Animal Kingdom Modern Fairy Tale

Animal Kingdom poster

Animal Kingdom is an Australian movie based on a Melbourne family who wreaked a lot of havoc in the 1980s. This movie was the inspiration for the American TV spin-off set in San Diego. Below I make the case that Animal Kingdom is a modern fairytale.

Breaking Bad is also a modern fairytale blended with crime and heist plot elements. I believe the Animal Kingdom writers modelled this show on Breaking Bad. But I prefer the female characters in Animal Kingdom. Breaking Bad feels like a story made for and about men. Animal Kingdom includes women. The male actors are oftentimes subjected to the female gaze; a sure sign that women as audience have been considered this time.

ANIMAL KINGDOM: THE TITLE

The word ‘Kingdom’ is very fairytale. Here we have a family who consider themselves head honchos of their local area. The world around them is their kingdom, and the spoils are there for their taking. This harks back to the medieval social structure of aristocrats versus serfs, in which aristocrats had everything and serfs owned nothing. They maintained this hierarchy by switching off empathy for others and bald brutality.

FAIRY TALE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES

animal kingdom fairytale characters
Joshua (J)

Joshua is the poor boy with no mother and no father. Our initial viewpoint character loses his mother to potions (drugs). Many children’s stories in particular use this plot device. A character without a mother is a sympathetic character.

In English fairy tales, the sympathetic character is often called ‘Jack’ or ‘John’. Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the most famous. In this story, Joshua is shortened to J. This guy is one of the J crew who often stars in fairy tales.

Smurf

Smurf is the wicked grandmother — the archetypal witch. Smurf uses what looks like magic, but which is really street smarts and wits, in a complex system of crime few would get away with in reality. The audience must suspend disbelief. Like a wicked witch, Smurf can grant great riches but take them away just as easily. Like a fairy tale witch, she often seems to be doing the prince a favour: In a fairy tale the witch turns a prince into a tree, but perhaps to assuage her own guilt, she grants him the body of a dove for two hours per day. Likewise, Smurf does all the kind, motherly things for her sons, but maintains complete control.

Smurf lives in a ‘house made of candy’ in the middle of a suburban forest — an opulent gated mansion which attracts hangers-on from all around.

There’s something eerie about Smurf, as played by Ellen Barkin. She is glamorous in the original, magical sense of the world. In fairytales, as in medieval times, the elderly were treated with great suspicion. Smurf is in transition when it comes to her relationship with her boys; she’s in danger of clicking over from ‘wise and respected’ old person to a nuisance. This comes to the fore in season four. See: Sacrificing One’s Grandmother. This has been foreshadowed with J’s abandonment of the elderly woman with dementia.

Cody is a Gaelic name, but I believe if there’s any symbolism to Janine Cody’s last name, it’s down to American frontiersman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917).

In fairy tales — witches and godmothers excepted — girls and women do not have agency. Men rule the world. While the female characters in this show do have some basic agency — Nicky chooses to move in with J. Ordinary women will never be a part of this world. They need some kind of superpower. Smurf the Witch is of course the exception, conforming to the age old rule that in order to have true agency in a story, a female character must be magical. Smurf could take other women under her wing, but instead sees other women as threats rather than allies. If she takes them in, it’s because she’s keeping her enemies closer.

Ellen Barkin’s character is not entirely fairytale — her character is a more modern take on the witch. Witches in the Grimm era and previously were sexually repulsive, but Smurf uses her sexuality to get what she wants. This power is waning, but only because of her age. Smurf is an intriguing admixture of the sexualised and the grotesque aspects of a witch, who even uses her sexuality to influence her own sons. (This was set up in the pilot, but perhaps it was a bridge too far, because little has been done with this incestuous plot line, yet.)

The Brothers

The three brothers are the archetypal three brothers from a fairytale.

One brother, Pope, has been on a big journey (prison) and returns at the beginning of the tale. Though Pope is the eldest of Smurf’s sons, he doesn’t play the role of eldest son and heir to the throne. He has been usurped by Baz, the orphan rescued from drowning in the river.

The youngest brother, Deren, is gay, which marks him out as not fitting into this macho world. He wants out of the world of magic. He wants to become a woodworker (own a simple pub) and live in the pious world. The problem is, he’s been brought up on crime and has no idea how to live in the law-abiding world, paying taxes and dismissing staff fairly and so on. He can never put aside the fact that he grew up in a house of magic. He doesn’t belong there.

Another brother, Craig, is the lazy one, interested in getting high and parties and sleeping with women. This is his main fault, and it will be his downfall.

A fourth ‘brother’, Baz, is Smurf’s favourite, in a way. This brother is not related by blood. Perhaps this means he’s not imbued by the same magic. He soon loses his life. This conforms to a very primitive and conservative idea which runs throughout storytelling — that blood family is your true family. Any outsiders will be punished eventually.

The new brother (the nephew) eventually becomes the replacement for Baz, the favourite ‘brother’ — favourite because he is more wily than Smurf’s actual sons. J is the ultimate trickster. The complex system of crime Smurf has set up requires a smart person to take over.

Smurf’s own sons have clearly delineated flaws and each their own demons which make it impossible for them to take on Smurf’s role as she retires. Pope is volatile. Craig is lazy. Deren is conflicted and suspicious and not really invested in a life of crime anyway.

For more on fairy tale character archetypes, see this post.

FAIRY TALE PLOT ELEMENTS

After his mother overdoses on heroin, J is taken in by his grandmother. He realises he has landed in a cottage in the forest and that his new, extended family is evil. So this is why his mother worked hard to keep him away from them. He immediately faces a moral dilemma: Do I separate myself from these people or do I learn their way of life? He must choose between light and dark, good and evil. This is a stark moral dilemma reminiscent of the black and white nature of fairy tales.

Sometimes in fairy tales, witches have their powers taken away. This happens to Smurf when she is sent to prison.

Nicky is the naive, pretty (but not dangerously beautiful) peasant girl who doesn’t fully understand the danger of the outside world. Nicky is abducted by Cody enemies partly because of her own naivety. Nicky plays the part of Little Red Riding Hood, warned of the dangers of other people, constantly refusing to listen. Eventually she finds her world so limited that the only safe place for her is within the walls of the Cody Mansion, and even then she’s vulnerable due to her own naivety.

Snow White is basically the same character archetype as Little Red Riding Hood — kind and simple and sweet and vulnerable. Nicky finds herself in a Snow White tale, doing the washing and cleaning for the male ‘dwarfs’ around her, who go out to work each day and allow her to stay there out of their own good graces. There are plenty of fairy tales about young women who find themselves cooking and cleaning for large groups of men in the woods — it just so happens that Snow White is the most famous of the subgenre. In season three, when Mia Trujillo infiltrates the Cody Mansion, Snow White has basically been tricked by another kind of witch. (So has J — even more so.) Or, you could see Mia as a classic trickster character. All wicked witches are also tricksters, despite the powers available to them.

In the “Prey” episode of season three, J and one of his uncles have a problem with a demented tenant. Knowing she’ll soon be questioned by police, J tests her (tests are also common in fairytales) and realises she can’t keep his story straight. So now he has to get rid of her. First the men discuss if they should kill her. No, that is too confronting for them. Instead, the writers borrow from fairy tale logic. They take her far away, dump her at a bus stop, tell her they’re going to bring her a milkshake then drive off, leaving her alone with her beloved cat.  This subplot has the story structure of Hansel and Gretel. Gerontricide was a reality in earlier human eras, especially when we were still nomadic.

Animal Kingdom is basically a return to an earlier, more brutal time, and reminds us that our veneer of civility is just that; a veneer. We all have a price.

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The Child by Ali Smith Short Story Analysis

the child ali smith

Short stories are as powerful as novels. In long hindsight we remember a novel about as well as we remember a short story, yet the short story took far less time to read in the first place. “The Child” by Ali Smith is one of those shorts which has stayed in my mind more vividly than many novels. Smith provided me with images which recur frequently — when I see a child in a supermarket trolley, or when my child comes out with something new and foul-mouthed, or when kids are being assholes at the shops. If you would like to be similarly disturbed, the full text of  Ali Smith’s “The Child” can be found here.

