Gorilla is the book that made Anthony Browne’s name as a creator of postmodernpicture books. It was awarded the Kurt Maschler Award (1982-1999), which specifically rewarded British picture books demonstrating excellent integration between words and pictures.
WHAT HAPPENS IN GORILLA?
A girl called Hannah — about 6 or 7 years old — feels that her father doesn’t spend any time with her. She often wants to do something with him but he is always busy. One day her father gifts her a toy gorilla, as she has a special interest in gorillas, seeing gorilla related things everywhere. That night Hannah dreams she goes on a dream date with her life-sized gorilla, who is now a stand in father figure. He takes her to the zoo and then to a cafe. In the morning we learn that it is her birthday, and her father has a surprise — he is going to take her to the zoo.
WONDERFULNESS OF GORILLA
There is something wonderfully unsettling about the picture books of Anthony Browne, who is a postmodern picturebook writer/illustrator.
Postmodern picture books are a specific genre of picture books. Characteristics of this unique type of book include non-linear narrative forms in storybooks, books that are “aware” of themselves as books and include self-referential elements, and what is known as metafiction.
Wikipedia (BTW, anyone would think from the Wikipedia write-up that postmodern picture books are created only by men.)
Features of Postmodern Picture Books
they expand the conventional boundaries of picture book formats
contain overly obtrusive narrators who directly address readers and comment on their own narrations
often contain narrative framing devices (e.g., stories within stories, characters reading about their own fictional lives)
feature typographic experimentation
feature a mixing of genres, discourse styles, and modes of narration
illustrated with a pastiche of illustrative styles
– Frank Serafini
For more on postmodern picture books see David Beagley’s lecture on iTunes U, or my notes on that, here.
A less well-executed story may have started with something like, “Tomorrow it was Hannah’s birthday…” It is particularly masterful that Anthony Browne withholds this information until the conclusion. Why? Because the brightness associated with birthdays lightens the ending. Since the first part of the book is melancholic, a birthday tone would not fit well.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
A feature of Anthony Browne’s work is that although the characters are depicted in almost naturalistic style, “in all styles we can only interpret faces with certainty as positive, negative or neutral in affect, with more subtle readings dependent on contextual and intermodal guidance. (Tian, 2011.)
As is the case in all of Browne’s books, the illustrations contain surreal details which reward the reader for lingering. This is not a page-flipper. A young reader will feel smart, in a Where’s Wally/Spot The Difference kind of way, for picking out what’s strange about each picture.
First, Browne sets up a desire in Hannah: She wants her dad to show her some affection. The reader must emphasise with Hannah and feel some of her isolation and loneliness. Above, the father holds up a newspaper as a wall.
In the image above, the father has his back to his daughter. Hannah’s isolation is emphasised by the rectangle of light coming through an off-stage door. The rectangle forms a border between Hannah and her father. They may as well be in different worlds.
There is no comfort in this house — not even a sofa to sit on, and no carpet. Notice the map of Africa on the wall — a part of Hannah’s imagination. The truly masterful part of this illustration is that the light coming out of the television turns the pattern on the wallpaper into butterflies. The light coming out of the television is Hannah’s only company — her only brightness in an otherwise dark home environment.
What does it mean when a background merges with the real life of the story?
The character feels ignored/isolated/lonely, having more in common with the background than with the action going on around her
The world around the character is not what it first appears, suggesting there’s a hidden depth to everything. Here, the father’s feelings towards Hannah are warmer than initially suggested. (He is redeemed at the end.)
There’s something a little disturbing about this, unless we realise that the gorilla is a fantasy stand-in father.
I must admit there are a few scenes that had me arching my eyebrow at what she was up [to] in the way of questionable behaviour, but the end explains everything nicely.
from a 3 Star Goodreads Review
Superman is the symbol of supreme strength and prowess. This little girl thinks of her father as a superhero. But, like Superman, he is also some glamorous figure who remains out of reach.
The city is a jungle and the jungle is a city. Most stories set in cities have elements of the jungle in them, and vice versa.
Food is immensely important in children’s books. Though there is a bit of a movement towards depicting healthy food in picture books, this is almost impossible to do when the feast takes place inside a child’s imagination, in which case (in the West, at least) it’s almost always cakes and sundaes.
Not seen in this shot, but the father has a banana poking out of his back pocket. There are little details like that which tell the reader visually: “The gorilla IS the dad.” Anthony Browne reuses this trope in his postmodern Hansel and Gretel, in which the mother IS the witch.
The reader (along with Hannah) now learns that Dad really does think about his daughter. He has intuited that Hannah is fascinated with gorillas, and has planned exactly the birthday outing she has been dreaming about. He’s the sort of dad to hang Hannah’s pictures on the wall, framed. The young readers are left with the message that even when they feel that their caregivers don’t care about them, parents actually do love them, no matter what. This is a reassuring story: children will eventually receive the attention they crave.
There have been a number of reprints with different covers over the years:
This image with the surprised cat is my six-year-old’s favourite. The expression on the cat is funny to a kid, and is perhaps the one bit of true hilarity in the whole book, which is bitter-sweet and melancholic. Perhaps this is why it was chosen as a front cover image.
Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner is one of my all-time favourite picture books and funnily enough, it has been created by a husband and wife team. Some of the very best picture books are obviously created with a lot of collaboration between writer and illustrator, and it amazes me that so many (also good) picture books are created without writer and illustrator ever meeting.
PLOT OF GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER
Horace and Glenda Pork-Fowler hav one an “all-you-can-eat” weekend at Eatum Hall – a dream come true for the pair for whom no plate is too big. However, their greed and desire to make the most of their luxurious surroundings distract them from the true purpose of why they are there!
Gradually we are fed details about the wolf’s intentions: He intends to fatten up his dinner guests then trap them in a giant pie machine. After he has cooked bacon and goose pie, he will invite his wolf cronies for a feast.
Needless to say, the wolf’s plan backfires. The Pork-Fowlers escape unharmed.
WONDERFULNESS IN GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER
Although marketed at ages 5+*, I have to admit not fully understanding what had happened after the first time I’d read it. Everything became clear on second reading. The more I read the story, the more I marvel at the intricate plot — I have no doubt that this was a difficult plot to pull off. On second reading, certain details will be discovered: The wolf who hasn’t left Eatem Hall at all, but who looks with freaky, shiny eyes upon the Pork-Fowlers’ car approaching the mansion.
The Kate Greenaway Judges suggest 7+ and I tend to agree. Picture books are increasingly difficult to sell for whatever reason, and there’s a temptation for publishers to market even the most sophisticated picture books to younger readers, sometimes turning quite difficult texts into board books, knowing that older children are being pushed into reading chapter books and novels exclusively. Please don’t push your young readers completely away from picture books! Buy them picture books as presents!
Intratext provides humour throughout:
In fact, reading the intratext is necessary, if you want to fully understand the plot:
Gradual Revelation Of The Baddie
Especially masterful is the way in which the wolf is gradually revealed, body-part by body-part, to the reader. On the front cover we can see the wolf but only if we look very closely: He’s hiding in darkness to the left of the page. His fangs gleam. Unusual for wolves in picturebooks, he’s wearing spectacles. (This is a picture book about middle-aged characters — not a toddler, child or baby in sight.) The title page depicts a furry hand with sharp, white claws holding the invitation to dinner, though the reader doesn’t know what it is yet. Next is a second title page, brightly coloured, forming a double-page spread with the colophon. Most picture books don’t have two title pages, but this one helps to set the scene and is very much meant to be read: The reader now sees the wolf’s tail disappearing off the page. Wolves don’t like to be seen, especially when their motivations are nefarious. The next we see of the wolf is his shining eyes gleaming from a distant window, then, for the rest of the story, a Where’s Wally sort of game of ‘spot-the-wolf’ has been set up for the reader: Where is the wolf on this page? Where might he be hiding on this one? Sometimes the reader never knows — he might be inside the suit of shining armour. At other times, the reader is given enough clues to work it out — on one page he has poked the eyes out of a portrait and looks at his dinner guests through the wall. Interestingly, the reader never is given a good, clear view of the wolf. The best we get is a drawing of his face in semi-darkness under his pie-contraption, but this is enough. There is not ‘Aha! The wolf!’ surprise moment. The surprise moment for the reader comes only when the reader works out what the wolf is up to, and why he has not turned up for his own feast.
Wickedness Is Humorous; Each Side Is Balanced
The comic wickedness of the wolf (why doesn’t he just shoot them or bite them?) is amplified by the wonderfully naive and good-natured victims, who escape unscathed, none-the-wiser that they were ever in any danger at all. In fact, reading this book feels like watching Road Runner: You don’t know which side to root for. After all, the coyote needs to eat. And the road runner seems to take so much pleasure out of foiling the coyote you almost want him to get caught. This story is an inversion of that: The Wolf is obviously very smart, and the Pork-Fowlers are sinfully greedy. Each side is evenly matched in avarice.
Children love to know things before the characters do — perhaps we all do, so long as we’re not presented with fools for protagonists. The naivety of the Pork-Fowlers achieves this feeling in the reader, as well as providing for a happy ending. Note the body language of Glenda, who offers a friendly wave to a pack of wolves who have turned up to eat her:
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
This is a book with a strong sense of place: Think of that wonderful series from the 1970s, To The Manor Born. This story is the picture book equivalent, set in rural England where old money live luxurious lives to varying degrees. Though the Pork-Fowlers live comfortably in a cottage-like house, the real wealth resides with the wolf, an eccentric aristocrat who lives in a gothic mansion from the old world.
The time period is less clear, but could well be set in the 1970s or 1980s — the contraptions built by the wolf have a steampunkish vibe. He listens to music on a gramophone but has a room full of CCTV set up. Technology in picture books is often an anachronistic mixture of things and, if the book is good, matters not a jot. Perhaps this is set in 2004, with the wolf still living in ‘the past’.
