear of objects that survives just below the surface in most of us — the suspicion that our new tennis racket or our old Toyota is secretly hostile, that the politician speaking on television is really a plastic replica. It is also, of course, a classic tale of separation anxiety, made more terrifying because it does not take place “in a faraway land, but [in] England with typical village, post office, house-hold furnishings etc.”

The “strange wild-looking girl” whom the children in “The New Mother” find sitting by the wayside claims that she lives in their villages, but they have never seen her there before. She is sitting on a musical instrument called a peardrum, which, she tells them, she will play only for naughty children. This peardrum, in the accompanying illustration, is shaped very like a womb; so it is not surprising to hear the girl claim that when she plays it a little man and woman come out and dance together. “The little woman has heard a secret — she tells it while she dances.”

Naturally the children long to see this dance and learn this secret, so they go home and try hard to be naughty. Their mother, distressed, tells them that if they do not stop she will have to go away and leave them “and send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” But the children keep on trying to be naughty, encouraged by the girl with the peardrum, who remarks to them that “the pleasure of goodness centres in itself; the pleasures of naughtiness are many and varied.”

Day after day the children become naughtier — but never quite naughty enough for a strange girl. They break furniture and crockery, throw the clock on the floor, and put out the fire. Finally they behave so badly that their mother leaves them — but even then they do not get their wish. The strange girl dances past their cottage, accompanied by an old man playing in a peculiar way on a flute and two dogs waltzing on their hind legs. “Oh, stop!” the children cry, “and show us the little man and woman now.”

But the strange girl passes on, calling back to them: “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long… but she is coming, she is coming — coming — coming.” The procession disappears down the road, becoming “a dark misty object”.

The children return to their disordered and deserted cottage to wait for night, and for the arrival of the new mother: “Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking.” Turkey and Blue-Eyes bolt the door, but the new mother breaks it open with her tail. The children escape into the cold, dark forest, where they wander about like the famous Babes in the Wood, lonely and miserable. At the end of the story they are still living there, longing to go home and see their real mother once again.

The figure of the new mother and the elemental terror aroused by her coming seem to belong to a more primitive world than that of the usual English folktale. They suggest the carved wooden images and superstitions of the voodoo cult, which Mrs. Clifford may have seen or heard of during her childhood in Barbados and recalled, perhaps not even consciously, many years later.

Readers of Henry James may feel a particular shiver of recognition as they read this story. Like “The Turn Of The Screw”, written sixteen years later, it is the tale of two innocent children in late Victorian England who encounter a strange, attractive young woman who may be either a devil or a damned soul.She tempts them to disobedience, promising to reveal ambiguously sexual secrets, gradually leads them further and further into evil, and then disappears abruptly. It would be interesting to know whether James, when he wrote his famous ghost story, remembered his friend Lucy Clifford’s strange and haunting tale for children.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

TV Tropes lists the story building-blocks which Gaiman makes use of in Coraline.



This is a moving house story and begins the way many ghost stories begin — a child moves into a new house where everything is scary. This is the archetypal scary mansion, broken into parts where eccentric characters share the building. You get the sense this is a labyrinthine setting, with the house several storeys high, and the well leading far, far into the ground. This makes full use of the symbolism of altitude. Coraline finds the well before she finds the little door. The well therefore functions like Chekhov’s gun. If there’s one secret place in this arena, we expect others.

See also: Symbolism Of The Dream House


This seems to be a mild English summer, with a torrential downpour more reminiscent of the tropics than of England. The rain outside, followed by the fog, gives the sense that this is a world separate from the real world, with the weather functioning as a kind of veil. We could probably say all sorts of Freudian things about that veil, too — something like ‘the rain and fog is the membrane between Freud’s conscious and unconscious states. Whatever happens inside the house is connected to the unconscious, where all sorts of weird and wacky things are allowed to come to the fore. This reading is probably a bridge too far, but this is an example of what gives Coraline its Gothic feel.



Coraline book cover

The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring….

In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close.

The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only it’s different.

At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls that chatter their teeth. But there’s another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself.

Coraline marketing copy


This story is an example of how an adult response might be different from a child’s response.

