Bluey Australian TV Show Storytelling

Bluey Family

Remember that time an episode of British cartoon Peppa Pig was taken off air in Australia? It was the episode which taught kids that spiders aren’t scary. Not a lesson Aussie kids need to learn.

Well, fast forward a few years and Australian kids now have their own cartoon series reminiscent of Peppa Pig. Bluey is made at Ludo Studio in Brisbane. There are currently about 60 people working on the show.



I no longer have a little kid in the house, but we both checked out Bluey on ABC iView, because a Twitter friend recommended it thusly:

https://twitter.com/DevinMadson/status/1219892040718176257

Bluey is getting a 9.5/10 rating on IMDb and was nominated for an Emmy. Bluey is marvellous.

First, why does Bluey remind me of Peppa Pig? The nuclear family set-up is similar. Instead of pigs the family are dogs. Bluey is an Australian blue heeler, making this a specifically Australian show, but not so Australian that the series won’t garner an international audience. (Bluey could be any dog, because she is first and foremost a kid… a human child in an animal’s body.)

Turns out the Peppa Pig comparison is no coincidence. I subsequently learned Joe Brumm set out to make an Australian Peppa Pig.

The art style is similar. Look at how both shows deal with aerial perspective (hint: It’s in the colour of the outlines.)

Foregrounded characters have dark outlines. Background scenery is coloured in high key and outlined in a darker hue of the object fill.

Peppa Pig characters and backgrounds are a little more simple.

But the colour palette of Bluey is more appealing than that of Peppa Pig, and I wonder if Luke Pearson’s Hilda has been an influence.

A scene from TV cartoon series Hilda

A highly detailed scene from Bluey

A more typically detailed scene from Bluey

Child Development

Bingo and Bluey are 4 and 6 years old, the ‘social emotional developmental phase’, as described by Joe Blumm. He really likes this age because the kids are learning not so egocentric anymore. They want to play imaginative games but that involves other kids also having their input. The games temper their egocentricity. They need persistence to stay in those roles. The show is for that age. There’s no reading or anything like that, aimed at a more abstract age.

Blumm does not believe that kids are little adults. He wanted to create a show specifically for 4-6 year olds. His interest in psychology has clearly influenced his character development.

Family Life Realism

Another comparison is Olivia the Pig, but Bluey leaves Olivia in the dust. Bluey is clearly the brain child of people who know parenting and know kids. Ian Falconer (who wrote the original Olivia picture books) is not a parent himself and this shows in stories such as Olivia and the Missing Toy, in which I want to break the fourth wall and slap the pig parents. The actions of Olivia’s parents make no sense regarding Olivia’s character arc. In Bluey, the influence of good parenting has a direct effect on the child characters. This is realism.

Although the TV adaptation of Olivia no doubt included many parents on staff, to me it never ever reached the level of parenting realism achieved in Bluey, because the source material was lacking. Or maybe my perception of the Olivia series is partly coloured by the fact I’m not a rich New York parent. Perhaps the very Australian-ness of Bluey makes it feel like a more realistic portrayal of parenting to me (currently modern parenting in Australia).

But it’s more than that. Joe Brumm has two daughters, and the producer’s got two daughters and both his brothers have got two daughters. If you’re asking, “Why is Bluey a girl?” there’s your answer. But does the question really need to be asked? Why is it still so unusual to see a girl character without a massive pink bow telegraphing her gender smacked on top of her head?

What else makes Bluey feel ‘real’? (Code for ‘relatable’)

Integration of technology into family life

When Bluey wants to talk to her grandmother she simply calls up on the tablet. Granny doesn’t live in the same house, but she is only a call away. When Bluey and her father get back from the vet, distraught after finding a dying budgie, the mother is right there in the driveway waiting to offer comfort. It is clear that the father has called in advance to tell the mother what’s happened. This is how families are using technology.

In some ways story craft has become more difficult because of technology. How to put your fictional kids in real peril when parents are one phone call away? These kids are still too young to realistically carry mobiles, so there’s that. But my point here is that technology has also made story craft easier in some ways. The writers don’t need to show a retelling of the story to the mother, and no one would ask how she already knows.

MODERN PARENT-CHILD INTERACTIONS

Compare this show to any show from 15 years ago and you won’t find parents as realistically active and involved as these ones are. The parents in Bluey exist on the same hierarchy as the kids, but not in a way that subverts, in a carnivalesque way.

