Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne

Have you ever wanted to go back and redo old work? A Walk In The Park is one of Anthony Browne’s earliest picture books — his second published after Through The Magic Mirror. Twenty years later (in 1998), Browne decided to redo this book in postmodern style. Now it is called Voices In The Park. In the earlier title, postmodern elements are nascently evident. Look closely and you’ll find minor elements that don’t quite fit the scene. The earlier version has a single voice. The updated book contains four separate voices in first person and is far more surreal.

Continue reading “Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne”

Zoo by Anthony Browne (1992)

Zoo is a postmodern picture book written and illustrated by Anthony Browne, first published in 1992. Browne’s story is not a pleasant or easy read, but it does the job it’s meant to. This is a critique of zoos as a fun day out (for children and animals alike), and subverts a long tradition in children’s literature as zoos as an arena for carnivalesque fun.

20th century children’s books set in zoos are not hard to find. Zoos also appear frequently in art aimed at an adult audience:

from Punch, 1867
from Punch, 1867 by Du Maurier
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover fair zoo noah's ark
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion

SETTING OF

  1. PERIOD — This picture book was published in 1992, a period in which traditional 20th century zoos were starting to reconsider their raison d’être. I’m of the generation who saw that change happen in real time. My early childhood experiences include visits to absolutely horrible zoos, which hadn’t quite gone by the time I was in my late teenage years. The most confronting zoo I visited was the Tokyo Zoo, in 1995 — a concrete establishment bereft of people. I went there with my fellow exchange student peers on a Sunday afternoon exploring central Tokyo and we left in a very dispirited mood. In my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I remember seeing a gorilla locked inside a cage about the size of a bedroom. He had nothing to do in there except masturbate, which he did frequently, looking visitors right in the eye. I feel he knew exactly how confronting this was. And I can’t quite fathom how adults felt it was okay to exhibit that gorilla as a spectacle in the very same environment in which talk of masturbation, let alone the spectacle of it, was utterly taboo.
Kabakun is a classic Japanese picture book published in 1962. Told by a boy who visits the zoo for fun, this is about a day in the life of two hippopotamuses. The illustrations make the hippos seem enormous on the page, so this picture book makes an excellent case study in how to achieve that effect. It is not, however, a critique of zoos.
  1. DURATION — Anthony Browne’s Zoo takes place over part of a day. A day trip.
  2. LOCATION — This fictional zoo is positioned in the middle of a busy city. Browne is clear about that — the family gets stuck in a traffic jam in order to get to this artificial wilderness.
  3. ARENA —But even once inside the zoo, Browne’s backdrops offer us glimpses of the surrounding arena, which is completely devoid of greenery. Instead we see the least beautiful parts of humanity.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — I’m talking about the power pylons and the tall buildings, shown to us only in silhouette, making them seem even more ominous.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — The story has no natural setting at all, which is entirely the point. Although Browne’s critique of the zoo experience as Not Fun was new to picture books in 1992, there is a lengthy history of children’s storytellers subtley and not so subtley conveying the message that the country is wholesome and the city is dangerous for children, and that cities stifle childhood itself.
  6. WEATHER — If Browne wanted to create a genuine utopia he’d have created a blue sky with plenty of greenery, but in Zoo he does the opposite. The sky is as grey as they concrete zoo inside the concrete jungle of humanity.
  7. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The zoo itself
  8. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? Politically, animal rights activists were starting to gain traction and the a greater proportion of the general public was starting to think a bit more critically about how we treat animals, especially wild animals, especially endangered species. I’m confident that zoos (and circuses) will one day be no longer a thing that exist. Most zoos in the year 2020 are doing a better job of creating the illusion of nature, and some perhaps genuinely provide a decent life for some of their animals. But there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes that would shock visitors. For instance, the giraffe at our local zoo is a main exhibit, and if you turn up for the talk you’ll hear all about what he eats, how he spends his days, and he’ll come close enough for you to admire his beautiful long lashes. Left out of the child-friendly talk: how a new giraffe was murdered one night in a territory fight, because giraffes are a violent, territorial species, and one zoo ain’t big enough for two males.
  9. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Here we are talking about the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories. The characters in this particular story exist on a continuum between laughingly blasé (the father) and quiet, sober and concerned (the mother). The boy who narrates is noticing his parents’ reactions and, at the reflective time of retelling, seems to be making up his own about zoos. At this point he simply knows zoos are not fun. The details he tells us are centred on him, his own family and his own family’s experience of the zoo, not on the experience of the animals. The reader, however, with careful reading of the images, will see the exact ways in which this zoo is not fun: For the empathetic person, a zoo can’t be fun for humans if it’s not fun for animals.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ZOO

PARATEXT

Zoo Anthony Browne cover
Zoo Anthony Browne cover

Unusually for Goodreads, the publishers have said nothing about this book other than:

Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal.

The most upvoted consumer reviewers fall on a narrow spectrum between ‘I did not like this book’ and ‘I did not like this book but it’s important’.

