Tight Times (1979) is an American picture book written by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated in graphite pencil by Trina Schart Hyman. Tight Times also happens to be the first ever picture book read by LeVar Burton on America’s Reading Rainbow series back in 1983.
I can see why they chose it. This short picture book elicits some strong emotions, and unfortunately, this story about economic deprivation is just as necessary today as it was at the turn of the 1980s. Today in America, one in six children are living in poverty.
From a storytelling point of view, this picture book is interesting because it does a fantasic job of helping the reader empathise with the boy and his parents. Below I go into how write and illustrator work together to achieve that.
Also, as the child character heads towards the story’s climax, the storytellers make use of plot points straight out of fairytale, even though this is a story baked in realism. These plot points are so old and so embedded in our collective wisdom that other storytellers can make use of them to create a vivid and affecting story, full of pathos like this one.
Gaston is a picture book written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated in beautiful naive style by Christian Robinson. The colour palette is gorgeous.
I liken Gaston to another popular contemporary picture book: Drew Daywalt’s The Day The Crayons Quit. The plots are not at all similar, but they share the same ideological problems, intending to say one thing, inadvertently saying another.
Creepy Carrots (2012) is a picture book written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. For anyone wondering how to create a scary book for the very young reader without keeping them awake all night, this book is our masterclass in the horror-comedy blend.
First of all, the story is about carrots — a familiar, everyday food item not typically associated with horror. This story is therefore an inherently funny ironic juxtaposition.
You win some, you lose some. Aesop was an equal opportunity storyteller and the tortoise of fables sometimes gets a raw deal. But not this particular tortoise. Sometimes it’s “The Hare and the Tortoise”, sometimes it’s “The Tortoise and the Hare”. This tortoise just goes about his business and wins the day. I’ve never once heard him complain that he hasn’t been billed first in the title.
How do picture book storytellers expand this well-known fable to flesh out a 32 page story? And how are the tropes in this particular fable replicated across popular story for all ages?
Pancake Pie (1984) is a Swedish picture book written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, and is the first in the Pettson and Findus series starring a man and his cat who live together on a rustic farm, along with many little creatures who make the setting seem alive.
What is a pancake pie? Is it just… a pancake? I’m reminded of a certain song about a big pizza pie (actually just a pizza), which is much improved after the moray meme came out.
The Pettson and Findus books have been adapted for children’s TV. The Pancake Pie book became Pancake Pudding in the adaptation. I’ve not heard of a pancake pudding, but it does look more like a storybook cake, and I can see it works better on the screen. The storytellers don’t really want the audience to be stuck, as I am, on the question of what the food is. The food is not central to the story.
This is likely why Swedish Pannkakstårtan was first translated as Pancake Pie in 1985 but later as The Birthday Cake in 1999
SETTING OF FINDUS AND PETTSON
PERIOD — Findus and Pettson live on a storybook farm which is clearly Scandinavian, if you are at all familiar with with a Scandinavian farm looks like, with the open rectangular arrangement of the farm buildings.
DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
LOCATION — rural Sweden
ARENA — The whole story takes place between the farm and the nearby village where it is possible to buy anything you don’t have at home, in this case flour.
MANMADE SPACES — The Swedish farm buildings, the village shops, the well (which looks unlike your archetypal storybook well — this one must be based on a Swedish well.
NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
WEATHER — The Pettson and Findus stories span all the seasons. Some of them take place when it’s snowing; this one happens in a temperate season, perhaps summer.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Pettson’s bicycle is important to his characterisation. I really love this guy, with his pedal power and his cat. If he drove a car he’d be a different sort of guy altogether.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the hierarchy of human struggles, this is an unlikely, fantasy, carnivalesque struggle in which the goal is simple; to bake a birthday cake. It’s not even a high stakes birthday given that the birthday person celebrates birthdays three times a year, just because.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — In the TV adaptation, Findus is annoyed that Pettson seems to have forgotten one of his superfluous birthdays. This story is also about how annoying things happen and there’s no point apportioning blame for these things. Rather, we have no choice but to get on and deal with them if we want to achieve our goal.
STORY STRUCTURE OF PANCAKE PIE
Translators over the years have had a bit of a job deciding on how to translate this series into English. The paper below makes for an interesting case study into how publishers try something then later change their minds.