There is a long, long history of dispatching with parents in children’s stories but for modern kids, this won’t ring true. About half of the Bluey episodes include parents in the puppies’ imaginative play. I believe these are the best episodes, and my 11-year-old agreed. By including parents in the play, the writers are able to model more adult-like emotional literacy, and this show is very much about emotional literacy.

How do you apologise to someone (after leaving them out of a game)? How do you cope with being factually incorrect (about Grannies and flossing)? The parents are there to nudge the kids in the right direction.

Like any modern kids’ story, the lessons in Bluey are not taught overtly by the adults. The child characters receive prompting after being allowed to experience hard feelings on their own. At no point are they told that their bad feelings aren’t okay. It’s okay to be in a funk for the entire session at preschool. It’s okay to run out on a game if you need some time alone.

I was initially a little disappointed that it seemed the father constantly having fun with the kids (Mother as Female Maturity Formula, Dad as Doofus Fun Guy). But a few episodes in, the mother is shown participating in one of the kids’ games. Moreover:

  • Both mother and father make the bed, together (even though the mother is gently admonishing the father for some housework matter that supposedly didn’t happen yesterday)
  • The mother isn’t busy cooking dinner and waiting on the family while the dad has fun, like we often see in older stories. In the pilot episode of Bluey the mother is out at a baby shower (supposedly a fun social outing for her) while the rest of the family stay home and have fun of their own.

THE KIDS FEEL LIKE REAL KIDS

Bluey’s puppy characters are voiced by children, and these kids don’t sound like they came out of London’s most expensive elocution school. I don’t know how they did it, but it sounds naturalistic.

That said, it’s more than voice acting that achieves the sense that these puppies are ‘real kids’.

On Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes, the puppies are low-mimetic. They’re not tricksters. For example, one morning Bluey wakes up her father one morning and mimics everything he says and does. Eventually the father says, “My name is Bluey and I smell like a monkey’s butt!” Bluey isn’t savvy enough to NOT fall for that one, and the father good-naturedly ‘wins’. Fathers do tend to win these sorts of games, because fathers have been around longer.

Humour of Bluey

When looking at humour in kids’ shows I like to use taxonomy from the creator of The Onion.

LANGUAGE HUMOUR

There’s plenty of language humour in Bluey, with words specific to the show. These examples of familect (I’m guessing from the creator himself) are likely to become part of the wider cultural lexicon, much like ‘Yoink!’ and ‘Eat my shorts!’ from The Simpsons.

https://twitter.com/ariannaoliver_/status/1190978865767862278?s=20

A lot of the jokes on this show are funny because they are relatable family moments. Family moments might be given its own terminology e.g. ‘a tactical wee’. Giving something ordinary a name is funny in its own right.

CHARACTER HUMOUR

IRONY

In “Copycat”, Bluey’s father observes she has finally stopped copying everything he says. Ironically, Bluey has learned how to deal with grief over a dead budgie and has been channelling him exactly in her make-believe game in which her younger sister refuses to die like the budgie did.

PHYSICAL COMEDY

This medium lets creators play with an unlimited amount of cartoon violence but Bluey is restrained in that regard. Instead we enjoy physical comedy such as slipping on a can of beans or watching grandparents attempt the flossing dance move, and failing.

In episode one, the father has been twisting his daughter in rope swings, about to release her. When she asks him how babies get into their mothers’ bellies, he releases her for the spin to avoid answering the question.

If you like Bluey…

… and you are an adult viewer, check out We Bare Bears. This show is more squarely for an older audience, though I’m sure younger kids would be intrigued by it. The pace of talking will be too face for the 4-6 age group.

The Lap Pool by Robert Drewe

ponies

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in his 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach and its centrality in the lives of many Australians. But this story is about man’s relationship to a different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight, except that he has moved away from it.

In this story the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him off at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting setting, symbolically and metaphorically fascinating in its own right.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s sympathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we tend to empathise, even if that character is truly terrible. In that case, a death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end? I remained detached from Leon and I’m pretty sure I groaned at the end but “The Lap Pool” is still a masterful work of short fiction.