SHORTCOMING

Zoo by Anthony Browne is an especially good case study in meaningful framing. Illustrators make various use of frames — doorways, windows and arches make for naturalistic architectural divisions of a scene. Frames can be created in other ways, too, for example in the opening image below. This looks like a simple page of portraits but on a re-read you’ll notice that those boxes separate each family member from each other, and the white space between them is the psychological distance between them. This is the story of a family separated from each other by metaphorical bars and white space.

zoo characters introduction
There is a lot of ironic distance between words and pictures in this book. The words say the boys are excited; the facial expressions tell a different story.

Stripes are another symbolic feature of the illustrations, most obviously in the stripy shirt worn by the father, the character most responsible for splitting the family apart.

dad horn clouds
The symbolic stripes (meaning bars on a cage) may need to be pointed out to the youngest readers, but those clouds forming devil horns are not at all subtle, and should alert the most naive of readers to the idea that these pictures contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Seeing these obvious horns, the young reader is encouraged to find more clues in the pictures, in a Where’s Wally kind of way.

The mother doesn’t seem to have any power in this family. She does have a voice, though her observations don’t have any impact on her husband. This is an example of the well-established female maturity principle at work, in which female characters are the people in a story with extra insight, well-developed empathy. It is rare to find a gender inversion of this parental dynamic.

The boys might as well be zoo animals themselves because they are stuck in this family, forced to do whatever the adults require of them. At times they break out and rough and tumble with each other, much like monkeys.

DESIRE

The action is driven by the father, who is the only one in this family who thinks a trip to the zoo would be fun. We are shown this in the car, when the father is the only one to laugh at his own joke. Browne, in turn, makes this into a joke for the reader by saying ‘everyone laughed except’ (everyone else in the car). This solipsistic father has no empathy for the desires of the rest of his family.

However, Browne knows that children in children’s stories need their own desires in order for a story to work, so the boys do have wishes of their own: They want to see the monkeys and apes, not all the other ‘boring’ animals. When they do see the large ape, this will comprise the climax. (Subverted.)

OPPONENT

The parents have their own idea about how the day should pan out. It should be fun, dammit. Even though the boys are hungry, they are not allowed to eat until designated lunchtime. In this respect, the boys are like the animals, who must wait for their feeding time rather than hunting and eating according to their own rhythms.

Browne’s illustrations of the father emphasise his bulk, with worm’s eye views (rather, child-eye views) and in one disturbing picture he has his mouth wide open, similar to depictions of cannibalistic ogres.

The boys are depicted as monkeys. The father makes a joke about their monkey hats, and Browne has emphasised the boys’ faces to better resemble monkeys’ faces. In comparison to the gorilla, these small monkeys are helpless.

PLAN

The adults’ plan: To get value for money by visiting all of the animals. Browne shows us that the father doesn’t want to pay the entry fee because he lies about the son’s age to get a cheaper price. He also doesn’t pay for a map. (I deduce that’s why they don’t have one.) The family is therefore lost within the zoo, which is not at all like a wilderness but functions more like a labyrinth, in which the family are on this path and must walk around and around until allowing themselves a psychological out. No one has forced them into this labyrinth, but as in any mythological labyrinth, there will be a Minotaur at the centre, when the main character reaches the darkest depths of his soul.

THE BIG STRUGGLE/CLIMAX

So who is the Minotaur of this zoo-labyrinth? Is it the father? I believe it’s the father AND the gorilla, who is an absolutely pitiful creature. We don’t even see the gorilla’s face, just the hunched over, completely withdrawn, pathetic figure of a magnificent wild creature with beautiful reddish fur.

Anthony Browne uses the same illustrative trick in his retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which the stepmother EQUALS the witch. Using illustrations, Browne melds a familiar (family) characater into the supernatural, mythical character, showing the reader that mythological creatures aren’t real, sure, but are even scarier than we thought; they walk among us. They live in our homes.

ANAGNORISIS

The boy narrator does not experience an “Oh my, zoos are horrible! I’m never visiting a zoo again!’ kind of epiphany. It would be unbelievable, and unlike a children’s story, if he did. Joycean epiphanies happen rarely in real life, and postmodern stories reflect that. This child’s naivety is established in the opening, when he uses ‘incorrect’ grammar ‘Me and my brother were really excited’. The introduction itself is naive, written in a ‘what I did on my holiday’ kind of way, as if required by his schoolteacher. One does not become all-seeing and wise over the course of a single outing.

Instead, the boy realises that zoos are not fun, which is just the first step towards full awareness of humans’ relationship to animals, and how far humans have become removed from our natural environments, of small communities, of ready access to nature, and everything that goes with that.

In a story like this this, the reader is supposed to have more of a revelation than the naive narrator. When developmentally reader to do so, the reader picks up the double meaning of the mother’s final observation:

“I don’t think the zoo really is for animals… I think it’s for people.”

First meaning: Zoos are no good for animals. They are good only for people.
Second meaning: Zoos are a type of cage for people, as well as for animals.