The book title Pancake Pie is also translated as Pancakes For Findus (which I admit makes more sense). The title is probably modelled on Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClusky.
Pancakes for Findus is the first story in the adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus. Pettson wants to bake a birthday cake for Findus, who has three birthdays a year. But how will they get the eggs with the bull in the way? Findus and Pettson live in a ramshackle cottage in the country, with a henhouse, workshop, and woodshed. Their fascinating, magical world is inhabited by tiny creatures who move Pettson’s things about when he isn’t looking.
We know from other books in the series that Pettson is probably a widower and his neighbours find him a little odd. The cat comes across to the reader like a proxy child. For storytelling purposes we can consider Findus a child ranging between the ages of 5 and 10, depending on what the situation calls for.
Pettson wears glasses as part of his character design. This shows how he is oblivious to the small creatures around him who are alive. Another character with the exact same trope is Muriel of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In both cases the pet can see all the opponents but the human occupant sees nothing. In Muriel’s case she fails to see some pretty dire baddies, but the setting of the Pettson and Findus stories is more utopian. The creatures are mischievous and sometimes cranky, but never evil.
The co-star Findus has all the shortcomings typical of a small child, and as in any comedic series, he never grows up. He continues to be self-centred and petulent, in a lovable way. I I find the TV version of Findus unlikeable, and I think it’s mainly to do with the English dub of his voice, which is irritating. Voicing animals is always difficult.
Another example of this exact difficulty: ‘Dog’ of Footrot Flats by Murray Ball. New Zealanders were already in love with Dog from the newspaper comic strips, and the makers of the 1980s Footrot Flats film had a hell of a time settling on how Dog’s voice should sound. I have a Border collie myself these days and I think they got it right.
The creators of the 1980s Garfield animations also got Garfield right, but as a kid I didn’t think so. I was shocked to find that Garfield had a lazy adult male voice when I had expected something more like… the Findus voice. More ‘miowy’, more aimed at kids. Now I’m an adult I can see Garfield’s voice is correct, and that as a kid I had been far too generous in my interpretation of that cat’s character.
Self-centred Findus wants three birthdays per year and Pettson wants to oblige his cat. However, this kind of self-absorption is only briefly critiqued, and only in the TV adaptation, in which a hen clucks at the extravagance of three birthdays per year. The young reader is not encouraged to side with the judgy hen though, so the idea of three birthdays per year is a carnivalesque bit of fun and also wish fulfilment. What kid wouldn’t want three birthdays per year?
On a deeper level, Findus wants to be the centre of attention with luxuries foisted upon him.
On the most surface level, Pettson and Findus want to celebrate the day by baking something and eating it as a treat, whether we call it a pancake pie or a pancake pudding or whatever.
The storyworld itself stands between Pettson getting flour, or not. But ‘things going wrong in the world’ doesn’t usually make for a satisfying opposition, so literally populating the arena with tiny creatures, each with their own agenda, is a masterful way to make a setting come alive. Pettson doesn’t simply get a hole in his bicycle tyre; a little creature bites a hole in it.
This is literally how people of yore saw the world. We only need look into earlier versions of fairytales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker to know this. That tale’s reason for existence is to warn people against fraternising with small creatures and spirits in the home, so clearly many people thought they actually existed!
We might as well consider these little creatures fairies. They don’t look like the 21st century conception of a fairy — small, butterfly-like femme coded creatures influenced by Disney’s Tinkerbell. Fairies can refer to any creature who lives in the world around us, and in our living spaces. Earlier humans imagined fairies absolutely everywhere. (Modern audiences get the feeling we now understand Earth and seem more concerned with populating space… we call them aliens though, not fairies.)
The neighbour who ambles by right as Pettson is washing his pants in a bucket also functions as an ‘observer opponent’. I’ve seen these scenes in other children’s stories, recently in Bluey, in which the father is playing a ridiculous game with his daughter when a dressed-up judgy poodle walks by and drags him with side-eye. She hasn’t got the memo that this small snippet is part of a game.
Audiences seem to love this gag — in which a main character is caught in the most humiliating part of a plot when someone happens to amble by. A funny moment now becomes comedically humiliating with the addition of an intradiegetic audience member. Funny how that works.
In such scenes, is it not humiliating enough that we, the audience, are watching? No, not if the fourth wall remains intact. Also, we are in possession of the complete story. We know how the character got into that position. Humour derives from the fact that the passerby is in audience inferior position. The joke is sort of actually on them, for failing to understand the whole scenario.