I see Coraline’s biggest shortcoming as her inability to amuse herself while her parents are busy working. Sure, kids do need attention and quite a lot of it, but kids also need to learn how to read a damn book if their work-from-home parents are on deadline. I doubt the child reader sees both sides. I expect the typical child reader will empathise fully with Coraline’s loneliness and judge her parents harshly for dismissing her like that. We are not shown all the times when Coraline’s parents do spend time with her. I assume there are many — a child reader is only shown the time when the parents are busy.

Coraline’s biggest problem is boredom, but this is the state of mind that makes her start noticing things she wouldn’t have, had she found some way to occupy her mind. The film adaptation emphasises Coraline’s boredom, whereas the book emphasises her natural curiosity, making her less of a passive character.


At a surface level, Coraline wants fun. She wants to eat dinners that are not too fancy and not too bland. She thinks other kids have better families. These hypothetical other families are all in her head, later symbolised by The Other Parents through the portal.

Under the surface, Coraline wants company, specifically her parents’ attention. It is the end of the summer holidays and she has just moved to a new house, so she is naturally starved of company.


Coraline’s parents are her opponent. Coraline wants to spend time with them, they want (need) to spend time on their work.

The Other Parents are an example of false-ally opponents. At this point I feel this category of character should be broken into two groups:

  1. The audience knows right away that these false-ally opponents are false
  2. This fact is revealed later — a surprise to the audience as much as to the main character

In this case, the reader knows right away that the Other Parents are not on her side. They are too good to be true. The film adaptation has the benefit of visuals to underscore this point, but how does Gaiman do it in the book? Coraline’s Other Bedroom is painted in Coraline’s favourite colours, but the colours look garish somehow.

The cat is a creepy character partly because he is ambiguous in his alliances. In fact, he’s out for himself. He sometimes helps Coraline, sometimes thwarts her plans, such as by killing the rat who is helping her. Yet he does lead her to the mirror and shows her what happened to her parents.


Motivated by curiosity, and by the singing mice, Coraline keeps looking behind the tiny door. Eventually it opens up into a corridor and she goes through the portal.

When she realises her parents have left her, possibly to never come back, she goes to Miss Spink and Miss Forcilble, because isn’t that what sensible children always do, unless there’s some good reason not to tell adults? The problem with telling adults is, the adults often have the power to either fix the big problem or to provide emotional comfort, but these old theatre ladies are completely self-absorbed. They do not even hear Coraline, wrapped up entirely in their own obsessions. Gaiman made sure to establish this earlier. These characters talk past each other, as if they are living in their own world — which is interesting, because Coraline, too, is living in her own world. Glamorising the past at the expense of living in the moment is another way to avoid reality.

Coraline takes a while to work out what’s going on. She goes along with her imprisonment in The Other House, but when she has her revelation, that getting what she wants won’t lead to happiness, then she realises she needs to chase the rat, who will help release the ghost children from the mirror, along with her real parents.


Typically for a story starring a girl, the big struggle of this book takes place (literally) inside Coraline’s own mind, beginning with the sequence where the cat murders the rat. Coraline defeats the Other Mother by throwing the black cat at her. Coraline is an example of a big struggle-free myth form, using wits instead of brute strength to win.


When Coraline is given everything she ostensibly wants, she knows that this doesn’t mean much:

I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?

But these things aren’t what she really wanted at all. Coraline’s under-the-conscious desire still hasn’t been met.


Chapter thirteen (the final chapter) explains that the parents never realised they had been trapped inside the snow globe (a popular horror symbol).

Snow globe close up from the film Aquaman. Notice which books it's sitting on top of.
Snow globe close up from the film Aquaman. Notice which books it’s sitting on top of.

But like many horrors, this creature opponent is robotic — defeat it though you try, it only comes back. (The trope of the disembodied hand is also used The Iron Giant.) The indestructible villain is common to adult thrillers and horrors as well. Australian classic horror Dead Calm springs to mind.

The Film Adaptation Of Coraline

Coraline movie poster

As much as I love the style and spookiness of the film, it is absolutely depressing to see what the screenwriters did in order to make it acceptable for the wider, ‘more universal’ audience required of high budget film productions.