The illustration on the recto side of the spread encourages the second reading because now we see a close up of a gorilla not through bars, but through the archetypal storybook window frame, divided into four segments. This family is about to go home, and they talk about eating dinner, and what they will have. In a Magic Eye book kind of way, we can imagine seeing the family through that same frame, eating their burger and chips and beans — foods chosen by Browne specifically for being highly processed, removed from ‘nature’, not through the bars of a zoo, but through the equally restrictive ‘bars’ of a suburban window frame.

NEW SITUATION

That night I had a very strange dream.

Do you think animals have dreams?

The final sentence shows the reader that the boy narrator has finally started to think about the ‘humanity’ of the animals. He’s just starting to look outside the concerns of his own family.

The full-page recto imagery is a wide angle shot of a zoo in silhouette, but most of the page is sky and includes the moon. This functions as an outro shot seen frequently in film — big skies and oceans are commonly used to show the main character has achieved a wider view of the story situation. (Sometimes the storyteller elevates the main character by putting them on a hill or a roof.)

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

This boy could go either way. He could side with his wholly unempathetic same-gender parent and become a big, strong man who laughs and cracks dad jokes and impresses his own thoughts and desires upon everyone around him, using his bulk like a wild male gorilla. Or he could forge a more modern path, using his mother as cue. The final sentence has suggested he’ll take the second path, but sometimes characters in stories have a temporary (“phantasmagoric”) epiphany then go right back to how they were before. (The Literary Impressionists were a fan of this kind of ending.)

RESONANCE

In the 19th century, families used to visit asylums for the insane as family outings. We now call this Asylum Tourism.

Modern families would shudder at asylum tourism, which is why I think future families will, in time, shudder at zoos (and circuses), if not already.

Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne

Hansel and Gretel is one of the best-known fairytales. Almost everybody knows the basic story but, more than that, this tale is the ur-story for many seemingly unrelated modern ones. For example, whenever a character meets a character in a ‘forest’ (whether the forest is symbolic or not), the audience is put in mind of wicked cannibalistic witches.

Let’s face it: The tale itself is basically terrifying. Anthony Browne, with his postmodern approach to its retelling, does not shy away from the terror.

‘Sweetened’ Versions of Hansel and Gretel

Ladybird Hansel and Gretel

My kid does not like the Anthony Browne version of Hansel and Gretel. For her it is too scary. She doesn’t like the dark version illustrated by Lorenzo Mattoti, either, preferring the cheap Ladybird edition with its brighter colours. This might explain why many illustrators of Hansel and Gretel — and there have been many — are not interested in what the story is really about, because the original is just too horrible.

The sweetening of this tale started with the Grimm brothers, who needed to make money to support their collection hobby, so they rewrote some of the horrible tales into versions they considered appropriate for middle class children.

in the dark woods

The Grimm Brothers Made It Worse, As Usual

By that I mean, they made it horribly patriarchal. And we’ve been using their version ever since, sweetening it up a little, but the basic patriarchal message is the same:

The Grimm brothers rewrote and refined their version of the tale before it was published in 1857. It bears little resemblance to the original oral tale told to Wilhelm in 1810. While the mother figure is clearly demonized in this story, the father’s involvement in abandoning his children is carefully downplayed.

from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The main differences in the oral version:

  • The opponent was originally a mother, not a stepmother. The Grimm brothers obviously thought that having your blood mother turn on you was too scary. They did retain the shortened form of ‘mother’ in some passages though.
  • The mother/stepmother grows harsher.
  • The father grows more introspective and milder.
  • Wilhelm made the tale more dramatic, more literary, and more sentimental. For example, the children’s escape from the sinister woods across a large body of water, one at a time, on the back of a duck. In the original they simply run home.

Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel Anthony Browne book cover

Anthony Browne is one writer/illustrator who does understand what this tale is really about, though he does go with something more like the Grimm modification rather than the original, oral tale.

This is no sweetened version. The fact that this is a modern setting, with a TV and a step-mother who smokes cigarettes, and that they live in a brownstone detached house mean that the child reader can no longer pretend abandonment and famine happen only in ‘fairytale land’.

dining room table
The mother does not consider herself a part of the family, based on her refusal to sit at the dinner table. Instead she gazes into the TV.
walking into the woods

Here’s the thing Browne underscores the most:

The mother and the witch are the same person.

In Hansel and Gretel, the mother figure is split … and clearly has cannibalistic desires.

from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniels further explains the double/duplicitous/split nature of the (step)mother/witch with the help of some 20th C psychoanalysis:

The witch locks Hansel up in a cage and wakes Gretel up by yelling: “Get up you lazybones! I want you to fetch some water and cook your brother something nice. He’s sitting outside in a pen, and we’ve got to fatten him up. Then, when he’s fat enough, I’m going to eat him.”

