Foxes In Children’s Literature

Ebenezer Newman Downard - Winter Landscape with Fox and Hares

A fox is a wolf who sends flowers.

Ruth Weston

Arthur Applebee asked a group of pre-school children to tell him the characters of a list of animals. They were more certain of the stereotypical personalities of animals they could only have met in stories, such as brave lions or sly foxes, than of the characters of dogs or cats, where experience of specific dogs and cats came in to complicate the picture. Story characteristics are prepared for reception, so to speak; they’re consistent, they don’t contradict themselves, and they’re dispensed at the pace that understanding demands.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford
Reynard the Fox by Wilhelm Von Kaulbach
Reynard the Fox by Wilhelm Von Kaulbach
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The Story Of The Kind Wolf by Wilkon and Nickl Analysis

“The Story Of The Kind Wolf” is a 1982 picture book by Jozef Wilkon, illustrated by Peter Nickl and translated into English by Marion Koenig. The story is now out of print and hard to find.

This is a Tawny Scrawny Lion plot, and very much of its time. This was the era of the vegetarian wild animal in picture books. Ecologists have long understood the importance of meat in the diet of a carnivore, and now understand how a single pack of wolves are vital to keeping an ecosystem in balance. But according to these Tawny-Scrawny-Lion plots, an ideal wilderness is one in which carnivorous animals become vegetarian. If this happened in reality, rabbits would ruin the landscape for everyone. Rabbits have ruined Australia, a topic covered metaphorically by Shaun Tan and John Marsden in The Rabbits.

Like John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, this story definitely has a subtextual layer to it. Unlike John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, I’m not sure it’s intended? For me, this is a subtexually a Jekyll and Hyde story, in which the fox functions symbolically as the wolf’s extreme hunger.

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Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Blueberries For Sal (1948) is a picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, also well-known for Make Way For Ducklings. Both stories are thrillers for the preschool set, especially this one. In fact, I’m about to try and convince you that Blueberries For Sal is the inspiration behind Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, with blueberries swapped out for drug money.

McCloskey makes use of a number of established thriller genre techniques in this story, and creates an exciting yet cosy tale. How does he accomplish that? Let’s take a look.

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Frog Goes to Dinner by Mercer Mayer 1974 Analysis

Frog Goes To Dinner by Mercer Mayer cover

Frog Goes To Dinner (1974) is a wordless carnivalesque picture book by American author/illustrator Mercer Mayer, and the fifth in a series about a boy and his beloved frog. Wordless picture books are perhaps the most emotionally affecting, because they work with us at a deeper level. Frog Goes To Dinner works on an emotional level, especially compared to most carnivalesque plots.

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The Cat At Night by Dahlov Ipcar (1969)

The Cat At Night by Dahlov Ipcar cover

The Cat At Night is a picture book written and illustrated by Amrican Dahlov Ipcar (1969). Like many children’s authors and illustrators, she lived a long life (1917-2017).


Join the farmer’s cat on his fascinating nighttime journey through fields, farms, forests, and even the city to see what only he can see after the sun sets. Legendary artist Dahlov Ipcar mesmerizingly alternates between dark night scenes and vivid color to deliver a beautifully illustrated children’s classic.


Ipcar’s paintings are described as ‘kaleidoscopic’. Take a look at these ones and you’ll see why:

But in this particular story, Ipcar makes heavy use of the silhouette, putting me more in mind of Lotte Reiniger, the underrated animator whose technology was ‘borrowed’ by Walt Disney.

In The Cat At Night, the silhouette is used as part of a game, designed to get young children talking with their adult co-readers in a go-to-bed story.

Below is an example of how Ipcar creates a spread of silhouettes then, after a page turn, reveals the scene in full colour.

“What do you think he sees?” asks the text, and also the adult co-reader, eliciting a response from the young child.


I’ve seen scholars of children’s literature use the word ‘hypnogogic objects’ to describe certain kinds of children’s books. The O.G. hypnogogic object is the fob watch dangled before the eyes, designed to lull a person into a hypnotised state. Some picture books appear to have a similar aim in mind, especially those in which the main character goes to sleep themselves, modelling what the child is supposed to do. This picture book is an early example of what we now call an ‘interactive book’, though the word most often now refers to books read on a digital device. This silhouette-to-colour transition is exactly the sort of ‘device’ perfectly suited to digital technologies.


The cat is not any cat in particular, but stands in for all cats. We know this because of the ‘universal he’. (A contemporary picture book would be more likely to replace the singular with the plural and avoid gendered pronouns altogether.)

The whole premise of this story rests upon the idea that cats can see in full colour at night. The more modern misconception is that cats can’t see colour at all. In fact, cats do see some colour, but their world is nowhere near as colourful as our own (nor as colourful as this picture book). Cats are like colour blind humans.

  • Cats can see shades of blue and green.
  • Reds and pinks may appear more green.
  • Purple can look like another shade of blue.
  • To cats, none of these colours are as saturated.

The idea that other animals see the world completely differently is a fascinating one, and we know more about cat vision now than we did in the mid 20th century. I suspect that in 1969, readers really did believe that cats have a magical ability to see at night. The cat in this story is black for several reasons: It matches the silhouette artwork, and also puts us in mind of a witch’s cat.

Despite assertions in the text, humans are much better at detecting colour than cats are. They can’t see distant objects as well as humans can, so a scene such as the rooftop spread below would not be what a cat sees at all, despite the folk art treatment. A cat has to be at 20 feet to see what an average human can see at 100 or 200 feet.

The double spread is a good feline choice though, because cats have a slightly wider field of vision than we do (200 degrees compared to 180.)

However, Ipcar is not wrong about cats and their night vision. Cats do far better than we do at night, partly because they’re making use of their other senses (and whiskers), but also because they only need one sixth of the light that we need. They have more rods in their retinas.

As this picture book progresses, reference is made to the mirror-like effect at the back of a cat’s eyes, and which I’m sure has contributed to their reputation as witches’ familiars. This glowing-eye effect is caused by cells in the tapetum, which helps them to pick up any light in the environment.

Picture books rely heavily on the (human) sense of sight, so it’s inevitable that a picture book can’t come close to conveying how a cat experiences the world. We’re unlikely to ever know that.

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Tight Times by Shook Hazen and Schart Hyman Analysis

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.

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Ferdinand The Bull Picture Book by Leaf and Lawson Analysis

Ferdinand The Bull by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson may not stand out as remarkable to a contemporary audience, but this picture book is significant for Lawson’s early use of cinematic perspectives. Picture books were influenced by motion pictures and photography in a wide variety of ways. Ferdinand the Bull is a standout example of a picture book which would have looked quite different had the audiences not been visually literate due to movies. Lawson’s use of negative space is also modern and remarkable. The linework is clear, similar to the linework utilised by the atomic illustrators.

There is much to be mined here for the teacher of philsophy. The Story of Ferdinand is explored in detail at the Story Philosophy blog, with example questions for discussion.

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Gaston by DiPucchio and Robinson Analysis

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.

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