Wybie is such an annoying, useless character you could equally make the case that the existence of Wybie does nothing for boys. He does nothing for girls, either:

  • One major difference between the novel and the movie is Selick’s addition of Wybie Lovat to the screenplay.
  • With the introduction of Wybie, all of a sudden Coraline has a rescuer. She doesn’t need to be the brave, solitary heroine. She is no longer the independently motivated, fearless adventurer Gaiman depicted her as, because she has a companion.
  • The novel’s Coraline is independently motivated and curious. She does a lot of solitary exploring and doesn’t have any recognizable fears. However, in the film she is portrayed differently. It seems she simply wanders from her house out of boredom, not out of genuine curiosity. Outside she is alarmed by noises and runs down the hill, terrified, and is nearly run over by a boy on a bike. The boy looms over her. Immediately in that situation she is made to be the lesser, submissive character. The boy on the bike is Wybie. This first encounter presents Coraline as easily frightened and places Wybie in a more dominant position.
  • The trend of Wybie as a figure of masculine authority continues. For example, in the movie there is an old well that part of the plot. Coraline does not discover it on her own as she does in the book, Wybie is the one to tell her about it.

cheers to Violet Rebelo for listing them

In other ways, Neil Gaiman’s feminism is retained in the movie adaptation, which leads most people to conclude that the film is ultimately a feminist work:

  • The main character is a girl.
  • Initially, Coraline tries to enforce gender roles in her family. She wants a “perfect” family. She doesn’t like that her father is the one to do the cooking, and asks her mother why she doesn’t ever cook. (Is it really because her father’s ‘recipes’ are horrible? Either way, the man as hopeless cook is an overdone trope in its own right.) But she learns that ‘perfect’ family does not mean a mother who cooks wonderful food a la 1950s White suburban America/England. (Is the father really a hopeless cook, or is he a fantastic cook, while Coraline is simply a fussy eater? That’s up for interpretation.)

I’ll leave it to you to decide. In any case, it is great that Coraline exists in the world.

What a little girl does with her copy of Coraline, and Neil Gaiman’s response.

Verbal Diorama discuss the movie adaptation of Coraline.

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Strat and Chatto by Jan Mark and David Hughes Analysis

Strat and Chatto is a picture book created by Jan Mark and David Hughes. Jan Mark was a British children’s book author who died about 10 years ago in 2006. She wrote for the picture book and chapter book age range. Her subject matter was mostly ordinary kids in ordinary settings. She also wrote plays and collections of short stories.


David Hughes describes himself as “a graphic designer who happens to illustrate” which sounds suspiciously to me like he’s actively avoiding the condescension experienced by creators of children’s books. The truth is, though, that he hasn’t really illustrated many picture books compared to all the other work he has done. He also writes children’s books.

His background/forte in graphic design shines through on these pages, which are all double page spreads, with the action flowing beautifully across the page. (I haven’t scanned any of the double page spreads — the hard copy is necessary to enjoy those.)

White space is preserved, and busyness minimised, with the technique of filling some objects with colour and leaving others as outlines.

Another standout feature of these illustrations are the disgustingness of the creatures. Hughes achieves this by creating skeletal, long-fingered hands, spiny tails and wavy antennae.


Strat and Chatto is a story set in London, with a strong Cockney influence coming through in the rat. This rat is an animal version of the Rag and Bone man of yesteryear — a white, working class guy who gambles, drinks and plays darts at the pub when he’s not at work.

Like any ancient city, London is in a state of constant change — out with the old, in with the new. This cycle is emulated at the micro level in this story about the rotation of animals inclined to infest urban dwellings: cockroaches, rats, silverfish and also bats.




Our viewpoint character is the put-upon cat. The cat is presented as somewhat cuter than the other characters, though lacking in drive. This is his downfall.



All Chatto wants is this one rat out of his house.


The original (off-stage) opponent may be the rat throwing lentils onto his head, but this story begins with a far stronger opponent coming along.

See here for why rats are the baddies and mice are the goodies of children’s literature.

Readers do love tricksters, and the rat is an example of that archetype.


We don’t see the rat’s plan for a while, though we’re encouraged to guess.

This part of the story is very similar to Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze, in that a small dwelling becomes unbearably overcrowded with creatures, upsetting the original inhabitant. Donaldson’s story is created more like a modern fable with a message about not complaining about the size of your house, but this is a purely comic tale in which the reader is invited to guess at what the wily rat is up to.

I suspect the illustrator is not a huge fan of Nana Mouskouri.
Possibly the only instance of camel toe I have seen in a children’s book.