This is a portrait of a powerful cannibalistic woman, the bad mother, who is directly juxtaposed with the good mother figure. Two facets of the mother figure are represented in this fairy tale: the evil, threatening, cannibalistic one embodied by the witch/stepmother and the comforting, feeding persona initially presented by the old woman to lure the children. The link between the stepmother and the witch is made explicitly — they both wake the children with the phrase “Get up, you lazybones” and they are both dead by the end of the story: the stepmother is the facet of the bad mother/breast who denies the children nourishment and abandons them; the witch is the mother/breast who threatens to retaliate. The duplicitousness of the bad mother is also emphasized: in her manifestation as the stepmother she pretends to be as pleased when the children find their way home; as the witch she pretends to be a kind, generous, good mother in order to lure the children into her house.

stepmother and shadow
The mother equals the witch. The clue is in the way her shadow is cast, and the way the curtains form a witch’s hat in the perfect position.

Oral Aggression?

Bruno Bettelheim [who was a total asshole, by the way — I can’t write about him without slipping that in there] considers “Hansel and Gretel” to be a tale about a child’s inappropriate oral aggression, that “gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and thus destructive desires.” But it is noteworthy that in this tale the children are orally nonaggressive. They do break off pieces of the house and “nibble” them but then they are about to “perish of hunger and exhaustion” (Grimms.) It is the witch who is aggressive and cannibalistic, but Bettelheim does not discuss this.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

the cottage made of sweets

Hansel and Gretel and Child Development

killing the witch
When children defeat a witch in a fairy tale this signifies separation from mother — a necessary stage in psychic development.

I’m no Freudian, but here’s some quoted psychoanalysis if you like.

freud's_psychosexual_stages

It is interesting to consider the ending of the tale in terms of psychoanalytic notions of child development. The children’s task is to escape the clutches of the devouring mother and to proceed from the oral phase to the oedipal stage and a meaningful relationship with their father. They live in her house for a month while she feeds Hansel on “the very best food” and waits for him to get fatter. Hansel, then, partakes of the good breast while Gretel, who “got nothing but grab shells” to eat, is denied it. They are clearly in the oral, pre-oedipal phase. By threatening to eat Hansel, the witch/bad mother clearly intends to incorporate and psychically obliterate him. Gretel kills the witch/bad mother by pushing her into the oven so that she is “miserably burned to death”. The threat of incorporation she poses is thus neutralized.

Since the children have now successfully separated from the witch/mother, they are able to reenter her house/domain “since they no longer had anything to fear.” There are children find “chests filled with pearls and jewels all over the place” and they fill pockets and apron with this treasure before leaving the house for good. Tracy Willard contends that while the good mother is not reclaimed literally or explicitly in this tale, she is symbolically reclaimed through the treasure the children find in her house. I suggest that this tale illustrates the process whereby children reconcile themselves to the duality of the mother; her presence and absence, her giving and withholding of food, and the gratification and frustration that result. The children in the tale not only kill off the bad mother but they also leave behind the oral phase. When they arrive at the house in the forest, all they are interested in is food (gratification from a maternal source), but when they leave the house/maternal domain they take treasure (economic wealth associated with the father) with them which enriches their lives, so that they can enter the paternal oedipal domain, and live with their father in “utmost joy”.

Willard […] sees the children’s home (or mother’s body) as a place that becomes hostile to them, expelling them into the forest and denying them food. They try to return but are rejected and thrust out to fend for themselves. The children find a house in the woods that appears to offer them what they desire (a return to the mother’s body) but it turns out to be a trap. Thus “the dangers of returning home are clearly outlined.” The children, Willard argues, must deal with the image of the split mother so that they can attain “a fully integrated image of the mother”. They do this by committing matricide, an act which Kristeva argues is the clearest path to autonomy. By killing the witch/bad mother, the children are free to return to their father, but they take with them the “best parts” of the split mother figure, symbolically represented by the jewels. […] The symbolism of food and the theme of eating (including cannabilism) in the story have profound psychic resonances with infantile anxieties relating to the mother which is arguably why the story continues to be popular.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The Role Of The Father and ‘Mothers In Fridges’?

But what of the role of the father in this tale? The Grimm brothers’ version celebrates the oedipal complex and reinforces patriarchal hegemony. As Zipes argues, this story twice demonizes the omnipotent mother figure but it also, significantly, was rewritten by the Grimms in order to rationalize the abandonment of the children by their father and to bolster phallocentric discourses.Hansel and Gretel must, Zipes argues, “seek solace and security in a father, who becomes their ultimate authority figure” while the mother is conveniently killed off. This situation marries with Jessica Benjamin’s theorization of object relations whereby the child identifies with the mother and maternal power and turns to the father for help in order to overcome the perceived negative aspects of the mother. However, once his help/authority has been accepted the father figure remains in control, continues to dictate the child’s life, and can be “benevolent or sadistic”. Patriarchal hegemony and phallocentric logic are thus reinforced in the Grimms’ narrative and the outcome is rendered natural or rational.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
reunited with dad
water from the well

SYMBOLISM IN “HANSEL AND GRETEL”

The Red Shoes

witch shape in curtains

What do you associate red shoes with? Perhaps you associate them with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, in which the bad witch is squished under the house, her ruby slippers poking out?