The cover is a combination of dark and warmth, with the sun setting behind the Pork-Fowlers as they drive into a dark forest. The pages themselves are a mixture of cheery brightness and ominous dark. The Pork-Fowlers are not only happy and naive — their kitchen scene is filled with light and joy. The cheerful kitchen scene is filled with humorous details: Ham Jam, Mr Pork-Fowler reads a newspaper called The Hog. One of them has used a knife to spread jam then plunged it back into the butter, in a piggy display of happiness and greed. Then, of course, is the fact that we are looking at two animals behaving like people, though we’ve seen this so much in picture books now that it has probably lost some of its humour — the humour must come from elsewhere.
Food is important across children’s storytelling in general, but pigs and food are particularly well-suited. If you see a pig in a picture book, they are almost certainly enjoying their food.
Use of Light and Dark
Apart from the light-dark contrast between the happy Pork-Fowlers’ cottage and the gothic darkness of Eatem Hall, we usually see the light-dark contrast in a single page. Lightness follows the Pork-Fowlers around.
Of course, some sort of light-source is necessary when illustrating a dark, gothic room, but the light is always positioned near-to and highlighting the naive dinner guests, with the brightness serving as a symbol of innocent utopia. Note that Mr Pork-Fowler’s bulky shadow bleeds into the darkness of the mansion. His greed may well be his downfall. (With pure dumb luck, it isn’t.)
Hints Of Bad Things To Come
Like an Anthony Browne forest scene, there are slightly surreal and comical hints that there will be blood:
STORY SPECS OF GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER
This is a generously sized book at 10.2 x 0.4 x 11.7 inches, published by Templar Publishing in the UK. Here are their other picture books. It’s worth checking them out if only because they don’t seem to have any ‘Picture Book Superstars’ on their list (you know, Lemony Snickett, Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers, Julia Donaldson), though you will recognise a number of names.
Published in 2004, GWCFD was shortlisted for the 2005 Kate Greenaway Medal.
Horace and Glenda Pork-Fowler take up an invitation to enjoy a weekend’s hospitality at Eatem Hall, and only narrowly escape being on the menu themselves. The dead-pan text contrasts with the illustrations: children love looking for the visual clues which suggest the pantomime fate which awaits the weekend guests. A very distinctive book which works fantastically with children.
This is a beautiful production in all respects but I do wish it had been printed on matte paper. If ever there was a case for matte paper in a picture book, this is it. With its dark pages and quite dark text, the book must be positioned just right if reading before bedtime in winter under artificial light.
Another fictional animal character who ‘lives to eat’ and takes great delight in food is Winnie the Pooh.
For hints of bad things to come, see a picture book by Anthony Browne, such as Hansel and Gretel, in which the trees look like gnarled creatures. Into The Forest is similar, with the boy’s worry symbolised by the legless soldier statue in his bedroom, or the lightbulb over the dining-room table that seems to be melting into tears.
Where Is The Green Sheep? is an Australian picture book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Judy Horacek. I know many preschoolers who count this as among their favourite books. It has certainly been a favourite around here, and my daughter has memorised it.
Part of the magic is to do with the fact that this is a book which encourages dialogic reading.
What is dialogic reading?
The process of having a dialogue with students around the text they are reading. This dialogue involves asking questions to help children explore the text at a deeper level, including defining new words, analyzing the components of a story and being able to talk about the text.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?
The reader is introduced to a number of different kinds of sheep (making use of various simple adjectives), but at various points asked, ‘But where is the green sheep?’ The green sheep appears on the final page, of course. The sheep looks green because it is fast asleep under a green bush.
The Anthony Browne example below is from Look What I’ve Got (1980).
WONDERFULNESS OF WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?
First, there is the simplicity of language. Some (more complex) picturebooks introduce young readers to new situations and, as a consequence, to new words. This book is a real ‘comfort’ read. There will be very few words a 3 year old doesn’t already know. I’m guessing this is the reason my own daughter managed to memorise it, and it makes an excellent early reader, too, as emergent readers will be able to memorise the sentences and then connect them to the text.
Sometimes when reading a picturebook I think, ‘Gosh, who would have thought of that, and isn’t it clever?’ This book has that effect on me. Mem Fox’s brilliance as a writer for children comes from her ability to see the world in a slightly off-beat way. Of course a sheep sleeping under a bush looks green, but who else would have thought of it? This is exactly the way a child thinks, before learning that no, the sheep is still sheep-colour — the bush is distinct but green.
That said, for all we know the inspiration to make the sheep green due to the bush came from the illustrator. But since I have to guess I’d say the author and illustrator worked quite closely on it. The nice thing about the final page is that there is nothing in the text which mentions the bush. Any mention of a bush would be redundant, since there’s a picture of one.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
This was the first book illustrated by Judy Horacek, who has since gone on to illustrate more, including Good Night, Sleep Tight and The Story of Growl.
Horacek’s illustrations are full of bright colours, and the shapes are outlined in black lines. Notice that board books also tend to make use of this illustration style — I think I heard that young eyes are better able to focus on pictures with clear delineations in form, and this book has me wondering if children prefer this style of illustration even after their eyes have become accustomed to subtle gradations of colour. Or is it that older children have learnt that illustrations done in this style have been created just for them?