Pancake Pie is basically a There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly cumulative plot, except for one major difference: In the fly story, the old lady’s self-formulated plan is ridiculous. She herself is ridiculous. Perhaps for this reason I have never found that old lady an empathetic character. I couldn’t care less whether she lives or dies (and both endings exist in the world).
In the case of the empathetic Pettson, the scenarios are ridiculous (thanks to the fairies) but his plans are quite sensible, given the world of the story. Key falls down the well? Get a long stick and fish it out. Pants covered in egg? Take them off and wash them in a bucket.
It’s not Pettson who is eccentric; it’s his farm. Pettson is a misunderstood widower.
Honestly, I couldn’t follow the Plan part of the plot sequence on first reading. if you’d quizzed me immediately after for comprehension I would not have been able to tell you how Pettson goes from looking for flour to being chased by a bull in a field. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoy the spectacle and don’t mind the sequence.
That said, the sequence must make sense for the story to work, and it does if you’re paying attention, with a clear path from A to B to Z. Lucky for me, someone else wrote the sequence down in a humorous consumer review:
If Pettson, P, is to make a pancake pie, then P must buy flour.
If P is to buy flour, then P must cycle to town.
If P is to use a cycle C, then C’s tires must be intact.
If P is to make C’s tires intact, then P must obtain a cycle repair kit R.
If P is to obtain R, then P must have the key to the toolshed K.
If K is in the well W, then P must have a fishing rod F.
If F is on the roof, then P must have a ladder L.
If L is in the bull B’s field, then P must scare away B.
If P’s neighbor N had known all of the above, then N wouldn’t necessarily have thought P had lost his wits when he saw him playing Jussi Björling records for B on P’s wind-up phonograph.
That’s logic. What do they teach them in schools these days?
The bull is a Minotaur opponent (more literally than most Minotaur opponents, which can come in any shape or form and most have nothing to do with actual bulls).
The story climaxes at the bull fight. Although the ridiculous events around baking a simple pancake pie build into something more and more ridiculous, the level of ridiculousness is not enough to ‘finish off the story’, which must be finished somehow. So Nordqvist ends it with an actual battle scene, complete with danger of death and a chase.
Findus and Pettson have no major epiphany, because this story was all about spectacle (for the reader). They realise that when they have their hands on the flour that they can sit down to enjoy an afternoon tea of pancake pie.
Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pieis an excellent example of a children’s book where all is well when the main characters sit down to enjoy food. A number of series work like this, including the more recent Mercy Watson picture books by Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen. Those stories end when Mercy sits down with everyone to enjoy hot buttered toast.
Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.
This story established the intriguing world of Pettson and Findus. I fell in love with Pettson immediately. For me the farmer is the sympathetic character, though for children I expect the cat will be relatable. In this way, the series achieves a dual audience.
Worlds populated by tiny creatures endure. The Pettson and Findus books were just a small part of that. The golden age of fairy and goblin stories may seem to have passed, but look at the Hilda series, recently adapted by Netflix, for a similar utopian world populated by tiny creatures who each have their own agenda but who pose no significant threat to the main, human characters.
Rupert Can Dance is a 2014 picture book written and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, who loosely makes use of a T.S. Eliot cat archetype in his depiction of alovably combatative relationship between a secretive mystery cat and a girl.
Wait Till the Moon Is Full is a 1948 picture book written by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Garth Williams. The story has carnivalesque elements, a gentle utopian storyline and a well-drawn mother figure, who is safe and warm but who also joins her son in his imaginative play.
This picture book is a perfect going-to-bed story because of its poetic elements. For this reason it has been produced as an audio play. It works even without illustrations.
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life is an illustrated short story, though some might just call it a picture book. The language is too sophisticated to count as an early reader, unlike the Mercy Watson series, of a similar length and also divided into chapters.
Why divide such a short story into chapters, anyway? In the case of the Mercy Watson series, the young reader feels a sense of achievement after finishing each chapter. Also, the point of view switches between Mercy Watson’s house and that of their neighbours, Eugenia and Baby. In Higglety Pigglety Pop! the chapters strike me as a parody of a longer, mythically structured work.