Ruby Slippers Oz

The Red Shoes is a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, so not of the Grimm variety, but ‘fairytale’ enough for readers to get the possible meaning in the picture above, in which red shoes sit next to the mirrored wardrobe door.

A peasant girl named Karen is adopted by a rich old lady after her mother’s death and grows up vain and spoiled. Before her adoption, Karen had a rough pair of red shoes; now she has her adoptive mother buy her a pair of red shoes fit for a princess. After Karen repeatedly wears them to church, they begin to move by themselves, but she is able to get them off. One day, when her adoptive mother becomes ill, Karen goes to a party in her red shoes. A mysterious soldier appears and makes strange remarks about what beautiful dancing shoes Karen has. Soon after, Karen’s shoes begin to move by themselves again, but this time they can’t come off. The shoes continue to dance, night and day, rain or shine, through fields and meadows, and through brambles and briers that tear at Karen’s limbs. She can’t even attend her adoptive mother’s funeral. An angel appears to her, bearing a sword, and condemns her to dance even after she dies, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen begs for mercy but the red shoes take her away before she hears the angel’s reply. Karen finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so but the shoes continue to dance, even with Karen’s amputated feet inside them. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches, and teaches her the criminals’ psalm. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church so people can see her. Yet her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking she is at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way. Karen gets a job as a maid in the parsonage, but when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. Instead she sits alone at home and prays to God for help. The angel reappears, now bearing a spray of roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: her heart becomes so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.

Wikipedia summary
pink fripperies

The pink fripperies spilling out of the dresser drawers suggest several things about this step-mother:

  1. She is not a good housewife (when the implication is that a good housewife is also a good mother, and that being a good housekeeper is the job of the woman.
  2. That women who are over-the-top feminine — look at all the feminine accoutrements, signified by the colour pink — are over-the-top vain. The mirror adds to the impression of vanity, and we will subconsciously conjure up Snow White and the magic mirror in that tale.

Note that the step-mother has not one but two mirrors in her bedroom, which is considered excessively vain, but apart from that, there’s the whole ‘witch/mother’ mirroring going on.

CANNIBALISM

10 Historic Famines That Caused Cannibalism

Repulsive as it sounds in times of plenty, cannibalism in times of famine isn’t all that unusual.

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child.

In modern literature, there is a horrific scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the main characters happen across a baby being roasted on a spit. It seems McCarthy, also, understands that babies are more likely to be eaten than older children in times of famine.

Paternal cannibalism is of a different nature and can be seen in The Juniper Tree (sometimes called The Almond Tree). In cases where the father eats his child in a fairytale, Tatar sees it as an expression of ‘biological ownership through incorporation’. The child can (in a strange sort of way) live on via being made into the father’s own body. The father in the Juniper Tree is not cast as good or evil in the same way fairy tale mothers are.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH HANSEL AND GRETEL

Other fairytales that start in a time of famine:

  • Tom Thumb
  • The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn
  • God’s Food
  • The Sweet Porridge — better known in English speaking countries as The (Magic) Porridge Pot
  • The Children of Famine — exemplifies the plight of families unable to feed their kids. The mother becomes unhinged and desperate when she is unable to feed her own children.
  • Little Red Riding Hood also has cannibalistic elements which are sometimes sanitised. This tale is pretty much the only European tale in which a good — a good girl no less — is involved in cannibalism.

Anthony Browne wasn’t the first to take two separate women from “Hansel and Gretel” and merge them together as one. In her short story “Angel Maker” (1996), Sara Maitland Maitland rewrites ”Hansel and Gretel” from the perspective of the witch. Over her adult lifetime, Gretel regularly visits the witch for abortions. At the age of 38 she now wishes to become pregnant, and this time visits the witch for a different reason. The witch and Gretel are the same person.

Anthony Browne’s compositions remind me of the version below, illustrated by Frank Adams.

Many fairy tales have their roots in a much darker past, but these origins are watered down to make the tales more wholesome or moral. But did the story of Hansel and Gretel really stem from a case of entrepreneurial intrigue and murder in 17th century Germany? And did the Grimm Brothers know more than they were letting on it their version of the story? Why do the illustrations in their book look so similar to modern day locations? In this episode of The Folklore Podcast, creator and host Mark Norman examines a case to which their is certainly more than it seems at first glance.

Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairytale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairytales as ur-texts.

Anthony Browne writes postmodern picturebooks and Into The Forest is an excellent example of intertextuality.

WHAT IS INTERTEXTUALITY?

The relationship ‘between texts’.

No work of literature stands entirely alone. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.

STORY STRUCTURE IN INTO THE FOREST BY ANTHONY BROWNE

Shortcoming/Need

The boy is lonely without his father.