THE TROPE OF THE ABANDONED CHILD

John Everett Millais - A Flood
John Everett Millais – A Flood

Now for a bit of history. The story of the unpleasant toddler passed from home to home is very old. “The Bird Phoenix” is a lesser known tale from the original Folk and Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm:

One day a rich man went for a walk along the river. All at once he saw a small casket swimming by. He grabbed hold of the casket, and when he opened the cover, he saw a small child lying inside. So he took the child home and had him raised in his house. However, the rich man disliked the boy, and one time he took the boy with him in boat on the river. Once the boat was in the middle of the river, he swam to shore, and left the child alone in the boat. The boat continued floating down the river until it passed the mill, and the miller saw the child. The miller took pity on the child, fetched him from the boat, and raised him in his house.

One day the rich man happened to come by, recognized the child, and carried him away. Soon thereafter he gave the young man a letter to bring to his wife, and the letter read: “As soon as you read this letter, you are to kill the person who delivered it.” However, as the young man was traveling through the forest, he met an old man who said to him: “Show me the letter that you’re carrying in your hand.” The old man took the letter, turned it around once, and gave it back to the young man.

Now the letter read: “You are immediately to offer our daughter as wife to the young man delivering this letter.” And this is what happened, and when the rich man heard about this, he became furious and said: “Well, this wedding’s not going to happen so quickly. Before I give you my daughter, you must bring me three feathers from the bird Phoenix.”

So, the young man set out on his way to the bird Phoenix and met the old man again on the same spot in the forest. “Keep walking for the entire day,” he said. “In the evening you’ll come to a tree. Two doves will be sitting on it, and they’ll tell you how to proceed.” That evening, when the young man came to the tree, two doves were sitting on it. One of the doves said: “Whoever searches for the bird Phoenix must walk the entire day. In the evening he’ll come to a gate that’s locked.” 242 Volume I, chapter 76 Then the second dove said: “There is a gold key that lies underneath this tree, and it will open the gate.”

The young man found the key and later used it to open the gate. Two men were sitting there, and one of them said: “Whoever searches for the bird Phoenix must travel a great distance over the high mountain, and then he’ll finally come to a castle.” On the evening of the third day he finally reached the castle, where a wise little lady sat and said: “What do you want here?” “Oh, I’d like to get three feathers from the bird Phoenix.” “Your life is in danger,” she said. “If the bird Phoenix becomes aware of your presence, he’ll eat you up skin and hair. Nevertheless, I’ll see if I can help you get the three feathers. He comes here every day, and I must comb him with a narrow comb. So now quick, get under the table.”

After he did this, young man was then covered completely by a cloth. Meanwhile the bird Phoenix came home, sat down at the table, and said: “I smell, I smell human flesh!” “Oh, what! You see, don’t you, that nobody’s here!” “Comb me now!” the bird Phoenix responded. The wise little lady combed the bird Phoenix, and as she was doing this, he fell asleep. When he was sound asleep, she grabbed a feather, pulled it out, and threw it beneath the table. All at once he woke up: “Why are you tearing my hair like that? I dreamed that a human came and pulled out one of my feathers.” She calmed him down, and so it went, two more times. When the young man had the three feathers, he set out for home and was now able to obtain his bride.

“The Bird Phoenix”, from the first Grimm collection, translated by Jack Zipes

Ali Smith has borrowed the first part of that tale but there’s a reason “The Bird Phoenix” hasn’t lived on in anthologies — it’s not an engaging example of storytelling.

Changeling by JB Monge
Changeling by JB Monge

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHILD BY ALI SMITH

This is such a bizarre, dreamlike story, it’s not easy to fill out the fields.

SHORTCOMING

The unnamed narrator displays what I’d call a shortcoming — she’s a bit of snob. But is this a shortcoming for this particular story, or is it just something extra about her? Perhaps it’s her snobbishness which makes her return ‘goods’ which she isn’t satisfied with — but who could argue that she should keep him?

In Ali’s first story of this collection, she quotes Alice Munro, who has said that every short story is at least two short stories — an inward-looking story and an outward-looking one. Does this hold true for the stories which follow in the very same collection, such as this one? If it does, it’ll be found in the character’s need versus their shortcoming — which is itself broken into two — psychological and moral shortcoming. It seems that her moral shortcoming is to like nice things. She can afford three bags of oranges because she works — she’s made mention of that twice. She wouldn’t be able to work as much — if at all — if she had a one year old child. The child reminds the reader of that. “Mothers shouldn’t work. It’s against nature.”

Interestingly, the word ‘need’ is used in the story, near the end:

I know what you need all right, the child whispered after me, but quietly

What is it the narrator needs? We can imagine the end of the joke — violently sexual in nature. The sort of act which would result in a baby such as this. Is this the dominant culture telling the woman that she needs a baby, and that this message feels almost violent to her? Like an invasion into the most private part of herself?

DESIRE

Surface desire: To do her grocery shopping in peace.

Deeper desire: To look after the child and therefore be accepted in society. But then she realises she can’t cope with what’s required, so she desires to be free of her responsibility as mother. Unlike in real life, this ‘mother’ does have the option of giving the child back.

OPPONENT

Surface opponent: The child, or whoever placed the child in her trolley. Also the people in the supermarket, representing different groups of society, encouraging her to be a mother when she’s wanted no such thing.

But what does the child represent? To me, the child represents the immense cultural pressure for women to reproduce.

PLAN

Her plan is to take the child and raise him.

She changes her plan when the child proves intolerable.

Her changed plan is straight out of a fairytale — she’ll leave him in the woods. But she can’t bear this, so in a Save The Cat moment she goes back for him, and leaves him in someone else’s trolley, but at a cheaper supermarket than the one where she found him. I suppose this might constitute a minor punishment for being a little asshole.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is with herself, wrestling with guilt. The baby is only a verbal sparring partner — a dangerous near death moment is represented by the swerve out of traffic.

ANAGNORISIS

It’s not the narrator who has some kind of deep revelation, but — as in many short stories — it’s up to the reader to bring it.

Here’s what I brought to the page: The message that women need to become mothers can feel like a violent invasion. Others have had a similar reaction:

Smith’s most ambitious work to date, The First Person and Other Stories, is further evidence of her stretching of the form of the short story, as the fragmented, playful stories, which resist linearity and realism, remind us of both the freedoms and the boundaries of the form. In ‘The Child’, a surreal commentary on the ticking of the biological clock, a childless woman finds a baby in her supermarket trolley which then miraculously begins to ask questions, swear and tell sexist jokes as she drives him home, before she feels compelled to return him.

The British Short Story by Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

At first, the narrator is charmed against her will, and the story ends in a way that leaves open the question of whether the baby is an emanation of conservative notions about motherhood, of a parent’s increased receptiveness to right-wing appeals, or of the tabloid newspapers highlighted in the closing paragraph.

review in The Guardian, 2008

But I’m sure other readers will have a different response again. Stories full of fairy tale symbolism are open to many interpretations, which is why fairytales endure.

NEW SITUATION

The baby is left to infect a different woman (probably) with its venom; the narrator herself moves on. But there is always another childless woman coming up through the age ranks, waiting to be harassed.

The fairytale, dream logic of this story leaves the whys and wherefores hanging, but this shouldn’t bother anyone but the most literal of readers:

The narrator tries to leave him in a wood, but she feels guilty and goes back to find him later that night. He’s still there, still being awful. How will she get rid of him? And why has he attached himself to her? These questions don’t really need to be answered for me, I just enjoy the mystery in this story. Ali Smith is definitely up there as one of my favourite short story writers.

Katherine Lunn, blogger
Sack Full of Trouble Saturday Evening Post, April 14, 1956 Cover by Dick Sargent. The idea that evil children and supermarkets go together probably isn’t an accident. Anyone with kids will tell you.