Children respond very well to humorous faces on animals, especially. The faces of the sheep are two dots for eyes and a curve for a mouth. The open mouths sometimes offer more in the way of expression on these sheep. (Many anthropomorphised animals in picturebooks are drawn with eyebrows even though animals don’t have eyebrows simply because it’s difficult to convey the full range of human-like emotion without them.) Here, the personalities of the sheep are conveyed mainly via their body language. A red sheep does a ‘handstand’ on top of a hill, using only one leg. (See picture above.) The humour of this is amplified because we’ve just been shown a blue sheep standing like an everyday sheep, in a paddock. The blueness of it is ridiculous enough. In other words, the ‘ridiculousness’ of the illustrations build up gradually, with the sheep starting off more sheep-like, progressing into being more human-like, and eventually ending up in ‘tall-story‘-like situations such as standing on the moon.
So not only do sheep have baths like people, they are also literate!
When adjectives are introduced they are exaggerated for humour. The thin sheep is a very thin, unlikely looking creature; the wide sheep is equally unlikely.
Each sheep in this book looks happy. There is a real carnival feeling running all the way through.
My daughter’s favourite page is what I will call the ‘Where’s Wally Sheep page’, just before the end, in which we are shown an entire page of sheep: playing in a sandpit, flying with angel wings, wearing a tropical fruit hat, eating a birthday cake etc.
My kid likes to use her fingers as legs and make a play out of walking around the scene, joining in with the cake-eating scene, wishing the sheep a happy birthday. It was me who introduced this possibility to her on one reading, and now we must linger every single time. In effect, this is a ‘look’ page, similar to a page of Richard Scarry’s lookbooks, and is designed to be gazed at for a while before reaching the climax. Interaction occurs when the child and adult co-reader are given the opportunity to ask questions: ‘Why do you think that sheep might be crying?’ Despite the simplicity of illustration and language — and perhaps because of it — this story reaches far beyond the page, extending into the reader’s imagination.
Published by Penguin imprint Viking, Australia 2004.
Simplicity wins the day. Margaret Wise Brown was another author who mastered simplicity of plot to great effect. A standout example is Goodnight Moon.
A very cute rabbit checks out a book from the library. The book is called Wolves. As rabbit reads the book, the wolf ’emerges from’ the book (or maybe it doesn’t), coming closer and closer to the rabbit as the rabbit gets scareder and scareder. Finally, we see an extreme close up of a scary wolf looking at rabbit from behind. (Note that the rabbit has been given eyebrows. Animals in picturebooks are often given eyebrows, as this helps a lot with the expression.)
This story belongs to the category in which child readers delight in knowing what’s going to happen, and are gratified when it does. Knowing the ending means it’s no less of a surprise. Further to the metafictive nature of this picturebook, an ‘alternative ending’ is supplied, and it is explained that this has been added for the more sensitive readers. We are then treated to a classic cutesy happy ending, which pokes fun at the picturebook category in general. This will appeal to adult co-readers, who will have seen more than their fair share of picturebooks of the cutesy kind. I wonder when young children realise the joke.
My six-year-old daughter was very, very taken by the fact that you can pull a little library card out of the rabbit’s library book. Later, she is equally impressed at being able to pull an overdue library notice out of an envelope which has been stuck down to the final page. This particular copy is from the university library rather than the local library, in which case any sort of paper engineering tends to get mangled. (The university’s collection of picturebooks, in contrast, seem to be most utilised by adults rather than their kids. No food stains, taped-up pages or scribbles have been found yet.) I did have to explain to my daughter what a library card and an overdue notice is. Although published in 2005, this book may stand as a historical artifact in a world where books are checked-out digitally and overdue notices are sent electronically. Even the postcard illustration, adding interest to the colophon, is something young readers may not have much experience with. This book is a snap shot into the past. These things may need to be explained to young readers.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
What makes this rabbit so darn cute? I think it’s mostly in the very expressive ears. One sticks up and one flops over, in the teen-romance equivalent of a lopsided smile. Ears pointing toward the book show rabbit’s intense concentration. Ears pointing straight back show rabbit’s mortification. One ear loops round to resemble a question mark at times. On the cover, the rabbit looks small and inquiring, and looks with interest up at the title — an echo of the interest in the child readers themselves, looking up in the world, trying to figure it out.
The rabbit is innocent until the very end. The story makes use of ‘Rosie’s Walk’ techniques:
As rabbit walks along while reading, oblivious to its surroundings, the young reader sees that the grass is actually a wolf’s fur; rabbit is coming to the end of wolf’s snout, and wolf is holding cutlery. There are allusions here to The Gingerbread Man. Earlier, the wolf in a hood is reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood. In fact, the whole story relies on the classic fairytale idea that rabbits are cute and good; wolves are evil and sneaky and bad.
The reader’s comprehension of this story hangs on understanding that rabbit is reading a book within a book. To achieve this, the book replicates the half title page — which is red with the single word ‘Wolves’. We then see an extreme close up of rabbit clutching a book, advancing towards the reader with a library in the background. Interestingly, the rabbit’s head has been cut off. This helps set the ominous tone.