The Kirkus reviewer also had difficulty classifying this story as a picture book:
Maurice Sendak’s books have been, right along, projections of concepts rather than pictorializations of plots, so that it is almost gratuitous to hail his arrival as an author; but this tidy little package, despite its size and shape, is not a picture book, nor is it, like Hector Protector an elaboration of Mother Goose for little children – there is more to life, and his supple style matches his consummate skill as an artist.
Despite the title, the main character of this story is a dog. (The pig is secondary.) The terrier is called Jennie, and she is based on a real dog:
Dogs frequently appear in the picture books of Maurice Sendak. The best known is Jennie, the Sealyham terrier pursued down the stairs by Max in Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Reflecting on the fourteen-year partnership with his dog, Sendak said, “Jennie was the love of my life.” Jennie appeared in most of Sendak’s books from 1954 to her death, which is memorialized in Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must be More to Life (1967). The dramatist, Tony Kushner, has written that Higglety Pigglety Pop is “perhaps the most personal work of an artist who unstintingly mines his own psyche and soul for his art. Higglety belongs to the select library of essential art about death and grief.”
Jan Susina, Sendak Goes to the Dogs: Maurice Sendak’s Empathic View of Dogs
Sendak wrote this book while grieving the death of his dog Jennie.
Typically, picture books about death and grief require a metaphorical interpretation from the reader. See also Australian picture book John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Australian example also features a beloved dog with a typically human name.
Why are picture books about death so surreal and metaphorical? A young child, perhaps not yet ready for stories about death and grief, will instead be enjoying a surface level narrative, in this case the story of a dog who leaves him to be an actor in a play. I believe the thinking behind this is: The child won’t understand the sadness until they are developmentally ready to understand it.
Whether this works in practice, I don’t know. In theory it’s possible to have a sophisticated metaphorical understanding of narrative and still not be developmentally ready for death plots.
Besides, there’s plenty that’s harrowing in the surface reading of this story: The absent parents who have forgotten how to get back home to baby, the fact that everyone else has forgotten baby’s name, the button near the ground that means the nurse will be fed to the lions and also its seventh victim (in a plot point reminiscent of Bluebeard).
There’s also this idea that children can hook into the deeper meanings of texts precisely because of their lack of experience in the world. The Kirkus reviewer clearly subscribed to that idea:
You can’t compress the reverberations into a review, and certainly not the ominous illustrations; it may by-pass some adults because Sendak speaks directly to the elastic imagination of children.
It’s worth noting that Maurice Sendak never self-identified as a children’s writer. He said he just made things, and others decided who would read it.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS
Others have pointed out that Sendak’s illustrations are reminiscent of Doré and Dürer. They are rich in hatching and line detail, and relatively flat, tonally.
Sendak drew his toddlers with the faces and facial expressions of much older people, which I find creepy, though this creepiness fits the overall vibe.
SETTING OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS
PERIOD — during the real Jennie’s lifetime, mid 20th century. But there are so many fairytale/mythological aspects to this story that it’s in some ways atemporal (save the details which place it firmly in the 20th century — the house furnishings etc.)
DURATION — Unclear. Maybe a week, maybe weeks. Being is time and time is finite. For human beings, time comes to an end with our death. Stories about death tend to be ambiguous in this regard.
LOCATION — Starts in the home, sees the hero on a mythic path, ends on a stage.
MANMADE SPACES — The road is a literal road in this story (sometimes a river, for instance, in other stories). There’s a house, an aristocratic house (where the baby lives) and a castle.
NATURAL SETTINGS —The Forest is significant. The flat land is bordered by mountains in the distance.
WEATHER — Comfortable, like a utopian setting. Moonlit at night.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The details of Jennie’s medicines are oddly specific, and once you know Jennie was a real dog, we can deduce that the real Jennie was using these medicines at the end of her life. This technology isn’t ‘necessary’ for the story to work, but do show the reader that Jennie is probably elderly.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This refers to the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. Life and death is an evergreen psychological conflict.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The land which lives inside the main character. Jennie is wrong to think that nothing is better than everything, but she has to experience having nothing to see that this is not what she wanted, either. To have nothing is to be dead. After she experiences nothingness, she moves onto the next plane in something akin to Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. However, Being-toward-death refers to the acceptance that one is going to die someday. The ‘acceptance’ that happens in this story is an end-of-life acceptance, and I think that’s something different. Perhaps a Heidegger expert can clarify.