FURTHER READING

If you enjoy this story, check out “Ernestine and Kit” by Kevin Barry.

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Happy Valley Season One Storytelling

Happy Valley promotional poster

I’m picky these days about crime fiction, because so much of it revolves around the plot of a raped and murdered woman. In the worst of these stories, the audience is encouraged to participate in the sadomasochistic pleasure of the killer. Even in the best, it’s worth examining our cultural fixation on these stories, and the conflation of sex with violence in various aspects of real life.

Happy Valley is a British limited crime series with two seasons of six episodes each — a novelistic approach rather than episodic a la The Bill or CSI. The viewer must watch it from beginning to end in the right order to get the full impact. Like many others, the plot revolves around the rape of an offscreen young woman and her subsequent suicide; the onscreen murder of a beautiful young police officer and the abduction; rape and drugging of yet another young white woman. Exactly the sort of thing I’ve learned to avoid, but for a few differences:

First, Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire as police sergeant and main character Catherine Cawood. I feel I’ve grown up with Sarah Lancashire because she was playing the young bimbo Racquel in Coronation Street back when I lived in NZ, with Coro playing three evenings a week in a Coro fanatic household. Lancashire was a bit wasted in that, so I was pleased to see she went from strength to strength after leaving Coronation Street. If Sarah Lancashire chooses to do something, there’s something worthy in the story.

Second, Happy Valley is written by a middle-aged woman, born 1963. Not by a writing team, either, though every writer has help at some level. Like Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad (who eventually got a writing room), this is one woman’s singular vision and that made it less likely producers and writers with more status had come in and mucked with it.

I was very interested to see what Sally Wainwright had done with the stale old trope of dead girls. Wainwright is a native of Yorkshire herself, so I expected her to get the setting right. She has worked as a bus driver in a town like this. She knows it.

In short, this crime show is different from the rest. Happy Valley is what stories look like when women are afforded the opportunity to write stories for and about women. Though I have no interest in writing adult crime fiction myself, there are writer tricks to take away from this crime, drama genre blend.

CHARACTERISATION OF CATHERINE

In some ways, Catherine is no different from many, many cops we’ve seen on screen before. She’s Jimmy McNulty from The Wire — changed by the dangers of the job into someone who has been affected by a cognitive shift something like The Overview Effect. Like an astronaut who has seen Earth’s vulnerability from the distance of a space shuttle, these cops have seen death itself. As a consequence, they have no time for the hierarchical bullshit that goes down among the police department and affiliated departments (in Catherine’s case, with the corrupt councillor, buying himself leeway to use hard drugs). Like McNulty, Catherine has little respect for her superiors at work — made worse by the fact she used to be a detective herself nine years earlier.

Sergeant Catherine Cahill is also typically flawed in her personal relationships. This, we assume, is partly to do with the hard shell she’s had to develop as part of the job. This shell was cemented with the death of her daughter, nine years ago, when job and family collided in the most terrible way.

Psychological shortcoming

Catherine is prone to obsession. She can’t draw a line between job and personal life, but this happened to her. She didn’t exactly choose it. The audience understands this clearly and we empathise. This, too, is a classic cop show shortcoming.

Moral shortcoming

Catherine twists the balls of a young man who may or may not have joked about her young, dead colleague. She sexually assaults him, in other words. She breaks into a house illegally. As she says to her sister, this doesn’t make it legal just because she’s a copper. To get to the truth she changes the story a little bit (we surmise), with the official report saying Ashley’s property looks like it’s been broken into. It had, sure, but also by Catherine herself. Is this a moral shortcoming? No, the audience sees it as a strength. The writer made sure to put us in audience superior position. We not only forgive Catherine for breaking the rules; we are rooting for her to break them further. She comes so close to saving the young woman early in the season. Audiences also love a trickster. The takeaway point here: If you want to create a hero who breaks the rules, it’s a good idea to show the audience more than you’re showing the character. I’ve written much more about empathy in this post, but as these tricks relate specifically to Catherine:

Catherine is an underdog. As she tells her sister, she gets to do all the cleaning up, but is not let into the big picture. This makes her job harder. We see enough of her bosses to know that they’re okay people but not as dedicated as she is. Catherine knows people. She remembers petty criminals from years back. The men she works under have no clue what’s going on at the street level. Scenes such as the one with the councillor refusing a breath test show how abuse is an everyday part of the job, compounded when her boss suggests she drop it, which is completely at odds with Catherine’s morality. Catherine holds people accountable. An underdog hero doesn’t start out wanting to save the world from evil — that would be a superhero — underdogs start the story responding to some strife, of which they are the victim. At some point in the story there will have to be a switch in attitude, though, when they become proactive rather than reactive. This switch happens very early in the series as Catherine learns from her ex-husband journalist that Tommy Lee Royce is out.

Catherine’s admirable qualities are drip fed to us. This makes us feel like we’re slowly getting to know her, and she’s better even than we thought. For this, the writers keep us in audience inferior position. We’re shown situations and left to fill in the blanks. For instance, we don’t know the journalist she meets in the street is her ex-husband, but when we’re shown they have an ‘amicable’ relationship, this shows emotional maturity. We learn the backstory of Catherine’s daughter and how she took on the baby despite losing the rest of her family, because it was the right thing to do. It is revealed only much later that she used to be a detective, but stood down to sergeant to focus more on family — an attribute many women will relate to. She cares about the sister’s friend at the mission and tracks her down, making sure she’s not trying to escape from domestic abuse. In this she’s like a dog with a bone. Tenacious. We like tenacious people who buckle down and do their jobs, especially if people’s lives are on the line.

Catherine’s shortcomings are also drip fed to us; the way she takes her inner turmoil out on her grandson and son. We are not shown the shortcomings until we’ve been given a reason for the shortcoming. This is important when creating a sympathetic character.

Catherine is smart but not a Sherlockian genius. This is the Goldilocks zone for likeability. “Are we being thick?” asks her sister in the kitchen, piecing together what the audience already knows. This scene is a remarkably adept masterclass in realism, by the way. “The first thing you learn as a copper is don’t make assumptions.” Catherine is high mimetic on Northrop Frye’s hierarchy of heroes. She’s just a bit stronger and smarter than most of us.

Catherine’s achievements are hard-won. She also doesn’t care about them. She’s no brown-noser. (Why do we hate brown-nosers? Because they sell their own morality upstream whenever they see a short-term personal advantage.)

Catherine is the ultimate in self-sacrifice for the greater good, coming face-to-face with death. The writers put her in physical danger in the harrowing scenes of episode four, but this is followed by a spiritual death in the final two episodes in which she resumes smoking cigarettes, falls into depression and is unpleasant to her family.

Catherine only pushes back as hard as she herself has been pushed. She’s loyal. She does throw in her stripes, literally, then gets right back on the job to save the day.

Catherine is a good mediator. We love good mediators. If you’re writing a hero police officer and you’re not showing the audience their mediation skills, you’re missing an opportunity, perhaps. We see Catherine in mediation, with her grandson’s school principal, and in the opening playground scene. We also see how she uses her humanity to open up on these occasions.

Something extra: This is where a middle-aged mother as writer really stands out — Catherine is absolutely exhausted by her various duties of care. When the young officer becomes bamboozled by the bully councilman, Catherine gives her a lecture on being strong in future. She’s just had to go in and do someone else’s job, because she’s too young to do it, frankly. “I’m not your mother,” Catherine says, brutally, fatally. We really want Catherine to back down as the young woman leaves her office. We really want her to say, “You’re not really shit at your job.” At the same time, we understand that Catherine simply does not have shoulders wide enough to be everybody’s mother. The exhausting work of nurture is something any lead parent can relate to, whether this is the mother or the father; in our society, it’s mostly the mother, and with elderly parents it’s usually the daughter. It’s exhausting and mostly thankless. And if you happen to be good at it, you’ll be unduly called upon at work as well as at home. Overall, I suspect Catherine’s inability to parent her young charges at work is an attribute more empathetic to women than to men. Helen Garner created a similar dynamic in her novel The Spare Room, and has said in interviews that men have responded completely differently from women to the text, with far less empathy towards the woman who is irritated by her caring responsibilities.