White space is used both within the fictional book and in the actual book. The reader can’t be distracted. Our eye is guided straight to the critical spot on the page, in this case to a clump of trees that — to the rabbit — now look like a big wolf. Is this the illustration within the book, or is rabbit now looking around its own environs, seeing wolves everywhere? Rabbit spans both the main frame and the embedded one. Which world is rabbit in?
The colour palette is limited and red is, of course, symbolic. When the rabbit supposedly gets gobbled, the reader sees only the red, scratched-up, photo-realistic cover of the rabbit’s book.
The jam sandwich shared by rabbit and wolf in the ‘alternative ending’ is made out of scraps of torn out paper. This is wonderfully funny because the astute reader will see that it’s not a fictionalised ending at all. Did the wolf really eat the rabbit in the world of the story? We never really know.
Bronze award winner of the Nestle Children’s Book Prize 2005. (The Nestlé Children’s Book Prize, and Nestlé Smarties Book Prize for a time, was a set of annual awards for British children’s books that ran from 1985 to 2007. So this won in the second to last year of the prize.) Although I’m sad that this prize no longer runs, I don’t like to see highly sugared and processed food associated with children’s products.
Almost square in size — slightly higher than it is wide — medium size.
Another beautifully produced book about rabbits with impressive pop-up engineering (and a surprise on the last page) is The Rabbit Problem, also by Emily Gravett.
Each page is a month of a rabbit’s calendar (anthropomorphised). Again, the book is full of mock-copy such as rabbit cookbooks, rabbit newspapers and so on. Most of the text is found within these artefacts.
Then there’s Battle Bunny, for another example of metafiction which pokes fun at picturebooks in general. It seems rabbits are an excellent choice for picturebook parodies, probably because they’re so ubiquitous and also because they’re inherently cute, furry and helpless, lending themselves to cutesy stories.
The Tawny Scrawny Lion is an example of a classic picturebook in which a carnivorous animal turns vegetarian for narrative purposes. Sure enough in Wolves, the alternative ending has the wolf sharing a jam sandwich with the rabbit and becoming best of friends.
This week our local agricultural group sent an email containing the following information: Warning: Fox Attacks on Chickens.
In the last few days, 9 chickens have been killed by foxes in Centre St and Daffodil St at 3 properties between 3am and 4am. The fox is able to climb fences 6m in height. Sid Drumstick lost his entire flock in one night. Chicken owners need to keep chickens fully secure overnight. (Names have been changed to protect the victims.)
We have six chickens at our house, and have lost at least that number over the past year. Keeping them secure is quite a job — the coop needs to be locked as soon as dusk falls, which in these winter months is quite early. But then, there’s the bonus of genuinely free range eggs. And chickens are good to keep with young kids. They encourage responsibility, and establish a connection between animals and food products, which is easy to overlook unless children grow up on farms.
Perhaps because of her interest in chickens, our six-year-old daughter brought home a book from the school library called ‘Henny Penny’. Although the school library recently purchased new books for its library, this one is an old one, published in 1968. There is much humorous repetition, great for kids (though slightly tiresome to read!), and it’s a Chicken Little type of story in which an acorn falls on a chicken’s head, and she walks around the farm gathering up other kinds of fowl on her travels, on her way to tell the ‘king’. (The six-year-old wasn’t sure who the king was, thinking it may be the farmer, but this was never resolved.)
Eventually the flock of fowl meet up with a fox, who offers the birds a short cut. Because of many other fairytales about cunning, wily foxes, suspense is set up. Sure enough, the fox leads the birds straight to his cave.
You may know this story as Chicken Licken or Chicken Little, which is based on an international folktale. But I’d somehow missed out on this tale, or had forgotten all about it, so when the birds were lured to the den I was all set for some great escape, in which the birds somehow outwit the fox. I expected this even though I’m a keeper of chickens myself, and know full well that foxes would never in anyone’s wildest dreams be outwitted by a hapless chicken — especially not one who was silly enough to be lead back to his lair.
“In they all went after Foxy Loxy,” the story reads, with an illustration of some hesitant chickens and a sly fox with its tongue hanging out.
Overleaf: “From this day too this Turkey Lurkey, Goosey Loosely, Ducky Lucky, Cocky Locky, and Henny Penny have never been seen again. And the king has never been told the sky is falling.” Ah, what bliss! This is an Attenborough style of story, in which carnivorous animals actually eat the meat! Finally:
I was interested to read some of the Amazon reviews:
Unfortunately, the book has not aged as well as it might have. Illustrator Paul Galdone’s story is a bit dull for a while, and then it suddenly becomes a little shocking at the end.- I would NOT recommend this book! Children don’t need an ending where the animals are tricked and get eaten by the fox! I wish I could return it and get my money back!- It’s a classic! Very good lesson learned.
Henny Penny by Paul Galdone is not your modern PC story
The following was from a teacher, who understands the point of the disappointing ending:
Of course, children love to feel smart and they feel much smarter than Henny Penny, who thinks the sky is falling down! Someone else sees relevance to today’s media-rich world: – I have always liked Henny Penny as a good example of the foolishness of assuming that news broadcasts are accurate, which is an especially good lesson in today’s world.