The climax is a busy scene where all the invaders come together.

Then Strat climbed in at the cat flap and yelled, “EVERYBODY OUT!”

And out of the cat flap came the bats and the cockroaches and the silverfish.


We realise the rat’s plan. We’ve been wondering all along why he’s been moving all his friends and acquaintances into the cat’s house — it’s because he wants to move in himself, since his own house is about to be demolished.


We realise now that this is a very clever circular story. The original rat probably weasled his way into the cat’s apartment by similar means.

Notice the tails here, intertwined, but in a stranglehold.

The long, bulbous fingers which have been emphasised throughout the book are framed for attention here. Long fingers indicate a long reach, and we find them creepy. I’m sure that’s why depictions of grey aliens feature similar hands.

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The Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean Analysis

Have you ever had something living in your walls or in your roof space, or cellar?

Apparently the story was inspired by his own daughter, who heard rats in the walls at night. (So do we — they’re actually mice…) Hearing rodents in the walls isn’t all that uncommon. And rodents are most active at night. It really is quite disturbing to hear two a.m. scrabbling right behind your head: You’re not quite sure they’re rodents, they’re so close to you, yet you can’t see them. And it’s not easy to do much about them, either. You have to wait for them to come out and eat the bait you’ve placed elsewhere.


There are few picturebooks for older readers, and even fewer published today, with children encouraged to read chapter books earlier than ever before. This picture book is longer than your typical toddler-targeted picturebook and is aimed at readers who might otherwise be reading a chapter of a chapter book. Themes are commensurately dark, under the assumption that an older reader can cope, and isn’t necessarily going to wake up at midnight from nightmares.

There’s a good reason why this book is a bit longer: It’s an example of the horror genre in picture book format.

Am I the only one who thought this is a mishmash of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” and the classic wolf-riddled admonitory bedtime stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”?

Goodreads reviewer

Does Gaiman’s story have anything to do with Lovecraft’s The Rats In The Walls? That is a story set almost 100 years ago in a renovated castle. This is a modern, warm house with modern technology such as computer games, and a 1950s mother figure in the kitchen making jam. What could possibly go wrong? In Lovecraft’s story he gathers a posse of experts from England who know all about medieval stuff and they find a terrifying grotto below the basement which is the scene of a horrendous ancient civilisation in which creatures (including humans) were kept in cages to be eaten by an army of rats.

While I don’t think this picturebook has all that much in common with Lovecraft’s story, there are some tropes common in horror:

  • The hero hears strange goings-on but no one else in the house believes them.
  • The strange goings-on happen in the middle of the night.
  • Though Lucy lives in a modern, suburban house, the long shot of the house at midnight shows us it’s perched atop a bit of a hill and now it looks like a castle. We can well imagine that this house has a vast, labyrinthine basement full of terrors.
  • Lucy has a beloved pig puppet whereas the narrator of The Rats In The Walls has a beloved black cat. (The pig functions as a kind of ‘Companion Cube‘ — a trope in which the character uses an inanimate object as a security blanket — being too  close to an inanimate thing is a sign of madness in horror.)
  • There’s a grizzly scene — skeletons of unlikely creatures in Lovecraft; faux-grizzliness with wolves with jam around their mouths in Gaiman and McKean

But there are very big differences, given the target audience:

  • Lovecraft’s story is about descent into madness; the picture book is the active imagination of a little girl
  • Lovecraft’s conclusion is without hope; Wolves in the Walls is a circular story book — at the end we find out that the story will repeat itself, this time with elephants.
  • Lovecraft’s skeletons and chimeras are truly terrifying; the wolves in the picture book have very humanlike interests (playing video games and eating jam), and are just as scared of humans as the humans are of them.

See: What Is The Horror Genre For?

In horror, light and dark are especially important.

Light = good.

Dark = evil.

This dichotomy is expertly exploited by the illustrator.


We also have wolves, which Christian thought — upon which western horror is based — has turned into villains. Wolves lead you towards the devil. Traditionally, at least. There’s a recent turnaround, now that wolves are endangered and we know more about them. Spoiler alert: Healthy wolves don’t hunt people, which ruins the entire plot of White Fang. These days you get picture books in which the wolves are the goodies, for example The Three Little Wolves and the Big, Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury.