CATHERINE’S STRUGGLE PHASE AND ANAGNORISIS

The big struggle phase of a story can encompass various distinct stages. Catherine is taken to the brink of death, first physically, next psychically. But we pretty much know she’s going to pull through, right? Not just because we’ve seen her dogged determination, and because we know she’s been this low before, but because we’ve been primed to expect this from our fictional heroes:

The degeneration plot: A character changes for the worse from a protagonist who was at one time sympathetic and full of ambition to some crucial loss which results in their utter disillusionment. They then have to choose between picking up the threads of their life and starting over again or giving up their goals and ambitions altogether. If they choose the former course we have what may be termed the resignation plot. But since I only know of one such plot: Uncle Vanya. Chekhov seemed obsessed with how a character can live after all their hopes, dreams and goals have been shattered.

Morality-Redemption — Manchester By The Sea, Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast

That’s a quote from Norman Friedman, who made a comprehensive typology of plot in the mid 20th century. Friedman might call season one of Happy Valley a ‘degeneration plot’, in which an attractive main character changes for the worse after a major crisis. Walter White is another example of that, though Catherine and Walt live on different sides of the law.

CHARACTER WEB

Happy Valley is a story about family as much as it is about detective work set in and around a police station.

Because Happy Valley is a screen production and not a novel, sister and confidante Clare is a vital character. It is through Catherine’s conversations with Clare that we get to understand her motivations: Why she is sleeping with her ex-husband; why she’s interested in pursuing Tommy Lee Royce, and what she hopes to achieve. We also get backstory — in one sentence we understand that Catherine has taken Clare in to live with her partly because Clare lives with alcohol addiction. Clare knows Catherine better than anyone, and Clare is able to sum up Catherine for us, cluing us into her obsessive, driven nature in which her mental health is affected. Clare is also useful because she does volunteer work at The Mission, which puts her right inside another, related subculture of the town, rubbing shoulders with people fresh out of prison. This is an important advantage in a story where the characters are a topiary of interrelationships — small towns are good for this — everyone knows everyone, and Catherine demonstrates her interpersonal expertise over and over to demonstrate this. A plot like this one does rely on the audience truly believing that everyone knows everyone in this town.

The Men Of Happy Valley

The men of Happy Valley form a hierarchy of awful to not awful, but still not great. Together, this character ensemble says something important about the way we, as a society, sit back and let things happen. I believe this relates back to the title. It’s not simply an ironic title. I mean, it’s that, too. This valley does not seem happy. It’s also about how certain people think everything is fine, and they’re happy to sit back and watch awful things play out before them.

At the top of that chain (or the bottom) we have Tommy Lee Royce, who looms in women’s lives as a (for most of us) hypothetical rapist and murderer — the bogeyman from scary fairytales; the person who makes us lock our doors and walk with keys between our fingers. Tommy Lee Royce borders on a horror trope. In horror, the monster just will not die. They rise from the dead time and again; Tommy loses three litres of blood, probably needs stitches, yet here he is, walking around, strong enough to manage a child abduction. Tommy is not punished with death. That’s what he begs for in the end, but there are fates worse than death and Catherine is determined to follow through. (Also, there’s series two to come.)

Ashley Cowgill is one rung down — Ashley is able to dehumanise a young woman to the point he’s happy to see her murdered. In bad company, Ashley comes to the party. He is punished with death.

Lewis Whippey is part of this culture of dehumanisation, but is ultimately unable to participate in it fully, horrified by the rape. Nor does he have the power to stand against it, unwilling to take any personal hit to make the world a better place.  Ashley is smaller and younger and less criminally experienced. These men, too, are familiar.

Kevin Weatherill — had his family life panned out differently — could easily have been drawn into the incel movement, feeling that life has been unkind to him. His wife, despite living with MS, does not feel that way because unlike Kevin, she hasn’t been conditioned into entitlement.

Nevison Gallagher is the flip side of Kevin. Nev has no reason to examine his masculinity because he has everything a man is praised for. He’s rich and the head of a successful business, with a stable family and a beautiful home. He is also emotionally underdeveloped compared to his wife Helen; he has spent his entire life focusing on work. Even his young adult daughter has more compassion for others than he does. Nev has never been rewarded for showing empathy; it’s no surprise he has very little of it. He has been richly rewarded for his business ruthlessness, in fact.

Daniel Cahill, Catherine’s estranged son, is eventually revealed to be psychologically wounded from the aftermath of his sister’s rape and murder. He feels unappreciated, and Catherine has lashed out. We are given enough of his backstory to understand why he might feel rejected. He reminds his mother that dead Becky was not perfect. Then he demonstrates his extra layer of misogyny, which he has plucked from the water we’re all swimming in: that his sister was complicit in her own downfall. “She was asking for it,” he says, multiple times, knowing how that upsets Catherine, but also choosing to believe it himself. This is exactly the attitude Catherine would have been battling against when she first joined the police force, and which hasn’t gone away yet.

Richard  Cahill is one of the more empathetic men of Happy Valley, though hapless. He’s moved on to a new relationship with a woman significantly younger, sort of, and can’t accept his grandson without Catherine’s help. The younger, subsequent partner is nevertheless a match for his emotional maturity, because he won’t grow up. Now Catherine remains Richard’s emotional rock and a bit of a mother figure when it suits him. We know this has never been a give and take relationship, emotionally. By the end of season one Catherine has realised this anew, and rejects Richard’s offers of emotional support, which he achieves via sex. He doesn’t know how else to do it. A beautiful example of mansplaining is written into the script when Richard finally takes Catherine’s advice to write about the drug crisis in the valley. Excited at everything he has just learnt from a few days of research, he calls Catherine while she’s working at her own job to tell her all about it. From his side, he just wants someone to talk to, but Catherine responds curtly; she is overfamiliar with the dynamic in which a woman is ignored, and then a man swoops in, runs with her idea and — we all know — it will be Richard’s name on the credit. Richard proves he hasn’t been listening, or he hasn’t respected Catherine’s expertise. So often, ‘good men’ only start to listen — really listen — to women once they’re in the middle of their own personal crisis. For Richard, it’s the crisis of losing his job.

The male colleagues at the police station are another variety of people you’d likely find in a workplace. The most relatable (and frustrating) is the boss who is an okay person but isn’t especially good at getting the job done. He’s ‘nice’. But sometimes switches to ‘boss mode’ when challenged, and then you realise he’s not so nice after all.

These men are all very different from each other, but is any single one of them truly ‘good’?

I’m just going to throw this out there because, as far as provocative truth bombs go, it’s been ticking away for too long.

The universal male decency we keep hearing about is largely a myth.

Sure, most men might not be bad. But it takes more than ‘not being bad’ to be ‘actually good’.

Clementine Ford, “What does it mean to be a good man?”

No doubt the fictional Richard, Daniel, and even Kevin, would consider themselves decent men. But what are they standing against? What is it they’re actually doing to make the world a better place for those with less privilege, or even to just to stop it from sliding into awfulness?

Apparently all it takes to be considered a ‘decent bloke’ is to take an each way bet at doing nothing — nothing to perpetuate oppression, and nothing to stop it.

Clementine Ford, “What does it mean to be a good man?”