The same reviewer makes a further comment on the ending, which I’m not sure is a recommendation or a resignation. Either way, it’s a comment on how picturebooks seem to have changed over the past generation or so:
Henny Penny and her friends are eaten by Foxy Loxy and his family. In today’s world of fluffed up fairy tales, Henny Penny should probably be rewritten to have received some other consequence other than being barbequed.
Have picturebook endings really become more sanitised, or are we just imagining it?
Also this week, my daughter asked me to read a Little Golden Book called The Tawny Scrawny Lion. From what I can gather, this was one of the most popular Little Golden Books (and is ranked number 25 on a Goodreads List). In fact, it’s one of my friends’ favourites from childhood. She told me to re-read it, saying it explained everything about her. My friend is vegetarian, and although this story is not the only reason why my friend is vegetarian, this dietary outcome does speak to the power of children’s literature. This is my own tawny scrawny copy from childhood:
Although I remember the book itself, I didn’t remember the story. After reading it as an adult, I realise the plot makes no scientific sense whatsoever.
The Tawny Scrawny lion catches everything he chases, but can’t seem to put on weight. Apparently this is down to too much running. Do lions suffer from hypothyroidism or anything like that? I don’t know, but it makes no sense that evolution would favour such a creature. In nature, lions balance their energy expenditure nicely — that’s why they are as efficient as they are today. No matter. I only thought of this as an adult reader. I certainly gave it no consideration as a child.
As you may remember, the lion meets some cute bunnies and the rabbits make the lion carrot stew. When the lion had gobbled all the stew, the rabbits heaped his bowl with berries. And so it continues, until the tawny scrawny lion realises that in fact he thrives on a pescatarian diet. As a consequence, he makes some wonderful new friends:
Not only that, but by eating carrots, berries, mushrooms and herbs (and also some fish, caught by the rabbit) the lion manages to look ‘fat as butter, sleek as satin and jolly as all get out’.
Which makes this true family entertainment. Could a lion thrive on a high-vegetable diet supplemented by fish? Certainly not on fish caught by rabbits, which is why this story is a story, not a wildlife documentary.
Back to my original point about sanitised endings: I now point out that this story was first published in 1952. By 1978 it was onto its tenth printing, according to this battered copy in front of me. In other words, this non-naturalistic ending belongs to the era of today’s grandparents, and actually predates Henny Penny by 18 years.
In fact, Henny Penny may well have been a satire of books such as the Tawny Scrawny Lion. If picturebooks have indeed become more sanitised, this is not a new phenomenon. When we speak of ‘PC modern stories’ we are surely talking about stories from the mid 20th century.
The Contrast of Fairy and Folktales
Perhaps what we really mean when we say that picturebooks have become more gentle is in comparison to the most classic of fairytales such as those collected by Grimm and authored by Hans Christian Andersen. Seek out any of the original translations (or the originals if you are multilingual) and you’ll see the Disneyfication of storytelling, and particularly the endings. The Little Mermaid is a good example of an ending which has been changed to suit a modern audience.
However, fairytales were never meant for children. Fairytales had a dual (multi) audience, and existed as cautionary tales for adults and adolescents. Since the concept of childhood is a fairly modern one, it’s likely children were also told these tales, but they were not specifically designed for kids.
In that case, have picturebooks really become more sanitised? I would argue that no, they haven’t. Picturebooks are not an old artform, and have always been thus. And with every happy ending, you will always find a dark story as counterbalance: a Charlotte’s Web to Miss Spider’s Tea Party; a faithful rendition of Henny Penny for everyDisney version of Chicken Little, in which “aliens return everything to normal (except Foxy Loxy, whose brain got scrambled, turning her into a Southern belle, and as a result, Runt falls for her), and everyone is grateful for Chicken Little’s efforts to save the town.”
Before talking about the various categories of animals in picture books for children, let’s take a brief look at how people from antiquity have divided the animal kingdom.
According to from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge by Jorge Luis Borges, animals divide into:
those that belong to the Emperor
those that are trained
those included in the present classification
those that tremble as if they were mad
those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
those that have just broken a flower vase
those that from a long way off look like flies.
The Evolution Of Animals In Stories Over Time
1. Animals are magical. See folklore and fairy tales. They can take human identities with their magic, and sometimes heroes take on animal identities to carry out their plans.
2. Animals are amusing. Animals are no longer objects but characters in their own right. Now they are being used to show up human foibles. (Mrs Gatty, Charles Kingsley)
3. Guilt. Animals in stories are there to show us all our human shortcoming, and also how animals should properly be treated. (Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Sarah Trimmer’s religious stories (1782-1819). Other writers such as George Orwell use them as pawns in satire (Animal Farm). Other writers allow animals to retaliate against humans who have treated them badly (Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds, The Chronicles of Narnia).
Animal stories rose as religious stories declined in popularity.