STORY WORLD OF “THE LAP POOL”

In a slightly different universe the “The Lap Pool” might have been plotted by America’s Annie Proulx, who has written many short stories about rich city folk who move to rural areas with romantic notions. These naive townies fail to understand the harshness of the natural environment. They annoy the real rural people with their dangerous ignorance and then the environment ends up punishing them severely. “The Lap Pool” is the Australian equivalent of a Proulx Wyoming tale.

Some stories open with a wide angle view of a setting. We’re basically told the GPS coordinates (or a fictional version thereof). In this case Robert Drewe opens with a view of a pool, and only at the beginning of section two zooms out to ground the reader in place:

Lushly green, thanks to their prime position between the coast and the Nightcap Ranges, his thirty-two acres lay along a north-south valley of carved-up dairy farms, formerly dense rainforest known as the Big Scrub.

But by opening with a man in a pool, the story becomes more universal than if it were a man in a pool in a specific region of Australia. (We’ve previously been told about Sugar Cane road, though unless you look on a map you may not know where that is.)

‘Lushly green’ paints the farm as an Arcadian setting, though what follows corrects this view for the reader. This is a postlapsarian world. It goes without saying that the dilapidated farm is an outworking of Leon’s emotional state, but worth pointing out how an opening of ‘lushly green’ fools us into thinking this is a beautiful area. In the same way, Leon’s family, friends and acquaintances were ‘fooled’ into thinking Leon was some big shot successful guy, until proven otherwise six months back.

That’s how very closely Drewe ties his main character to the setting. It’s masterful.

As Annie Proulx is wont to do, Drewe goes some way towards positioning this landscape in human history. This has the effect of widening a story’s lens, universalising it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAP POOL”

SHORTCOMING

Leon K. is a first or second generation Australian with a clear Bucharest heritage. The lifelong impact of his non-whiteness is mostly left off the page but Drewe offers enough for us to deduce the quiet racism directed his way, and like various characters in The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, the dominant Australian culture may have taught him that in order to be afforded basic human respect he must make himself financially impressive.

… an urge to become a regular Australian, a suntanned sporting champion…

By middle age he has accumulated a lot of wealth, including a yacht and a ski lodge. As the story opens Leon is in the middle of court proceedings. Drewe drip feeds details of this situation across part one. It’s interesting to see how an author does that, and where he stops. We never find out exactly what crime Leon has committed — it’s enough to learn that he’s a white collar criminal and his impressive assets are (at least partly) partly ill-gotten.

CLUE ONE: His sixth month alone… [Why has he been alone for six months?]

CLUE TWO: Awaiting his trial… while the authorities strengthened their case against him [What has he done?]

CLUE THREE: By now all the official delays, court adjournments and tax investigations were jumbled together in his mind. [Ah, he’s being tried for tax fraud. This is in line with expectation — Drewe has just spent a paragraph painting him as a formerly rich, white-collar character who likes sudoku and fine wines.]

CLUE FOUR: How easy it was to forget the minutiae of the case — the dates, the amounts, the stock transfers and telescoping bank loans, all that paper-shuffling…

FINALLY: Instead of a former company director under indictment for alleged ‘corporate misconduct’… [Sounds boring and technical, that’s all I need to know.]

At this part of his journey towards prison Leon is teetering on the edge of sanity. The reader, along with Leon, doesn’t know for sure whether he’s being followed by white vans. Drewe draws us into Leon’s paranoia with the close third person point of view (a.ka. close psychic distance). Notice how the narrator chooses to take us into Leon’s head when it suits, then pulls out to offer a commentary on his personality that Leon himself probably doesn’t understand. For instance, in the opening paragraph below, does Leon know just how important the swimming is to him, or is this something only a narrator would understand fully? Notice also what Drewe has chosen to put inside brackets. I believe when he uses the brackets he’s inserting what Leon himself would tell us, moving more fully into Leon’s head in a paragraph which is otherwise psychically distant:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K. backstroked steadily up and down the lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake. Of course he knew his rhythm by now; he automatically counted strokes as well as laps. … Despite the pool’s cool temperature (it was a windy autumn and the connection to the solar panels on the farmhouse roof was broken) he needed to swim in order to relax…

However, when Drewe wants to the reader to share in Leon’s confused view on reality, we’re right inside Leon’s head (close psychic narration). First we are offered Leon’s parallel view of reality, the story that goes on inside his head:

What should he anticipate around the next murky head? A riskily unlit hippie cyclist, an invisible hitchhiker, a petrol tanker thundering across the imperceptible lane markings? Would he ever see his way clear?