This attitude, that being NOT SEXIST is the same as being ANTI-SEXIST is common to all forms of bigotry:

I haven’t been able to muster much optimism for what feels like forever, so a friend asked if I’m at least heartened by the mainstream noise over child detention. The answer is “not really.” I thought for a while about why I feel that way, and I think it comes down to the mistaken feeling (mostly white) people seem to have that not-bigotry is the same thing as anti-bigotry. See, I think that as long as those two things are getting confused, we’re going to continue to see the stage set for more and more drastic abuse, because it lets dehumanization slip by. Not-bigotry is having POC friends. It’s putting up signs that “all are welcome here.” It’s believing that your beliefs alone are part of a multigenerational groundswell that will make bigotry fade because of population math. Anti-bigotry is, among other things, acknowledging targeted oppression. Realizing that burying the who and why of those targeted allows the conversation to ignore underlying and systemic issues, which guarantees further abuse. That, I think, is why so many people who see themselves as progressive are (mostly unknowingly) arguing against children in cages but accepting families in cages as a reasonable solution. I tweeted recently that when the conversation moved into the national dialogue, it went from “brown children” to “children.” Why is the latter more effective in inspiring outrage? Who made the choice to drop the specificity? People are feeling like there’s a moment here, and it’s terrifying to me that the accepted “progressive” narrative is whitewashed; it affirms that POC need to be viewed non-racially to garner sympathy. The obsession with Trump, his family, and his administration as the be-all, end-all of these atrocities is another variable: it says to me that public derision for a singular figure also needs to be present to generate this outcry.

@NoTotally

THE BEAUTIFUL CIRCULAR ENDING

As Happy Valley opens in episode one, Catherine Cawood grabs a fire extinguisher from a corner shop and marches towards a young man high on skunk, perched on play equipment threatening to set himself on fire. There’s gallows humour in this scene. He isn’t dangerous — he is pathetic. We learn later via dialogue that Catherine had to spray him because he had no idea how close he was to lighting himself up. This scene is also an excellent way for the audience to get to know Catherine quickly; not only do we see her cool, collected and experienced; she tries to talk the young man down by giving him a snapshot of her own life. “My name’s Catherine Cawood, I’m forty-seven, divorced, my daughter’s dead and my son won’t talk to me.” (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s that memorable.)

It’s easy to forget that scene, and we’re almost meant to. But we are reminded of it later in episode six. Another young man — or possibly the very same one — is on the same playground, convinced after smoking weed while watching Peter Pan that he is surrounded by crocodiles. Catherine is exhausted. She’s had a near-death experience by this stage, and when she learns he ‘might skin his knees if he falls off’, she slams the phone down. She walks out. She can’t be dealing with this inconsequential crap. That’s the takeaway point for the audience, but there’s another reason for this seemingly unrelated scene.

Because when we get to the penultimate scene of the season, in which Tommy Lee Royce tries to set himself on fire along with his eight-year-old son, it’s suddenly clear why we saw these earlier scenes with the young man on the playground. There are villains and then there are Villains. The everyday job of a copper in Happy Valley is dealing with drug addicts who are themselves victims in a way. By juxtaposing the young man on the playground (child’s play, literally) with the evil of Tommy Lee Royce, we see the distinction that Catherine has always made — this young man who raped her daughter is not like the others. The writers reminded us subtly of the opening playground scene by showing us another very similar right before the showdown on the boat. The first time I watched this series I didn’t even notice what had been done — a perfectly circular series ending. Two young men threatening to set themselves on fire, but under completely different circumstances. It doesn’t even feel like repetition, partly because the first time Catherine sprayed a man with foam happened off-stage. Now we get to see her do it for Real. It feels poetic and cathartic both.

It’s worth noting, too, that stories about women are more likely to be circular in shape than stories about men, which are linear; a hero goes on a journey, starting in one place, ending in another. But Catherine never leaves town. This is a Robinsonnade in which the hero stays ‘on her island’ to fight evil on the home front.

A NOTE ON THE ENDING OF SEASON TWO

Season One ends on a triumphant note. The audience experiences catharsis as she wrestles with the moral dilemma of whether to murder the villain. We’re pleased for her that she’s able to restrain herself, because that would be a very bad ending for Catherine.

Season Two ends with parallels to the film Silence of the Lambs. Shawn Coyne likes to think of narrative in terms of External and Internal, a categorisation he applies to genre, character arc and desire. Here’s what he has to say about Silence of the Lambs:

External Climax Scene

In The Silence of the Lambs, the external climax scene of the global Story is Clarice Starling killing Buffalo Bill. So for his resolution scene(s), Harris does not dwell on the external Storyline. There isn’t a big recap of the action from Starling’s FBI colleagues…we already know what happened. The external climax is firmly established—Buffalo Bill is dead and Starling killed him.

Instead Harris focuses on the internal change to Starling after she attains her conscious object of desire. The resolution scenes do not go over her being patted on the back etc. reviewing exactly how she figured out everything and found Buffalo Bill’s lair. It ends with Starling accepting the fact that she did not get her subconscious object of desire (safety and protection and rewards from an esteemed social institution). We watch her settle into a new worldview shift. She’s moved from blind belief in the righteousness in strict hierarchical law and the order of institutions (FBI) to disillusionment. Even though the External Genre has moved from negative to positive (the killer is dead), Starling’s view of the world has gone from naively positive to justified negative.

Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (p. 194). Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.

Similarly, by the end of Happy Valley season two, Catherine has defeated the villains — Tommy Lee Royce, his co-conspirator victim, and the police officer who has made some terrible decisions. She has solved the mystery of the local serial killers All get their just desserts, with collateral damage. These plots have lead Catherine to wonder about why people become the way they are — are they born evil? The final scene shows an outwardly happy scene of Catherine’s family walking across a grassy hill.

Charles Courtney Curran - Summer
Charles Courtney Curran – Summer

Her grandson is happy, talking animatedly about a dog, but the look on Catherine’s face tells us she’s not happy. What is she thinking? Everything that’s happened tells us exactly what she’s thinking: Is her grandson going to turn out like his rapist biological father? Will she end up killing him and trying to kill herself, like the mother she just rescued? Like that of Clarice Starling, Catherine’s External Genre moved from negative to positive (the various killers are dead), but Catherine’s view of her grandson (and of human nature) has gone from wavering to permanently negative.

WEAKNESSES OF HAPPY VALLEY

I remain a little unconvinced on several points, partly to do with the supporting actors, I suspect.

Though I accept the cool reserve of certain English classes, I don’t believe the Gallaghers’ muted reactions to their daughter’s kidnapping. There’s something to be said for keeping tears off ‘the page’ — if the character cries, the audience does not. We do see the PTSD of Catherine, with flashes of her dead daughter in the back seat, and the high-pitched fainting precursor, and the muted ambient talking all around her as she copes with terrible news. These editing effects afford believable insight into her psychology. But these tricks are not utilised with the other characters, because they are not the main characters. This is a really hard balancing act, and there may be a cultural difference in my reaction. (I’m not British.)

I accept that the Cahill household was in chaos at the time of Ryan’s abduction by Tommy, but I didn’t really buy that two eight-year-old boys would be given free reign until five o’clock in the afternoon. I’d believe this of the eighties, or of children with really compromised caregivers, but that’s certainly not the culture where I live. Eight is about two to four years too early for that level of freedom.

MORE

If you enjoyed Sarah Lancashire’s character in Happy Valley you’re likely to enjoy the following:

How Are The Characters On Mare of Easttown Related?

London detectives investigate crimes from the past, unravelling secrets left buried for years.

FURTHER READING

There is a scene in which Catherine tries to talk someone off the roof. She’s been to some training but has no idea how to proceed. She quickly realises that what she’s learned in training isn’t going to work in context. Here’s an article about this issue:

In suicidology and psychology, questions are always presented as if they just push buttons. You ask the question and, hey, presto, the answer is forthcoming. Alas, communication doesn’t work like that.

On The Roof, linguist Dariusz Galasiński
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I Kill Giants As Perfect Example Of Being-toward-death

I Kill Giants movie poster

I Kill Giants is an American comic book written by Joe Kelly, illustrated byJ. M. Ken Niimura. The comic series is now ten years old. This post is about the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Anders Walter. The guy who wrote the comic also wrote the screenplay. I watched it on Netflix last night with my ten-year-old daughter and trust me when I say, this is a film for the tween-adolescent crowd — a reality which is always reflected in IMDb scores (which are not graded by ten year olds, and certainly not by ten-year-old girls). That’s why it gets a paltry 6.2.