Fables go way back, of course. But when it comes to published work, the advent of animals in literature, it all started happening from the mid 1700s. Black Beauty started a trend.
Mary Plain (1930) is the first animal (a bear) to share the human one
An astonishing number of the characters depicted in picture books are not people at all, but animals—or rather, humans who look like animals, for Horton the elephant of Horton Hatches the Egg and Pearl the pig heroine of The Amazing Bone are certainly more human than animal in their interests and motivations. In many picture books, indeed, only the pictures inform us that the characters are animals; to give just one example, Russell Hoban’s Frances is a badger only in Lillian Hoban’s illustrations of her; in the text, she talks and acts like an ordinary human child.
Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Certain animals come with prepackaged character traits: wolves are evil, foxes are cunning, bears like honey. These animals are character archetypes. Cats and dogs don’t get on, pigs are messy and baby chickens are cute and vulnerable. When an author wants to use (or subvert) one of these tropes, it’s efficient to make use of an animal archetype. Also, one specific character trait can be emphasised in this way, and readers expect flat rather than rounded characterisation.
Related to animals as archetypes, animals have long been seen as ‘plain speakers’. While humans don’t say things as they are, animals in storybooks do, like sages. The reader then has the choice to either appreciate what’s been said at face value, or to look for some deeper meaning.
2. MORE EMPATHY WITH ANIMALS
In some books, the animals don’t have the power of speech. Children identify with animals because young children cannot express themselves verbally either. On the other hand, it’s difficult to identify too closely with an animal character, which is just as well when we have small, cute birdies chased down by big, bad wolves. Animal characters can provide just the right balance of empathy and distance.
Young readers seldom have problems identifying with anthropomorphic animal or toy characters as long as these hold the disempowered subject positions similar to their own (therefore, mice, bunnies, and kittens are more popular in children’s fiction than tigers and other aggressive carnivores.)
Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature
3. VISUAL HUMOUR
An animal dressed up on clothes will never lose its appeal, although I’d love to go back to the day Beatrix Potter’s first book came out and see the look of true delight that must have crossed the faces of readers who saw animals dressed as, and acting like, people for the first time.
In a cast of many characters, making the characters animals saves the need for an author to assign names and likewise, saves children from having to memorise them. ‘Miss Fox’ obviously refers to the character who looks like a fox; ‘Squirrel’ would be the squirrel. Also, animal characters can be more easily accepted as flat and static. Curious George can have his ‘monkeyness’ amplified. A non-human friend has no social obligations (no parents of their own), and can do things like sleep in the same bed as the human child.
Again I’m talking about making use of archetypes, and as Perry Nodelman explains, much of this practicality is owed to Aesop:
There are historical reasons for this concentration of animals who act like humans, among them the fact that some of the first stories considered suitable for children were the fables of Aesop, in which supposedly characteristic animal attributes are identified with human behaviour. These identifications still operate in picture books today. The image of a fox in The Amazing Bone immediately evokes the idea of craftiness, and in picture book after picture book, we are meant to understand immediately that the lions depicted are arrogant, the peacocks proud, the pigs gluttonous, the mice timid, the rats nasty. As Leonard Marcus says in “Picture Book Animals,” “animals as images in our everyday thought and expression are among the most association-rich classes of symbols. Just under the surface of picture book fantasies, cultural meanings may well be at work.”
Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Nodelman also points out that traditional (Aesopian) ideas about which personalities belong to which animals can be subverted, inverted, used ironically. He gives the example of Pearl the pig in The Amazing Bone. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance. These stories contain the message that we shouldn’t judge others based on preconceived ideas.
I’d suggest that picture books with animal characters are a great way to avoid all those visual mis-match problems whilst getting to the emotional heart of the matter.
So now, after a long tradition of storytelling, we are used to stories about animals which are really about humans. Why did Aesop tell stories about animals instead of humans in the first place?
Legend has it that Aesop was an African slave born in 620 B.C. and a hunchback with a quick wit and tongue. If you understanding that these stories were created in a situation where free speech was dangerous for the lowly, you will grasp the special flavour of the fables. Take the story of the “Lion and the Mouse” where a lion frees a mouse he has captured because of the little creature’s laughable promise to perhaps someday help the larger one; later that promise is fulfilled when the mouse gnaws through ropes after the lion is captured in a net. Here we can imagine a slave trying to subtly suggest to his master that sometimes the lowly should be listened to and can assist their betters; but we should note that this point is being made in a completely inoffensive and oblique way, by means of animals.
However, problems of the dominant culture don’t suddenly become absent as soon as illustrators/authors turn people into animals. On the contrary: the pettiness of current social practices can be universalised, as described by John Berger.
5. DELIBERATE AVOIDANCE OF HARD HUMAN TRUTHS
It’s impossible to create a picture book — or any work of art — without covertly commenting on social and economic status, ethnic identity and gender roles (for starters). When characters are animals, some of this extraneous stuff can be avoided, at least if they’re moles living in a hole. Not so much if they’re middle-class white rats living in a suburban house. (Pinocchio can endure more than a human child would. Horrible stuff happens in that book but the animals — as well as the fairies — soften it up a bit.) There’s a school of thought that children don’t see gender, for instance, so therefore it’s okay to code all animal characters as masculine. I don’t buy into this idea, but I believe it’s an influential idea which has influenced the number of animals in picture books.