STORY STRUCTURE OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE MUST BE MORE TO LIFE
Higglety, Pigglety, Pop, The dog has eaten the mop. The pig’s in a hurry, The cat’s in a flurry, Higglety, pigglety, pop.
Mother Goose nusery rhyme
Only the end (story-within-a-story play) part of the structure has much to do with the nursery rhyme, aside from the cast, which includes a dog (main character), pig and cat in both nursery rhyme and storybook. Clearly, there’s not a helluva lot to work with in five lines, so Sendak fleshed it right out and turned it into mythological journey into the darkest reaches of the soul, culminating in metaphorical death.
A daring imagination has woven a simple rhyme into a brilliantly original tale about Jennie, the Sealyham terrier, who seeks Experience and becomes the star of the World Mother Goose Theatre.
The ideology of this story: Satisfaction in life comes from wanting more. Humans are compelled to always want something more. This is psychologically true and explains how humans have come to dominate (and wreck) the planet. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that having nothing is also not great.
On the surface, Jennie leaves home because she is ineffably dissasfied. (It’s right there in the subtitle.) The young men of fairy tales often start out like this, leaving home to ‘seek their fortune’, presumably because they’re bored with how things are panning out at home. A significant number of children’s stories start with the character in a place of boredom. In this particular story, there’s an existential loneliness mixed in.
If we approach this story from a philosophical point of view, using the terminology of Heidegger, the words Vorlaufen and Erwarten come in handy.
Heidegger drew a distinction between anticipation (Vorlaufen) and expectation, or awaiting (Erwarten). At the beginning of this story, Jennie is anticipating something, and we see her ‘awaiting’ something as she looks out of the window (a very common visual metaphor in children’s stories). But as soon as she leaves the house, she metaphorically enters a new phase of understanding: she is on a journey towards death acceptance. Not death in general — she doesn’t give a damn about the life of that plant she just ate — her own death. She won’t fully understand death until she contemplates the end of her own life.
(Heidegger worked on the idea that only human beings die. He thought plants and animals simply perish. Sendak has personified the plant. The plant’s death is clearly the first real death of this story.)
Stories don’t satisfy an audience until the main character wants something. Although Jennie starts out with no goal in mind (other than to get the hell out of the house), she very soon does settle upon a goal: she wants to act in a play. This desire is what propels her forward in her journey. First she requires ‘Experience’.
Sendak plays with the various permutations of this word and how we typically use it in English to mean
Work experience, a prerequisite for many jobs
A positive event in one’s life
A negative event in one’s life (euphemistically)
Presumably because she is a dog, Jennie’s understanding of English is limited. She shares this in common with the child reader. Jennie embodies both adult and child at once — a naive child in the adult role of a nurse, and the brave role of a lion-fighting knight.
Typically in stories there are two distinct layers of opposition: the ‘family’ and the ‘Minotaur’. Friends and family are natural opponents for wanting different things. These things don’t tend to be life and death. Jennie and the potplant are opponents because Jennie wants to leave and the plant clearly wants to dissuade her, craving company. Jennie eats off all of its leaves and it can’t talk anymore.
Next, Jennie and the Baby are opponents. The baby won’t eat, and if the baby won’t eat, Jennie will be fed to the lion. As far as ‘family opposition’ goes, the threat of death is stronger than average. Normally in stories, families are squabbling about relatively incosequential things (in comparison to the big, outside, Minotaur opposition).
As for the Minotaur opponent in this tale, that would be the big, bad opposition that represents life and death: the Lion — typically used as Minotaur opposition — unreasonable, with the huge appetite of an ogre. An ogre/Lion can like you perfectly well and still want to eat you up. It’s impossible to reason with this category of opponent.
Metaphorically, the Lion represents our greatest fear — fear of death. The following sentence offers clear insight into that:
Because Jennie is naively stumbling through the world, she misinterprets the requirements of acting. She is told she needs Experience, subtext reading she needs acting experience, but when she hears of a (dangerous) nursing job and is told that it will certainly be ‘an Experience’ she figures that’ll do nicely to propel her toward her goal.
Stories that culminate in a play/sports event/competition have a climax baked into the plot. But we shouldn’t confuse that part of the story for the near-death section — metaphorically the part where the hero reaches the centre of the labyrinth and confronts the Minotaur.