Lists feature heavily in this short story as well. The lists are in keeping with Leon’s psychological trick of counting his strokes, his laps, his days. He’s counting down his days towards death (though the reader doesn’t know it yet). Notice how in the paragraph below Drewe uses various kinds of lists. The first sentence describes the same thing (his fugue) in three different phrasings. The second sentence is a more traditional ‘list’, checking off all the things Leon hears around him:

At the start of his troubles he’d tried to fight the unusual effect [his solicitor’s monotone] had on him: the gradual fainting sensation and cloudy vision, leading to a total mental fade-out, a sort of grey noise where only background sounds had any relevants. The tap-tapping of the pool’s filter box, magpies calling on the lawn, brush turkeys scratching in the shrubbery.

Below, there’s no ‘bird’s eye narrator’ telling the reader, don’t worry, there’s no white car following Leon, he’s just imagining it:

Whenever he went to town, purposely observing the speed limit, his car was tailgated by furious motorists, and also sometimes by mysterious white vehicles. Several times he’d noticed a white car parked in his lane while someone photographed the house and property from the front gate. When he stepped outside to question the photographer, the man (he couldn’t tell if it was the same man) nonchalantly sauntered to his car and accelerated away. Some authority keeping tabs on him, he supposed. One of the many gung-ho State and Federal acronyms fighting corporate crime nowadays, all competing to capture the big-business scalps.

DESIRE

We can deduce that Leon doesn’t want to be found guilty and sent to prison, but that’s actually outside the realms of this story.

This particular snapshot of Leon’s life centres on a short period before his court case in which he’s losing everything. He’s lost his family, his friends, most of his assets. In this story he wants to keep his grip on reality as best he can, stave off paranoia and worry, and keep doing laps in the pool on his run-down farm.

OPPONENT

What’s stopping him?

First it’s his lawyer, who is otherwise on his side. (For the part that happens outside the bounds of this story.)

Against his own best interests he’d come to dread the weekly visit of the one person who might at least clarify matters for him

What else is stopping him from psychic peace? He is widely disliked by his neighbours because he comes from Eastern Sydney (Vaucluse is an expensive part of Australia). In a story about the rural urban divide, Leon’s rural neighbours make natural opponents.

Of course his neighbours, real farmers, many of whose ancestors had razed the original rainforest to plant gras for their cattle, detested the camphor laurel as an alien weed…

A note about the camphor. As noted by the narrator, the ‘detested camphor laurel’ is closely associated with ‘the Asian Hordes’ in rural Australia. (Camphor features heavily in Japanese animation My Neighbour Totoro.) In South Asia, camphor is considered highly purifying is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace. I’m not sure if Drewe had this symbolism in mind when he wrote this story, but let’s imagine nothing is an accident.

What he absolutely did know is that the camphor laurel is “probably is a tree that has stirred up more emotion than anything.” It grows quickly around the Big Scrub area and provides nice, green, leafy shade but is now considered a weed. Farmers are currently divided between those who consider the camphor tree a problem and those who are okay with a more gradual eradication.

Camphor is mentioned again in the context of moth balls as Leon recalls a fur coat in a wardrobe after seeing a pony’s ragged rump.

The ‘community’ as opponent requires a face, and that face needs to appear in a scene. In this case it’s the old hippie who yells at Leon in the street, calling him a wog.

Finally a romantic opponent arrives, or a proxy. China Mason, another Asian reference which in the end has nothing to do with Asia. (China is a rhyming slang nick name.) Drewe is making use of that old chestnut in which women are closer to the earth (because women are the vessels of reproduction and provide food from the body), while men consider themselves closer to god. Like many of Drewe’s middle-aged male narrators, Leon big struggles against his own hormonal/physical reaction to a woman when he knows, for propriety’s sake, he’s not meant to react in that way. In reality, the snake catcher (an erotic pun?) has nothing to do with Leon’s big struggle against himself.

But notice how what Leon thinks he thinks about men and women isn’t actually how he feels about men and women. Before the arrival of the unexpectedly woman snake catcher, Leon (or the narrator) has this to say about men:

Male habits made a disgusting list. The deep indentations their buttocks left int he sofa, the everlasting stink in the bathroom, the eggy detritus of their breakfast plates. Representing his gender, irritating and unaware Wyntuhl had a lot to answer for. Men were so rooted to the ground, over-earthed and overbearing.