Lightning scene from Into The Woods by Anthony Browne
Lightning as portrayed in picture books and comics is often a very different kind of zig-zagged yellow shape, but when an illustrator chooses realism, the lightning bolt takes on a different level of scary.
Daddy Come Home 1913 composed by Irving Berlin, art by John Frew
Daddy Come Home 1913 composed by Irving Berlin, art by John Frew

Desire

We get a hint about the desire before the story even starts, in fact, on the internal title page, where there’s a sign pasted to the window saying ‘Come home Dad’.

Opponent

In “Into The Woods” there is an unseen opponent. The boy’s own anxieties about his father at war are preventing his happiness.

Plan

To take his mind off the loneliness, the boy’s mother asks him to take a basket of goodies to his grandmother’s house. She tells him to go the long way round to avoid the forest. But the boy plans to ignore this advice for the first time ever, in case his father comes home early.

Big Struggle

This is a mythic journey through a forest in which a boy encounters a variety of characters then ends up back home, having changed fundamentally as a person. The big struggle is a psychological one, symbolised by the increasingly knotted and gnarly trees and the worsening weather.

Hansel and Gretel from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
The tree looks as if a clawed hand waits at its base — at least, you think it might look like a clawed hand, but not quite. Can you trust your own imagination? Are you meant to think that?

The real life big struggle is off the page — only in the illustrations do we get hints that the father is a soldier off at war. There’s the soldier in the boy’s bedroom, missing one leg, and the light over the dinner table shaped like a hard helmet, with its bulb melting into the shape of a tear. The empty chair casts bar-like shadows against the wall suggesting lack of freedom and imprisonment. This is all postmodern stuff.

Anagnorisis

In this highly metaphorical story, the boy learns that although being lonely and worried about your father is scary, it is possible to make it through a forest of anxiety and come out all right at the other end.

New Situation

The boy is safe in the comfort of home, along with both parents there to protect him. The child reader is given not one but two reassuring images at the end — first the scene at grandma’s house, then again when the boy returns home with his father. This double reassurance compensates for the scary images on the previous pages.

INTERTEXTUALITY IN THE ILLUSTRATION OF INTO THE FOREST BY ANTHONY BROWNE

BLACK AND WHITE PALETTE

This particular book is a great look into how black and white mixed with vibrant colour can be used to create a certain effect.

Browne plays with different ambient effects in his Into The Forest, shifting from colour to black and white for the setting at the point where the protagonist enters ‘the woods’ of a fairytale world where he encounters characters from rhymes and tales. Browne incorporates many ‘hidden’ characters and objects in the shapes of the environment in these pictures, and the reader explores them in a different way from the emotionally compelling coloured pictures that open and close the story. […] In general then, picture book artists will only ignore the rich meaning of colour choices and their capacity to work on the reader’s emotions when they wish either to avoid that emotional engagement or else to invoke our feelings, particularly a sense of the uncanny or sinister, specifically by drawing attention to the ideational content of the images.

Reading Visual Narratives, Painter, Martin, Unsworth

Below, the goodies are wrapped up in a tea towel with the flag of England — a patriotic gesture in time of war?

Jack and the Beanstalk from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
Little Red Riding Hood scene from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
Red is a commonly utilised accent colour when illustrations are mostly black and white.
John Hilliard Red Coat, Blue Room, 1969
John Hilliard Red Coat, Blue Room, 1969
In the forest (1950)
In the forest (1950)

Gorilla by Anthony Browne Picture Book

Gorilla Anthony Browne cover

Gorilla is the book that made Anthony Browne’s name as a creator of postmodern picture 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 non-linear structures and storylines
  • offer multiple perspectives or realities to the reader (in common with Impressionist literature)
  • may be self-referential — they discuss their own creation or existence
  • contain elements of ambiguity or irony
  • often contain surrealistic images
  • include the juxtaposition of unrelated images
  • mock traditional formats
  • are often sarcastic / cynical in tone
  • 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.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Newspaper Breakfast Scene

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.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Dad Is Busy In His Office

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.

Anthony Browne Gorilla TV Lonely

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.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Garden Scene

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 character is retreating into her imagination/dreamscape/fantasy
  • 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.)
Anthony Browne Gorilla Kiss

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
Anthony Browne Gorilla Superman Movie

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.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Swinging Through The Trees

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.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Eating Out

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.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Happy Birthday Hannah

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.

Of course, terrible caregivers do exist in real life. But they don’t tend to populate picture books. Even in the young adult category, truly terrible parents are extremely rare.

Although very sad at the beginning I found this story to be refreshingly honest and deeply gratifying.

from a 5 Star Goodreads Review


STORY SPECS

Gorilla won a number of significant awards:

There have been a number of reprints with different covers over the years:

Anthony Browne Gorilla Cover

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.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Swinging

This cover makes readily apparent the jungle/city metaphor.


COMPARE WITH

A number of artists merge backgrounds with ‘the real world of the narrative’. Here’s an example:

My Family by revolenka
My Family by revolenka

Gotye blends into the wallpaper in Someone That I Used To Know.