Continue reading “I Kill Giants As Perfect Example Of Being-toward-death”

Read Boss Baby by Marla Frazee. Don’t watch the film.

Marla Frazee. Boss Baby

Boss Baby, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, is an award-winning 2010 American picture book released by Dreamworks in 2017 as a film. Boss Baby was adapted for screen by Michael McCullers, who also gave us Austin Powers and Mr Peabody and Sherman, which will give you some idea of the tone.

Notice the label ‘inspiration’ for the major motion picture. While book and film begin in similar fashion, a film is much longer and needs much more plot.

Boss Baby is a perfect example of a picture book that appeals to a dual audience. Later adoptions and foster care situations excepted, almost every adult reading this book to their child has been through the newborn phase with the little person they’re currently reading the book to. The humour in this story is — to use this taxonomy — predominantly Reference Humour, layered with Character Humour (adults will also recognise the Tyrannical Boss character trope, and enjoy seeing it made fun of. Adults, and slightly older children, will recognise the extent to which Frazee has turned ordinary baby gear into office equipment — the high-chair table becomes a desk; the baby monitor is now a phone. A baby bath is now a luxurious spa; the swing at the park is a private jet. I am confident in saying there is some Character Humour that only adult co-readers will get — when the baby decides to think ‘outside the box’, the child see the ‘box’ is his playpen, but adults will recognise this as cliched corporate jargon.

What will children find funny? Plenty… and this is where the illustrations really shine. As shown a few years later when BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures became an instant bestseller, children LOVE the idea that they run the show. For them, the humour comes from a simple Juxtaposition (called ‘Analogy’ by the guy who runs The Onion). Boss Baby is basically a Status Flip story.

The illustrations are full of ‘Hyperbole’ humour. Boss Baby doesn’t just hand over a folder of instructions — he hands over so many papers it literally fills the living room. The parents aren’t just tired; they’re so exhausted they literally keel over.

Another standout feature of the illustrations is the perspective, which makes a really interesting case study because the general rule of thumb is: Powerful characters look down on weak characters. From the reader’s perspective, when we look down on a character they seem weak; when we look up to a character they seem formidable.

But in Boss Baby, the reader looks down onto the small baby — emphasising his smallness — yet it is very clear from the framing, lighting and body language that he is the boss. Standing in the front doorway, the light from outside casts a massive shadow of the parents. The juxtaposition between the baby’s actual size (tiny next to the briefcase) and the shadow he casts, adds to the humour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BOSS BABY

Who is the narrator of Boss Baby? The Dreamworks screenwriters decided to create an embodiment of the narrator, in the form of a big brother. This does make perfect sense, because there is an entire category of picture books about ‘bringing the baby home’., and those are designed to be read to the ‘big’ sibling. Also, the parents are referred to as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, capitalised, but then when you become a parent you’re quite often referred to as the ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’, so this doesn’t in itself mean there’s an older sibling watching on. (Alternatively, the narrator could in fact be the slightly older Boss Baby himself. There is something a little retro about this book, suggesting it’s older than 2010 — the mother is wearing a dress that seems to hail from the 1950s.)

Most bringing-baby-home picture books espouse an idealistic ideology — this new baby is gonna be great! (Just as soon as you get used to sharing him with your parents!) Some little-sibling stories are more emotionally honest. Feelings of uncertainty and jealousy are real when you’re the eldest sibling, and stories which acknowledge the disruption are my favourite kind. Boss Baby is the emotionally honest kind. (Chatterbox is another.)

The picture book is a good example of an ensemble cast. Another story with an ensemble cast is Little Miss Sunshine.

Ensemble casts aren’t quite as easy to break down, because the different ‘functions’ of story are divvied up. While it’s the baby who has the ‘plan’ in this story, it’s the parents who have the ‘problem’.

SHORTCOMING

The ‘main character’ is the family of three. For the purposes of story analysis I will consider the narrator omniscient rather than an older brother.

The problem this family has: When a new baby arrives in the house he absolutely runs the show. The parents have no choice but to obey his every command.

DESIRE

The baby wants his every need met, including constant company. We assume the parents want some of their freedom back, or at least some sleep.

OPPONENT

The members of this family are their own opponents.

PLAN

Babies, of course, do not make plans. They do not have the executive functioning to do so. That’s why Marla Frazee’s decision to turn the baby into a tyrannical corporate boss works so well. Now the baby’s plan is to dominate his family, deliberately running them ragged for the pleasure of it.

boss baby middle of the night
There’s a slightly noir feel to the lighting in this illustration, with the light on outside the bedroom. It’s almost like they’ve been called to a dark alley by a mob boss. Notice how well Frazee depicts exhaustion. The parents’ regular eyes are dots, but here she gives them larger, more detailed eyes.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Boss Baby continues to give his parents the absolute runaround — we can see the pace pick up when there are more mini-scenes on a single spread. In a picture book, this is a sure sign of the Battle Sequence. The baby wins. We know the baby wins because the parents are literally flat out on the couch, almost like they’ve been defeated in a boxing match.

boss baby big struggle

ANAGNORISIS

Sure enough, the Battle Sequence is followed swiftly by not one but two separate anagnorises:

He called a meeting.

His staff did not respond.

He called and called and called. Nothing.

The boss’s usual demands were not getting their usual results.

it was time to try something completely out of the box.

In other words, the baby’s MO is no longer serving him well, so he realises he’s going to have to get his needs met some other way. This is where he says his first words.

For their part, the parents are delighted that all their hard work seems to be paying off. Not only that, but suddenly in their eyes, the little tyrant in their house seems like a baby rather than a boss.

NEW SITUATION

When the parents hug their baby this marks a turning point in the family — the really hard newborn phase is over, and now they’re all moving forward into a slightly easier time.

I hope I’ve managed to persuade you that this picture book is among the best of the best. I would encourage parents to avoid the Dreamworks film. Mostly for this reason, but also because sometimes the short version of a story is far more powerful than a fleshed out, colourful, noisy plot.

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I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen Analysis

I Want My Hat Back (2011) is one of a trilogy of books written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. The plots are not linked and the characters are different. But they all feature hats. The other two are This Is Not My Hat and We Found A Hat.

Holly Storck-Post at SLJ recommends these Jon Klassen books for use with older students in the classroom.

When I read an opinion piece last week on the decreasing length of picturebooks from Elizabeth Bluemle at Publishers Weekly, the books of Jon Klassen immediately sprang to mind, especially at this paragraph:

Why are we so bent on brief? Is it because children have shorter attention spans? (They do. We all do. Or do we?) Is it because parents are working harder than ever and are too tired to face long reading sessions at bedtime with their kids? Possibly. Or is it because we are currently experiencing a trend of short, meta, funny picture books that don’t unfold a story with characters so much as riff on a clever idea? That’s a teeny piece of it, surely.

Pandering to, or presuming shorter attention spans?

I Want My Hat Back is also interesting for the variety of reader responses who think that picture books must star morally upright characters; that children are vessels waiting to be filled with good examples, incapable of questioning moral grey areas.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I WANT MY HAT BACK

PARATEXT

A picture-book delight by a rising talent tells a cumulative tale with a mischievous twist.

The bear’s hat is gone, and he wants it back. Patiently and politely, he asks the animals he comes across, one by one, whether they have seen it. Each animal says no, some more elaborately than others. But just as the bear begins to despond, a deer comes by and asks a simple question that sparks the bear’s memory and renews his search with a vengeance. Told completely in dialogue, this delicious take on the classic repetitive tale plays out in sly illustrations laced with visual humor—and winks at the reader with a wry irreverence that will have kids of all ages thrilled to be in on the joke.

MARKETING COPY

If there’s an ur-Story to I Want My Hat Back, it’s Chicken Little. A doltish animal goes from character to character asking the same question, oblivious to the way the world really is. But between Chicken Little and I Want My Hat Back is Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, in which the character of Lucie goes from animal to animal asking if they’ve seen her dropped handkerchief.