See also: Wolves In Children’s Literature


Dave McKean’s illustration of the stairs does remind me a little of this one. The Bear Under The Stairs by Helen Cooper.

Some illustrators share their styles with many others. Not so with Dave McKean, whose dark, spooky, yet patchwork style is unique. How to describe the artwork? In bulletpoints, I guess, since it’s a tall order:

  • Scenes are a mixture of photorealistic images (perhaps parts cropped from photos), line drawings and off-kilter textures. In other words, the pictures form a ‘chimera’, mixing reality with fiction. But which part is fiction and which is true? That’s the freaky part.
  • The collage effect is achieved by making no attempt to ‘line edges up’ or position textures so that they match real life perspective. A boy lying on a rug has realistic hair, an illustrated body, and the rug he lies on is a texture which doesn’t come out the other side of the boy’s body where you would expect it to.
  • A palette knife tool is used to suggest movement and also that a character is an inextricable part of the setting. In the picture above we see the knife applied to the girl’s hair.
  • Digital artists working in a more photorealistic style often make use of the multiply blend mode in order to make a many-layered illustration look cohesive. Here we have what looks like a glaze or coloured-wash. The pattern of the aforementioned rug extends right across the carpet; what makes it look like a rug is that it is a circle of different toned wash.
  • Photorealistic objects (or, photos) are also distorted with a palette knife, or digital equivalent. An illustrator such as Lauren Child also makes use of (stock?) photos in her illustrations to completely different effect. (Her childlike representations of Charlie and Lola look even more naive by contrast.)
  • The eyes of McKean’s characters look super spooky. Eyes are always important in illustrations of people and animals. Although dots for eyes are very common in picturebooks, when dots are used for eyes on more realistic (generic tending towards naturalistic) looking characters with that photorealistic hair and those contoured faces, we are reminded of the button-eyes of Coraline, or of dead birds we found on the ground as children, since the eyes are first to rot.
  • While the human characters and scenery are drawn in semi-naturalistic style, the wolves look like drawings of yesteryear, with black, sketchy outlines only. The humans are a part of the child reader’s world whereas these wolves are creatures from an ancient folklore. We are encouraged to forget the fact that wolves would never be found inside a house.
  • The crumpled paper background and dirty texture overlays lets us know that this is a story from an earlier time and the crumpledness equals some sort of frantic gesture.
Wolves In The Walls Wolves
  • When colour is added, it’s not necessarily in sync with the ink outlines. For example, a wolf rendered in outlines has a yellow splodge of paint in the eye area, and a square of semi-transparent green overlaid on its body. The wolf is neither square nor green; why this artistic choice? The wolves are coming out of the walls in the same way the colour is coming out of its rightful place. Worlds are blurring together.
the wolves came out of the walls


Here’s an interesting project, completed by someone at Deviant Art: re-creating a double-spread of a picturebook in black and white only (values). Doing this would no doubt leave you with a good sense of page layout, and I guess that was the aim of the task:

Wolves In The Walls Silhouette Only

Font Choice and Placement

Inside the house everything was quiet
The main child character has a naturalistic hand but basically dots for eyes. The wolf is depicted as an outline but has naturalistic wolf eyes. Lucy is an inverse of the wolf. Which parts of Lucy are wolflike and which parts of the wolf are Lucy?

The placement of the text suggests terror and unease, askew on the page. There is also a variety of fonts. The font on the front cover looks like the scrawl of one crazed individual, perhaps one possessed by werewolves. Dialogue is rendered in a typewriter, serif style. It all works well together. Note that both of the interior fonts are quite different. It’s no good picking two that are basically the same.

Colour Temperature

night wolf howling
Wolves In Walls blue colour scheme

This is by the by…

But on the front cover we see the creators credited very specifically: Written by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Dave McKean. If you are an illustrator (especially) you’re probably aware of the unfortunate tendency to credit the writers of picturebooks but not the illustrators, who bring as much (if not more) to a story than the writer. Some picturebook creators do not like the word ‘author’ in relation to picturebooks, because a picturebook is ‘authored’ by both the writer and illustrator. In short, perhaps this method of crediting a picturebook’s co-creators is about to catch on? I hope so.


Extraordinary Navigators: An Examination of Three Heroines in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and MirrorMask

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