However, animal characters can still be coded as white dudes.
Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.
The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:
In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.
My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”
I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.
The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.
Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere. He also says this:
White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories
It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.
The LEGO Movie was my favourite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.
But I have heard interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we have not settled upon a gender free pronoun in English as it’s widely used.)
It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.
That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis. (And in case I need to clarify, I do not subscribe to this rule. But I have heard it. I have heard it round the traps, and I know that writers subscribe to it.)
White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction
Alongside comedy, the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because if the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy they must work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:
a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world
b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.
That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works. We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.
(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)
This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.
For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default in storytelling is with picture books. Writers: don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.
6. AN OLD FASHIONED VIEW OF CHILDREN
To represent characters as animals or toys is a way to create distance, to adjust the plot to what the author believes is familiar for child readers. This reflect a stereotypical and obsolete attitude to children as not fully human, at least not fully developed as human beings… Fables, which represent human faults in animal figures, were considered suitable for children during certain periods. Animals are seldom portrayed as protagonists in books for teenagers or in mainstream literature, outside allegory, such as Watership Down, or satire, such as Animal Farm.
The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, Nikolajeva
7. ANIMAL UTOPIA
A countryside populated by small, indigenous animals is many people’s wish, hope, and memory; but such a place, if it is to give imaginative satisfaction, has to be happy and romanticised. Animal life is not happy in the human sense; it is merely neutral. Human life can be, might be, more often is not, but always has, the possibility. Giving these small animals human qualities is to put them out of reach of inevitable fear, pain and death which is their natural lot. But the device also waves a magic wand and makes humans small, giving them animal qualities and cutting them off from human miseries and frustrations, sexual pangs, jealousy, bitterness and revenge, so that these minute societies have the best of both worlds.
Animal Land, Margaret Blount
The Wind In The Willows — this story does not entirely succeed at keeping real-world miseries out of the talking animal utopia. This is deliberate, as Kenneth Grahame has important things to say about real life.
The Little Grey Men — written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the nom de plume “BB”. The story follows the adventures of four gnomes who may be the last of their kind. It also features the countryside during three seasons of the year.
Tales of Sam Pig and Brock the Badger — by Alison Uttley, a British writer who wrote lots of animal stories for children. Sam Pig lives in a thatched cottage with Tom, Bill and Ann Pig, and also Brock the Badger. The Derbyshire countryside setting shines through as an animal utopia.
The Butterfly’s Ball by William Roscoe — a poem from 1807 , so different from the moral stories that had come before that it forms the first of a new type. Animals are now dressed/humanised for ‘gaiety and charm’ rather than for ‘amusement and strangeness’. It was enormously popular at the time.
These sorts of stories don’t work nearly so well without illustration.
8. ANIMALS MAKE FOR GOOD COMEDY
Due to the efficiency of animals mentioned above, with animals as characters the writer has an inbuilt set of jokes. Animals have their own characteristics (some common only within fiction) and writers can use these characteristics to launch character humour. Puns are also abundant when you have an animal as a character, e.g. in BoJack Horseman you have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is a maggot.
I do think animals evoke a tone within a story automatically, simply by their presence. Each species has its own characterisations based on what we know about their behaviour. If a character is walking in the woods, for example, the presence of a deer evokes something different than say, a wolf, or bald eagle, or something totally unexpected like . . . an elephant. At a reading of Jasper Fforde’s he once said that crabs are funnier than lobsters, and that he wasn’t sure why, but he felt strongly that they were. We all have generalized associations with animals, and writers use those associations to drive an emotional reaction in their scenes. In the novel The Sisters Brothers, both protagonists have different relationships with their horses, treat and speak to them differently, and it reflects a great deal about who these characters are, what they value, how much empathy they have, and how relatable they are. In myriad ways, the presence of animals in stories enhances what we know about a character, foreshadows an event to come, or gives the scene mood and texture.
We have automatic, instinctual associations with certain animals, and I also really enjoy it when an author plays against them. Children’s stories often use animals as their main characters, very blatantly, but not in the ways that you would expect. My favourite book growing up was Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte, the spider, is the book’s real heroine and when she died it was the first time I ever thought about mortality, as grim as that sounds. Now, I love the work of writers like Laura van den Berg, Abby Geni, and Karen Russell, who use animals and other elements of the natural world in their stories. A lot of their work plays with the tension between the strange and the familiar, and I think this says a lot about the way we relate to animals: we want to understand them, but they will always be a little bit unknowable to us. Animals play so many different roles in stories it would be impossible to discuss them all here, but one interesting trend we’ve touched on in this discussion is how the line between the “human” and the “animal” is often blurred in fiction, with animals taking on human roles and humans, literally, assuming animal form.
A new study by University of Toronto researchers has found that kids’ books that feature animals with human characteristics not only inhibit factual learning, they may also hinder children’s thinking and reasoning about real-life animals.