PLAN

Although it really tests Leon to pick up the phone in his current psychological state, he has no choice but to call the snake catcher.

In Australia these people really do exist, and this is what we’re meant to do if we find an unwelcome snake on our property. We’re not meant to wait until the creature is almost dead before calling, because snakes are a protected species. In short, Leon does nothing at all until he really has to.

BIG STRUGGLE

The snake catcher removes the snake deftly from the pool. Another writer might’ve made a big deal out of that, turning it into the Battle scene. But this would’ve been the wrong thing to do because this is not the Battle scene of the story at all. Instead, it is written in a matter-of-fact way:

She took only about twenty seconds to scoop up the snake from the pool and snap the trap shut, and perhaps another minute to detach the trap from the pole and place it in the back of her van.

When a second snake emerges in the pool and bites Leon on the neck (of all places) the story jumps the shark. Or, more generously, Drewe plunges us firmly into fairytale realm.

ANAGNORISIS

A dead character can’t exactly have a anagnorisis but they can have some thoughts just as they expire. Leon asks the snake catcher woman, “What do I do now?” He has realised his powerlessness. Until now he’s distracted himself with swimming and sudoku and whatnot, but finally he’s realised the extent of his own vulnerability.

This is why I think Drewe knows full well the symbolism behind camphor. As he dies, Leon shucks off his ego.

NEW SITUATION

Leon is dead. He won’t have to go to court, I guess.

There’s an ideology implicitly embedded in stories like these, in which a main character commits wrongs against society and then ends up punished by nature: That nature has its own karmic force.

This sums up why I’m not personally a fan of stories like this. My own worldview is inversely that nature doesn’t care. Worse, due to how we’ve set society up, nature in reality takes good people more often than it takes the Leon Ks of this world.

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in the 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach, and its importance to the lives of many Australians, but this particular story is about man’s relationship to a very different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight.

This is an example of a story in which the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative, because the plot in itself is not sophisticated.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting setting.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s empathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we are primed to empathise, even if that person is truly terrible. In that case, the death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end?

STORY WORLD OF “THE LAP POOL”

In a slightly different universe the “The Lap Pool” might have been plotted by America’s Annie Proulx, who has written many short stories about rich city folk who move to rural areas, who fail to understand the harshness of the environment, annoy the real rural people with their dangerous ignorance and then end up punished by the environment itself. This is an Australian equivalent.

Some stories open with a wide angle view of a setting. We’re basically told the GPS coordinates (or a fictional version thereof). In this case Robert Drewe opens with a view of a pool, and only at the beginning of section two zooms out to ground the reader in place:

Lushly green, thanks to their prime position between the coast and the Nightcap Ranges, his thirty-two acres lay along a north-south valley of carved-up dairy farms, formerly dense rainforest known as the Big Scrub.

But by opening with a man in a pool, the story becomes more universal than if it were a man in a pool in a specific region of Australia. (We’ve previously been told about Sugar Cane road, though unless you look on a map you may not know where that is.)

‘Lushly green’ paints the farm as an Arcadian setting, though what follows corrects this view for the reader. This is a postlapsarian world. It goes without saying that the dilapidated farm is an outworking of Leon’s emotional state, but worth pointing out how an opening of ‘lushly green’ fools us into thinking this is a beautiful area. In the same way, Leon’s family, friends and acquaintances were ‘fooled’ into thinking Leon was some big shot successful guy, until proven otherwise six months back.

That’s how very closely Drewe ties his main character to the setting. It’s masterful.

As Annie Proulx is wont to do, Drewe goes some way towards positioning this landscape in human history. This widens a story’s field of view, universalising it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAP POOL”

SHORTCOMING

Leon K. is a first or second generation Australian with a clear Bucharest heritage. The lifelong impact of his non-whiteness is mostly left off the page but Drewe offers enough for us to deduce the quiet racism directed his way, and like various characters in The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, the dominant Australian culture may have taught him that in order to be afforded basic human respect he must make himself financially impressive.