WHAT HAPPENS IN I WANT MY HAT BACK

A bear has lost his pointy red hat. He wanders morosely from page to page asking other animals if they have seen it. In his sorrow, he fails to notice that a rabbit happens to be wearing a pointy red hat. After lying on the ground for a while he has a revelation; he DOES know who has taken his hat!

The bear runs backwards through the book, and indeed gets his hat back. It’s a happy ending for the bear and the hat. The reader is left to surmise what has happened to the rabbit.

WONDERFULNESS

I Want My Hat Back is highly appreciated by my six-year-old. This is a very funny book — for those with a tolerance for slightly darker humour — and is best read in funny voices. The following review is typical:

This Is Not My Hat GR Review

Klassen not only breaks ‘the rules’ of what it takes to create a picture book for modern audiences; he seems to be starting a trend. What are the unwritten non-existent rules of picture books? Bright colours (because it’s thought kids only respond to bright colours), happy-lively characterisation (not morose); main characters who do the right thing despite everything.

I Want My Hat Back is almost a spoof on a large category of picture books which anthropomorphise bears and other wild animals to the point where they are borderline vegetarian. When we see picture book bears eat, they tend to be eating human food from plates, using knives and forks. Picture book bears do not go hunting. Adult co-readers know this, and I’m sure young readers know this deep down, but perhaps talking picture book bears who happen to eat talking rabbit is taboo. This book is written in such a way that should the book be read to a 3 year old who can’t yet cope with the reality of the food chain, that 3 year old can imagine instead that the rabbit delivered the hat back to the bear then ran away safely. But there is no such reassurance in the text.

Rabbit Eating Bear The Psychopath
Rabbit Eating Bear The Psychopath

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF I WANT MY HAT BACK

Klassen works with inks, gouache and acrylics but everything is altered digitally afterwards. I wonder how few illustrators are completely avoiding the computer these days. Interestingly, Shaun Tan does the inverse, sorting out his composition on the computer then using that as a model to paint on canvas.

One thing that makes Klassen’s work distinctive is his texturing; he apparently creates the textures with paint, scans them in and keeps them in an unorganised folder on his computer. This makes me feel better about the general disorganisation of my own computer.

I do a lot of random texture samples on pieces of paper that will only find their homes once they’ve been scanned into the computer, and there’s no way to organize stuff like that once you’ve scanned it, so they are just everywhere around.

– from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Textured overlays can make a big difference to an illustration, but tend to be one of those subtle additions that goes unnoticed by the reader of the story. Klassen’s are kind of ‘waterstained’ and ‘splattery’. This gives a sense of movement to images which otherwise look a little like collage, which is a more static-feeling medium.

STORY SPECS OF I WANT MY HAT BACK

Published in 2011

The Candlewick edition is 36 pages.

The FollettBound edition is 32 pages.

253 words

Marketed at level K-3

Even picturebooks have specific best-fits when it comes to age of audience. This from a GR reviewer, serving as a reminder that we shouldn’t stop buying picturebooks once children start school at 5 years of age:

I Want My Hat Back age appropriateness

This picture book has won a whole bunch of awards. Look at how half of them are European. I suspect this is partly because Europeans have a higher tolerance than American audiences for a children’s book character who does bad stuff:

  • Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for Bilderbuch (2013)
  • New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books (2011)
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor (2012)
  • Selezionato Mostra Internazionale d’illustrazione per l’infanzia di Sarmede (2011)

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Although the characters are different, this is very much the ‘on-land’ companion book to Klassen’s subsequent This Is Not My Hat. Sometimes when best-selling authors create a second book in similar style, the second one isn’t such a success. But both of these books are equally wonderful; buy both.

Contrast with The Tawny Scrawny Lion (A Golden Book), in which a lion is much happier after turning pescatarian.

Related post: Naturalistic Animal Behaviour In Picturebooks

The following year, Jon Klassen published This Is Not My Hat, which seems to be set in the same world as this book, but stars different characters. This is an interesting choice, because I suspect authors are often encouraged to create series based on the same character so that children will fall deeply in love with them and ask their parents to buy the plush toys.

WRITE YOUR OWN

A fun diversion is rewriting the titles of the picture books on your shelf. When you do this, you may be surprised to see that picture books have their own genre classifications. Jon Klassen seems to have (re?)invented the picturebook crime genre.

I Want My Hat Back Better Book Cover
from the Better Book Covers blog

SEE ALSO

I Want My Hat Back, Don’t Ask Me Anymore Questions from We Read It Like This.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky Picture Book Analysis

Z Is For Moose

Kate de Goldi discusses Z Is For Moose on Radio New Zealand and has trouble not laughing. (This is what made me buy the book.)

There is something inherently funny about a moose. Is it the bulbous snout, or the slightly onomatopoeic name? (I’m not sure what real-world sound the word ‘moose’ makes, but it should, shouldn’t it?)

See also: Inherently Funny Animals in which the moose is still the funniest, precisely because there’s no reason for him to be.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “Z IS FOR MOOSE”

In order to fully appreciate this book, the reader should be familiar with the standard ABC picture book. This is kind of a parody of that. Using the framing story of a play, each letter is represented by an animal/thing which makes its appearance when the MC Zebra announces its initial letter. All are well-behaved, except for petulant toddler-like Moose, who can’t wait until it’s his turn.

(Side note: We assume moose is male — but how do we really know?)

When the letter M is given to a mouse. The mouse is a common choice for abecedaries of yore. (E in the following book is an Elk, and a moose would be too similar.)

The nursery present, or, Alphabet of pictures

Moose throws a tantrum which is very funny. In the end, the emotionally competent Zebra realises his mistake and lets Moose have a turn on the final page. Which is surprisingly moving.

The story begins in pedestrian fashion, but notice the eye popping up from the left side of the table. This is no ordinary abecedary.
Characters being obviously wrong about stuff is something toddlers find hilarious.

WONDERFULNESS OF “Z IS FOR MOOSE”

First some notes on alphabet books in general, from Nodelman and Reimer:

People usually assume that the purpose of alphabet books is to teach children the letters of the alphabet. Presumably, they see the picture of an apple, name it, and thus learn that the accompanying symbol “A” represents the sound that begins the word “apple”. The trouble with this theory is its assumption that visual symbols relate directly to specific words. Unfortunately, they don’t. One child might look at the apple and accurately name it ‘fruit’, and another child might accurately label the same picture ‘Golden Delicious’. In fact, rather than using the visual information to understand the verbal, most people treat alphabet books in the opposite way. They use their previous knowledge of the letter as a way of identifying the right word to describe the object. If the apple appears on the A page, then it’s an apple; if it appears on the F page, it’s a fruit. The implication is that alphabet books are not especially educational: readers have to know what the books are supposed to be teaching before they can make use of them.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature

Reimer and Nodelman acknowledge that letter recognition may indeed result from these books and that letter recognition itself may be beneficial. They continue:

So if alphabet books don’t play a central role in teaching language skills, should they simply be eliminated? Our answer is no—because they offer pleasure. The books are a form of puzzle. They offer readers the run of figuring out what the connections between the pictures and the letters are. The same is true of number books. Readers who already know their numbers can have fun finding and counting up the objects in a picture to see if they match the accompanying number.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature

Z is for Moose is therefore as much puzzle as ‘alphabet book’. How does Z stand for Moose? What’s behind those disrupted pictures? What’s happening behind the scenes, that which we can’t see?

Let’s not underestimate how very difficult it is to make an ABC/puzzle book which feels fresh, funny and original. It is very, very hard. But the bar has now been raised! What can we learn from the creators of this book?

The word ‘performance’ is part of this story in both senses of the word:

  1. A variety of standard ABC characters are putting on a performance
  2. Moose puts on his own kind of tantrum-performance when he realises he’s been overlooked.

For the reader, this makes for a story within a story — a work of metafiction. We are invited in on the gag. We are to enjoy not only the ABC performance, but also the performance of Moose.