The mythological vibe of Higglety Pigglety Pop! is clear. Jennie pops her head right into the lion’s mouth. Turns out she was only bluffing as a way to save Baby and she escapes without her beard ‘which never grew back’. This is Jennie’s near-death experience.
In a differently structured story, also featuring a ‘play’, contrast with About A Boy. In that story, the stage performance is the near death experience. (Social death, for the young boy.) The stage scene also functions to show the audience that the older ‘boy’ (played by Hugh Grant in the movie) has finally sacrificed his dignity to do something nice for someone else. He has grown as a human being.
Extrapolating for metaphor, the stage play has functioned as the portal into death, and a microcosm of the overall absurdism/futility of life. When taking a broad view of life, it’s difficult to take seriously things which once seemed so very important.
There IS more to life: death! Life and death are part of the same cycle, an ideology that wends its way right through children’s literature.
Scene: room in a very terrific place.
We can assume they end up in Heaven, or the reader’s cultural equivalent.
Looking through the various reactions to this story from consumers, Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a divisive story. Readers seem to find it either attractively surreal or creepily off-putting. But Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are cemented Sendak’s position as an influential American 20th century storyteller, ensuring that there will long be an audience who seek out his other work.
Sendak’s book is now better known (at least on the Internet) than the Mother Goose nursery rhyme around which it is written.
When I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was disturbed for an unlikely reason. It wasn’t the dystopian aspect of a world where humans were no longer top of the food chain. The resonant image for me was when the apes were riding horses.
I immediately checked myself. Why am I slightly repelled by the spectacle of apes riding horses? I mean, humans ride horses and we’re not much different from apes.
Yet humans sort of had to ride horses. If we hadn’t used horses at certain points in our history, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Jared Diamond writes about this in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, about how human evolution has favoured certain geographical groups over others.
THE DOMESTICATION OF WILD HORSES
First he points out that domestic animals including horses didn’t do well in Africa because of climate and disease carried by tsetse flies. For that reason, the horse only became established as far south as the equator, and only on the Western side of the African continent until A.D. 1-200, where they transformed warfare. Yet horses had long since become established in other parts of the world. In Egypt they also transformed warfare, starting around 1800 B.C. As soon as horses make their way into an area, humans use them to fight wars with.
Every domesticated animal has a wild ancestor. The wild ancestor of the horse, the wild horse of southern Russia, is now extinct, though a different subspecies survived in the wild to modern times in Mongolia. (This Mongolian horse is now rare and protected and survives in a protected National Park. But it is no longer ‘wild’.) Sheep, goats and pigs were the first wild animals to be domesticated. The most recent example of domestication is the camel.
Diamond draws a clear distinction between animals which can be tamed (e.g. elephants) versus animals which can be domesticated. ‘Tamed’ simply means to become less dangerous to humans, whereas to be domesticated, a wild animal is ‘selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control the animal’s breeding and food supply’. Some animals can be domesticated and others cannot. For instance, no one has ever domesticated a zebra. You simply cannot put a saddle on a zebra, and you can be sure people have tried. We know that zebras tend to bite you and not loosen their bite. But horses don’t do that. I know from reading Lonesome Dove that horses can bite you badly in the shoulder and also bite off your toes, but horses don’t keep hold of your flesh like zebras do. Horses can therefore be broken in.
Why can you put a saddle on a horse and not on a zebra (or on elk or eland)? Three factors:
Horses aren’t as skittish and nervous. You can keep them in captivity.
They are herd animals who don’t mind company
Horses first developed a firm social hierarchy between themselves. Humans utilised this natural hierarchy and position themselves at the top. (Normally it’d be the top ranking female horse.)
Domesticated horses have therefore been vital to humans, first in warfare, next in agricultural and in transportation across long distances.
RIDING CREATURES THAT FLY
Since we are used to seeing humans riding horses, it’s no great stretch of the imagination to witness them riding flying horses (pegasuses). Though when a human rides a bird, the human has probably been through some sort of shrinking process. Flight is one of the main wish fulfilment fantasies, especially in children’s literature. The experience of riding a horse is very much like flying, and we use the word ‘fly’ to describe rapid, smooth movement, even across ground.
WHERE RIDING GETS WEIRD
The illustration below is clearly a play on the English word ‘to ride piggyback’. The phrase refers to anything riding on the back of something else, metaphorically or literally.