… an urge to become a regular Australian, a suntanned sporting champion…

By middle age he has accumulated a lot of wealth, including a yacht and a ski lodge. As the story opens Leon is in the middle of court proceedings. Drewe drip feeds details of this situation across part one. It’s interesting to see how an author does that, and where he stops. We never find out exactly what crime Leon has committed — it’s enough to learn that he’s a white collar criminal and his impressive assets are (at least partly) partly ill-gotten.

CLUE ONE: His sixth month alone… [Why has he been alone for six months?]

CLUE TWO: Awaiting his trial… while the authorities strengthened their case against him [What has he done?]

CLUE THREE: By now all the official delays, court adjournments and tax investigations were jumbled together in his mind. [Ah, he’s being tried for tax fraud. This is in line with expectation — Drewe has just spent a paragraph painting him as a formerly rich, white-collar character who likes sudoku and fine wines.]

CLUE FOUR: How easy it was to forget the minutiae of the case — the dates, the amounts, the stock transfers and telescoping bank loans, all that paper-shuffling…

FINALLY: Instead of a former company director under indictment for alleged ‘corporate misconduct’… [Sounds boring and technical, that’s all I need to know.]

At this part of his journey towards prison Leon is teetering on the edge of sanity. The reader, along with Leon, doesn’t know for sure whether he’s being followed by white vans. Drewe draws us into Leon’s paranoia with the close third person point of view (a.ka. close psychic distance). Notice how the narrator chooses to take us into Leon’s head when it suits, then pulls out to offer a commentary on his personality that Leon himself probably doesn’t understand. For instance, in the opening paragraph below, does Leon know just how important the swimming is to him, or is this something only a narrator would understand fully? Notice also what Drewe has chosen to put inside brackets. I believe when he uses the brackets he’s inserting what Leon himself would tell us, moving more fully into Leon’s head in a paragraph which is otherwise psychically distant:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K. backstroked steadily up and down the lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake. Of course he knew his rhythm by now; he automatically counted strokes as well as laps. … Despite the pool’s cool temperature (it was a windy autumn and the connection to the solar panels on the farmhouse roof was broken) he needed to swim in order to relax…

However, when Drewe wants to the reader to share in Leon’s confused view on reality, we’re right inside Leon’s head (close psychic narration). First we are offered Leon’s parallel view of reality, the story that goes on inside his head:

What should he anticipate around the next murky head? A riskily unlit hippie cyclist, an invisible hitchhiker, a petrol tanker thundering across the imperceptible lane markings? Would he ever see his way clear?

Lists feature heavily in this short story as well. The lists are in keeping with Leon’s psychological trick of counting his strokes, his laps, his days. He’s counting down his days towards death (though the reader doesn’t know it yet). Notice how in the paragraph below Drewe uses various kinds of lists. The first sentence describes the same thing (his fugue) in three different phrasings. The second sentence is a more traditional ‘list’, checking off all the things Leon hears around him:

At the start of his troubles he’d tried to fight the unusual effect [his solicitor’s monotone] had on him: the gradual fainting sensation and cloudy vision, leading to a total mental fade-out, a sort of grey noise where only background sounds had any relevants. The tap-tapping of the pool’s filter box, magpies calling on the lawn, brush turkeys scratching in the shrubbery.

Below, there’s no ‘bird’s eye narrator’ telling the reader, don’t worry, there’s no white car following Leon, he’s just imagining it:

Whenever he went to town, purposely observing the speed limit, his car was tailgated by furious motorists, and also sometimes by mysterious white vehicles. Several times he’d noticed a white car parked in his lane while someone photographed the house and property from the front gate. When he stepped outside to question the photographer, the man (he couldn’t tell if it was the same man) nonchalantly sauntered to his car and accelerated away. Some authority keeping tabs on him, he supposed. One of the many gung-ho State and Federal acronyms fighting corporate crime nowadays, all competing to capture the big-business scalps.

DESIRE

We can deduce that Leon doesn’t want to be found guilty and sent to prison, but that’s actually outside the realms of this story.

This particular snapshot of Leon’s life centres on a short period before his court case in which he’s losing everything. He’s lost his family, his friends, most of his assets. In this story he wants to keep his grip on reality as best he can, stave off paranoia and worry, and keep doing laps in the pool on his run-down farm.

OPPONENT

What’s stopping him?

First it’s his lawyer, who is otherwise on his side. (For the part that happens outside the bounds of this story.)