Why does this work so well? Mixing up a linear narrative is perhaps the only way of turning something boring and oft-done into something entirely original. Also, there is a ‘second unseen audience’ here: A staged performance is by its very nature an important affair. So when Moose sabotages the whole thing, we know the stakes are higher than simply having had the story ruined for us, the readers.

Making Use Of Peritext

The best picture books always make use of the front and end matter, weaving it in as part of the narrative.

This is where the colophon and dedication go: Note how the entire cast is introduced wordlessly with a double page spread before the story begins. This is likely to be skipped upon first reading, but subsequent readings will allow the reader to dwell on each character, attaching letters to each.

And before this page, we are given more than enough information on the front end papers and title page to work out that here are some characters and they are going to put on a performance.

Partial Revelation

A number of children’s book illustrators/authors use the technique of partial revelation of a character or object, leading the reader through the book and creating suspense. Lynley Dodd does it in a lot of her Hairy Maclary books and Zelinsky does it here, with the zebra peeking his head around the corner on the A is for Apple page.

This technique is evident throughout the book. Who is that peeking behind the ‘stage’ on the B is for Ball page?

But this book utilises another form of partial revelation, in a way which at first seems counter-intuitive to makers of picturebooks: Parts of the information is covered up and is ‘unreadable’. I put ‘unreadable’ in quote marks because of course the reader knows what’s under the chaos, precisely because we are over-familiar with alphabet books, and so we know that if the ‘H’ is obscured by the enthusiastic head of Moose, we still know it says ‘H is for Hat’ because we can see the hat. This technique provides a ‘fill in the gaps’ cloze exercise for the young reader, though ‘cloze exercise’ makes the reading experience sound dull, when it is nothing of the sort.

Rule Of Three

It’s no accident that moose’s first intrusion doesn’t occur until the letter D. The rule of three works so well because it establishes a pattern. The reader needs to know that this is an ABC book, so the A, the B and the C are presented uninterrupted.

After that, notice that Moose turns up on D, and then on the letter H, after three pages and three letters in between.

But then the pattern is broken! Readers who know their alphabets will be expecting something big to happen on the letter M, and that’s when things really turn sour for poor old Moose, and so the 4 letters between Moose’s last full-faced intrusion make the M page feel especially dramatic.

Incongruous Humour

At its most basic, this is a straight-man, funny-man gag. As Kate de Goldi says on the podcast which made me buy this book, the Moose has the nature of a 3-year-old, looking forward to an event with unrestrained glee, then throwing a tantrum when he thinks he’s been overlooked. A character who has a tantrum is a fairly common way to present a Battle scene in a picture book. Young readers will relate.

Then there is the visual humour, which is very often composed of incongruous images: a moose in an ice-cream, a moose inside a kangaroo’s pouch. There’s the inherent funniness of the moose! My six-year-old finds Moose’s tail funny, for some reason, especially as depicted on the Y page.

Visual Gags

Then we have moose who has somehow managed to become part of the labelling on a jar, and the speech bubble coming out from inside the jar suggesting he’s in there too, and the way we can see both ends of his body even though there’s no way Moose is that long. (Note that this last gag was used by Beatrix Potter when illustrating The Tale Of Peter Rabbit.

Peter Rabbit Long Bunny
What is actually two bunnies looks at first glance to be a single lengthy rabbit.

Text-based Humour

It is particularly inspired that ‘mouse’ sounds so much like ‘moose’. Oh, almost moose! You almost got a go!

Then there is the full integration of text into the picture on the big tantrum page, in which moose steps all over the text which says ‘P is for Pie’ and ‘Q is for Queen’. Next, Moose pulls out his red crayon and scribbles out every word, replacing it with Moose. We don’t see this extent of picture/text integration in many picture books, and it really works here, turning the book into postmodern metafiction.

Dual-audience Humour

When zebra guards the truck so Moose doesn’t get the opportunity to destroy it, the cap that he has been wearing all along has been pushed around and now he’s wearing it sideways. For adult readers, the unconventionally worn baseball cap will be associated with truck drivers.

Purposeless Accoutrements

I’m not sure what to call this exact form of visual joke, but when a zebra wears a black and white striped shirt (on the V page) we laugh because such a garment is entirely unnecessary.

For more on humour in children’s stories, see this post.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Facial Expressions

Naive acial expressions are especially marvellous in “Z Is For Moose”. I adore the squinty eyes of the zebra, and I don’t think I’m alone in that because a squinty-eyed zebra graces the front cover.

The Various Art Styles Of Paul O. Zelinsky

It’s worth noting that Paul O. Zelinsky has several main styles as an illustrator, and you wouldn’t necessarily pick him as the same artist! Sometimes he paints like an old master:

Rapunzel Paul O Zelinsky

But even in this style, there is still a slightly hyperbolic element which make the illustrations suitable for children’s literature. Look at the facial expressions:

Rapunzel

Sometimes Zelinsky adds even more of a comic book look to his ‘old master’ style. Here he has played with perspective to create the illusion of speed:

The Wheels On The Bus 1990

Next we have a looser style in which the strokes (of crayon? pencil?) are obvious. Now he makes use of solid outlines, closer to a comic book style. From Shivers In The Fridge:

Shivers In The Fridge

Pen and Oink asked about the colour of the outlines above, in which Zelinsky makes use of purplish/reddy outlines rather than solid black. He explains that he changed them in Photoshop after scanning them in, because

1. black looked too serious

2. the colours make the illustrations look a lot more lively.

Then there is the truly comic style of Z Is For Moose, which we’ve seen before in The Lion and the Stoat:

The Lion And The Stoat

I got to wondering about Paul O. Zelinsky’s process. How does he decide which style to use and when? I don’t know many illustrators who manage such a range of different styles. Most stick to just one — the trend is definitely towards specialisation (in everything, not just in illustration!):

From Pen and Oink:

PO: You use a variety of distinct styles that change from book to book. When an editor comes to you with a manuscript how much say do you have in the illustration style that you use for the book?  Do they come to you and say,  “Can you do this like Rumpelstiltskin?” or “Can you do this like Toys Go Out?”

Paul: I don’t actually think anybody’s ever asked that.

PO: Really?

Paul:  I guess I’ve been lucky that way. Nobody’s said, that I can remember, please do this like that. I guess publishers have known from pretty far back that maybe they’d be surprised. And maybe they’d be pleased. I have reworked things when they weren’t pleased, but in those cases there’s been a discussion of why something wasn’t working and I’ve been convinced that they were right. That’s usually how it works.

PO: So once you’ve read the manuscript do you just start experimenting with different techniques?

Paul: Yeah, sometimes I know what I don’t want to do and that’s all I know. But it helps. If the story isn’t telling me where it wants to go then I’ll try different things. It’s pretty clear I like finding approaches to my books by thinking of art and the history of art. I think about those images more than about pictures by illustrators per se.

Paul doesn’t give much in that interview about exactly how he decides on which style is most appropriate for each assignment, though I suspect it’s not a particularly cerebral decision. One thing seems clear to those of us breaking it down:

  • The realistic, old-master style is well-suited to illustrating fairytales.
  • The cartoonish styles are well-suited to humorous stories.

STORY SPECS

Moose has his own Twitter account: @MooseThatsMe

COMPARE WITH

Trailer for Circle Square Moose

Paul O. Zelinsky requested a photograph of the night sky in Alice Springs for this book. He explains why he needs it here. I don’t think the sequel is as successful as the original. When trying to work out why not, I settled on the idea that, unfortunately for narrative, shapes don’t have a natural order to them, unlike the alphabet. It’s partly the unchanging sequence of the alphabet which adds to the suspense of the ABC book. The shapes book feels a lot more loose and meandering, though readers who fell in love with Moose and Zebra will appreciate seeing them again in a different context.

FURTHER READING

Is it the age of the Picture Book Moose? Is the Moose having a Moment? See also my take on This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers.

The child’s coloured gift book: with one hundred illustrations is an example of an early ABC book, now out of copyright.

A Taxonomy of Humour In Children’s Stories

Lemon girl young adult novella

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