The history of this word has nothing to do with pigs:
Piggyback is a corruption of pickaback, which is likely a folk etymology alteration of pick pack (1560s), which perhaps is from pick, a dialectal variant of the verb pitch.
It is surprisingly easy to find old illustrations of humans and other animals riding fish and fish-people.
The flippers on the horse in the illustration below are a particularly resonant detail.
Looking at art as a corpus, it seems modern audiences no longer look at a fish and imagine riding it, like, at all. Maybe sometimes, in something absurdist. But the illustrations below make me think that in pre-aeroplane times, people were just as likely to imagine fish as birds when conceiving of a flight contraption.
THE ‘SIDE SADDLE’ VERSION OF RIDING ANIMALS
Sidesaddle riding is a form of equestrianism that uses a type of saddle which allows a rider (usually female) to sit aside rather than astride an equine. Sitting aside dates back to antiquity and developed in European countries in the Middle Ages as a way for women in skirts to ride a horse in a modest fashion while also wearing fine clothing. It has retained a specialty niche even in the modern world.
The sidesaddle tradition goes way back and can be seen on Greek vases. It exists because the rubbish concept of virginity exists, in which the hymen must be preserved so men can marry their daughters off well. As they clearly knew even then, a wide variety of normal activities can stretch the hymen (hymens do not break), but they did not then come to the conclusion that the hymen and penetrative sex have little to do with each other. The natural conclusion was that women’s movements must be further restricted.
None of this comes into children’s picture books, of course. Unless we do a count up of girls with their legs closed versus boys with their legs astride; girls being carried to safey, boys more active in their own travel and rescue.
THE RELATED TROPE OF THE RIDING BITCH
This trope describes the situation in which a female character rides on a bike (motorised or otherwise) while a man steers.
Growing up in the 80s, my bike was different from my brothers’ bikes. My top bar was heavily angled. When I asked why, my father told me it was so I could get onto the bike wearing a skirt, which seems ridiculous even for the 80s, except I was required to wear full school uniform to school all through the 90s, so I mostly was trying to pull down my summer tunic as the wind caught it, and constantly trying to keep my winter kilt out from the back wheel. (I didn’t succeed.) Honestly, the nuisance of a horizontal top bar would’ve been the least of my concerns.
Inverse examples of the riding bitch in children’s stories are rare. However, you will occasionally find them, in which case the female character is coded deliberately as a ‘take charge’ sort of girl.
Are women’s bikes still built differently? Yes, but in a way that accommodates for average differences in build rather than from some outdated idea that women are still mostly riding skirts on bikes, and are incapable of mounting bicycles featuring horizontal top bars.
Honestly, if women are athletically capable enough to ride a male top bar like pig Josephine below, we have always been sufficiently capable of riding a bike as it was meant to be ridden — using an actual damn seat.
There’s a good reason why female characters rarely give male characters rides like this. If you’ve ever tried it you’ll know that it’s very difficult and requires a substantial differential in size and strength. Girls are simply smaller.
The illustration below disturbs me, as it is meant to. We see acts of violence meted out to people of all genders, of course, but there’s something utterly vulnerable about the violence meted out in this one, in which the riding bitch trope intersects with male violence against a woman. The torture (rather than the finality) of the event is given primacy. The image is even more disturbing if you’ve studied the history of the witch craze.
Images of tortured Jesus are also disturbing, though perhaps rendered less so because of the ubiquity of Jesus on the cross. We rarely see Jesus from this angle. A near ‘upskirt’ angle is specific to femme characters. Notice how even on her way to hell, this tortured witch does not ride astride a horse. She’s still some dude’s riding bitch.
Header illustration: Early-twentieth century illustrations by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938) riding horse underwater
“The Town Musicians Of Bremen” is a folktale that goes by various similar names. Its plot structure is so strong that many storytellers writing series for children borrow this story at some point.
The “Town Musicians of Bremen” tells the story of four ageing domestic animals, who after a lifetime of hard work are neglected and mistreated by their former masters. Eventually, they decide to run away and become town musicians in the city of Bremen. Contrary to the story’s title the characters never arrive in Bremen, as they succeed in tricking and scaring off a band of robbers, capturing their spoils, and moving into their house. “The Town Musicians of Bremen” is a story of Aarne–Thompson Type 130 (“Outcast animals find a new home”).
I like the art in the version below, based on the scarier (non-bowdlerised) story collected by the Brothers Grimm.