Flight of the Concords had spoofed this earlier, in their song I Told You I Was Freaky.

Other Postmodern Picture Books

  • David Macaulay‘s award winning Black and White (1990)
  • David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man
  • Bamboozled by David Legge
  • Shaun Tan and Gary Crew’s The Viewer
  • Emily Gravett’s Wolves
  • McGuire, R. (1997). What’s Wrong with This Book?
  • Burningham, J. (1977). Come Away From the Water, Shirley.
  • Watt, M. (2009). Chester.
  • Child, L. (2002). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?
  • Ahlberg, A. (1987). The Jolly Postman
  • Pretty much all of the other Anthony Browne picture books
  • A Goodreads List of Postmodern Picture books

The adult equivalent of a slightly disturbing story about a gorilla’s relationship with a human is Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (Australian).

Wish By Peter Goldsworthy

Postmodern Picture Books

Before taking a look at postmodern picture books, let’s take a look at the definition of a postmodern short story.

THE POSTMODERN SHORT STORY

Here is an excellent, succinct set of slides which explain what the postmodern short story is and why it came about.

tl;dr

According to Mary Rohrberger, the postmodern short story came in the middle of the 20th century. Stories became anti-stories:

  • plots lost cause and effect relationships
  • “reality” appeared in quotation marks
  • characters were flattened and artifice foregrounded
  • symbols convoluted upon themselves.

While children’s literature is considered less rigorous and interesting than literature for adults, this is not the case. Case in point: postmodern picture books, which require work on the part of the reader before they make full sense.

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 05: Postmodern Picturebooks

David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture available on iTunes U

Today’s topic: The place of children’s literature in the bigger world of serious literary analysis.

Authors discussed

  • Anthony Browne – very much at the forefront of this type of picturebook
  • Shaun Tan
  • Chris Van Allsburg
  • David Wiesner
  • Jon Scieszka [his website tells you how to pronounce his name, whether you want it to or not] – strong humour – most books which use this style do so as a joke. Bear in mind that as soon as you start to analyse humour, it kills the joke.


[I note with interest that all of these postmodern authors are men. Are there any women working in this style?]

References

Is Children’s Literature ‘Real’ Literature?

People who specialise in children’s literature (kidlit for short) say it ranks right up there with the world’s greatest literature. But those from the Literary Establishment tend to ignore kidlit completely, regarding it as a minor plaything or a bit of a training exercise to prepare kids for Real Literature.

Does kidlit belong in the literary canon?

Canon means a ‘collection’, but it’s a very specific collection. Around the year 2000 there was a rush to draw up lists of the 100 greatest novels of the millennium and so on. Who decides what are the great lists of literature? Sometimes there’s a public vote, in which case LoTR tends to win. (The movies helped, but looking back, did LoTR deserve to be at the top of all those millennium lists?)

For more opinions on the difference between children’s and general fiction, see this post.

The Greatest Children’s Literature

What does ‘greatest’ mean? Is it the most long-lived? The best-selling? The most hated by Year 12s because they have to study it?

When looking at the development of kidlit over the past two and a half centuries (which is about all you get, because kidlit is a distinct and recent entity) you can see a couple of major movements:

  • Romanticism and Modernism in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Postmodernism, Surrealism and a bunch of other -isms came later (post-colonialism, feminism, modernism, romanticism…)

Kidlit, however, is rarely looked at in the terms of the great works of literature, but we really do have to look at it in the same way, with all these ‘isms’. These ‘isms define both society and literature. In fact, kidlit quite often anticipates the movements. It’s often kidlit which is leading the way. (The Lovely Bones is YA fiction and started the big dead narrator trend which eventually found its way into literary adult fiction.) Certainly, literature reflects what is happening in broader society as well.

Here’s an example. In 1894 Helen Bannerman writes a book called Little Black Sambo. 

This is now seen as offensive. At Bannerman’s time it was not [offensive to white people, at least]. The character outwits the tigers and becomes a hero, so was seen as a positive representation of PoC.

The Famous Five also reflects outdated views. Good people catch ‘bad people’, because that is what good people do. An interesting feminist subtext runs through the character of George, who is annoyed that the boys are allowed to do things she is not. George became one of the first pin-ups of the feminist movement. In contrast, Anne sits around making cakes, cleaning etc.

Today we get books like Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs which looks at incest and issues like that. Content reflects the times. Kidlit is immensely powerful because it gets to the readers first. It’s the first literature that children read.

Peter Hunt, one of the leading commentators on kidlit today says that children’s books are immensely powerful.

Precisely because children’s books are so powerful, they are likely to be very specifically ‘directive’. They might be encouraging a certain behaviour. It is less vague and open to interpretation than adult literature. To balance the vulnerability of children, often kidlit becomes didactic, teaching obviously and openly and directly, and far more than adult books do.

While a few texts do make their way into lists of great literature (e.g. Alice In Wonderland), little else ever does. Kidlit is not studied in university English courses.

People who are seen as major writers — William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde — all wrote children’s books. But those books are largely ignored. Their serious adult books are the ones that are considered great. Kidlit even today is where books by women writers were in the 18th and 19th centuries — not yet considered worthy of our full attention. The comparison works for volume of output as well — women were even at that time writing just as many if not more books than the men. Today, kidlit is a booming industry but doesn’t get proportional coverage by professional reviewers in major news outlets. The dead white male who writes books for adults is who you’ll be studying. That’s what’s seen as great. Hunt concludes that if we can shake free of the idea that kidlit is intrinsically inferior, we can start looking at the literature properly.

A Brief History Of Thought

  • 18th Century thought: The basis of modern science rests on the idea that humans can observe and understand. (Humanism and individualism.)
  • 19th Century thought: A slight change occurred. People realised that amidst this mechanical theory of the world there was no place for emotion in all of this (beauty, hate, horror). So romanticism came about and gave us wonderful music — Mozart, Beethoven etc. — human experience and human emotion provided a balance.
  • 20th Century thought: A couple of things happened. People realised that actually we don’t have all the answers. (The Titanic was a great example of thought prior to this — people actually thought it was unsinkable.) We realised that humanity wasn’t as all-powerful and all-knowing as we thought. Millions of people were killed in WW1, which shattered a lot of views. Then came the Great Depression, followed by the second World War, even worse. And so all the certainties about what the human could do were shattered. We became far less certain. Throw in nuclear weapons and we realised we could destroy the entire planet. So what was needed to understand all these was a complete change in how we view our world. This lead to movements which questioned ‘certainty’. Surrealism is a good example of such a movement. By the 1960s, all the different movements came together to form what we call ‘postmodernism’. After the certainty and hubris of modernism, we now have postmodern literature.

Postmodernism

How is postmodernism different from what came before?

First: Things are less sure. The idea of things being complete is challenged — deconstruction. To deconstruct an idea means to look at the final idea and look at what created that idea? What are the assumptions? What are the parts that make it up? It’s like starting with a great lego construction then taking it apart to see how many blocks are used and how they fit together.

Second: The idea that meaning is inherent is also tackled. Another reader will get something different from a work of art. The meaning does not exist within the work, but is derived via an interpretation of it. Each interpretation is therefore valid. The works on the ‘canon’ are therefore challenged. All works now have validity. This also brings a lot of ambiguity and irony. There are layers of meaning. We have to keep drilling down through the layers to find out what something means. A movie like Shrek has a lot of layers of meaning through it — much of which is superficial and humorous — but it makes pop-culture references and weaves them into a reversed traditional tale. [Inversion does not equal subversion, which is much harder to achieve.] To subvert something means to cut away what people would expect to be the stable elements.

Postmodern works are often works of metafiction: How a piece of work is very conscious of itself as a created artifact. [Beagley mentions that metafictive works don’t take themselves too seriously, though I’d argue plenty do.]

Postmodern works are a ‘discourse‘. Meaning is created via a back-and-forth between readers and the work itself. If you read the same thing 10 years later you get a different piece of work.

What do postmodern picturebooks do?

They upset the taken-for-grantedness of things. The storyline might meander all over the place and never actually finish. Or it might stop suddenly and you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. There may be no sense of closure.

Representations may be surreal. Surrealism is used wrongly in everyday speech (I don’t get it, I don’t understand), but in an academic sense it means almost the opposite: It’s an abbreviation of ‘super-real’, in which we do understand a surrealist work of art by going past the surface and looking at the essence behind. The idea you dig for is more important than any conveyed by the first impression. Surrealism makes the viewer work.

A dinosaur dressed in a hat driving a car is surrealism. That’s not what you’d expect of a dinosaur. Humour is rampant in surrealist picturebooks and kids’ films, in which the audience may be a part of the joke or even the butt of the joke. In Shrek so many things are parodied: the children’s world of fairytales, the adult world. Intertextuality runs throughout this film.

Willy The Dreamer by Anthony Browne is a book about what Willy just happens to dream, but it’s playing with pictures. Where he’s sitting in the comfortable armchair, is that a dream or is that real? Is the chair really made half of concrete, pulling him back to earth? Inside, schools of fish are actually bananas. What does it mean? That’s for the reader to work out. There’s also a lot of reference to Browne’s other books. (Browne parodies his own books.)

Shaun Tan makes reference to a very specific text. The Cahill Expressway painting was very influential in the 1960s in Australia. Forty years later he uses a pastiche of this picture in The Lost Thing to convey a sense of bleakness.


[I even have a collection of short stories which were inspired by this painting.]

Expressway Short Story Collection
Expressway Short Story Collection

Postmodernism doesn’t describe a book so much as the way of looking at a book. So often books labeled postmodern are confusing to begin with. They demand their readers start thinking about them.

Children’s books are just as intellectual as adult books. They expect the reader to use just as much mental effort as an adult book does. Quite often, far more, because the reader who is likely to read it does not have the contexts (and therefore the limits) that an adult reader has. Children are much more able to let their imaginations go.