Against his own best interests he’d come to dread the weekly visit of the one person who might at least clarify matters for him

What else is stopping him from psychic peace? He is widely disliked by his neighbours because he comes from Eastern Sydney (Vaucluse is an expensive part of Australia). In a story about the rural urban divide, Leon’s rural neighbours make natural opponents.

Of course his neighbours, real farmers, many of whose ancestors had razed the original rainforest to plant gras for their cattle, detested the camphor laurel as an alien weed…

A note about the camphor. As noted by the narrator, the ‘detested camphor laurel’ is closely associated with ‘the Asian Hordes’ in rural Australia. (Camphor features heavily in Japanese animation My Neighbour Totoro.) In South Asia, camphor is considered highly purifying is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace. I’m not sure if Drewe had this symbolism in mind when he wrote this story, but let’s imagine nothing is an accident.

What he absolutely did know is that the camphor laurel is “probably is a tree that has stirred up more emotion than anything.” It grows quickly around the Big Scrub area and provides nice, green, leafy shade but is now considered a weed. Farmers are currently divided between those who consider the camphor tree a problem and those who are okay with a more gradual eradication.

The ‘community’ as opponent requires a face, and that face needs to appear in a scene. In this case it’s the old hippie who yells at Leon in the street, calling him a wog.

Finally a romantic opponent arrives, or a proxy. Drewe is making use of that old chestnut in which women are closer to the earth (because women are the vessels of reproduction and provide food from the body), while men consider themselves closer to god. Like many of Drewe’s middle-aged male narrators, Leon big struggles against his own hormonal/physical reaction to a woman when he knows, for propriety’s sake, he’s not meant to react in that way. In reality, the snake catcher (an erotic pun?) has nothing to do with Leon’s big struggle against himself.

But notice how what Leon thinks he thinks about men and women isn’t actually how he feels about men and women. Before the arrival of the unexpectedly woman snake catcher, Leon (or the narrator) has this to say about men:

Male habits made a disgusting list. The deep indentations their buttocks left int he sofa, the everlasting stink in the bathroom, the eggy detritus of their breakfast plates. Representing his gender, irritating and unaware Wyntuhl had a lot to answer for. Men were so rooted to the ground, over-earthed and overbearing.

PLAN

Although it really tests Leon to pick up the phone in his current psychological state, he has no choice but to call the snake catcher.

In Australia these people really do exist, and this is what we’re meant to do if we find an unwelcome snake on our property. We’re not meant to wait until the creature is almost dead before calling, because snakes are a protected species. In short, Leon does nothing at all until he really has to.

BIG STRUGGLE

The snake catcher removes the snake deftly from the pool. Another writer might’ve made a big deal out of that, turning it into the Battle scene. But this would’ve been the wrong thing to do, because this is not the Battle scene of the story at all. Instead, it is written in a matter-of-fact way, as if describing a laundry cycle:

When a second snake emerges in the pool and bites Leon on the neck (of all places) the story has jumped the shark. Or, more generously, Drewe has plunged us more firmly into fairytale realm.

ANAGNORISIS

A dead character can’t exactly have a anagnorisis but they can have some thoughts just as they expire. Leon asks the snake catcher woman, “What do I do now?” He has realised his powerlessness. Until now he’s distracted himself with swimming and sudoku and whatnot, but finally he’s realised the extent of his own vulnerability.

This is why I think Drewe knows full well the symbolism behind camphor. Leon has shucked off his ego.

NEW SITUATION

Leon is dead. He won’t have to go to court, I guess.

There’s an ideology implicitly embedded in stories like these, in which a main character commits wrongs against society and then ends up punished by nature: That nature has its own karmic force.

This sums up why I’m not personally a fan of stories like this. My own worldview is inversely that nature doesn’t care. Worse, due to how we’ve set society up, nature in reality takes good people more often than it takes the Leon Ks of this world.

Symbolism of the Beach in Australian Literature

Sydney convict art beach

Iconic Examples of Australian Beach Stories

There are a great number of natural landscapes in Australia apart from beaches (rainforests, desert areas, snow-capped mountains) yet the beach has somehow become iconic.

In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.

  • Tim Winton
  • Robert Drewe
  • Peter Temple

These novels and short stories are often about men who retreat from inland areas to the coast. The setting is dark and brooding. The men have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. Beaches are badlands.

What is distinctive about the Australian beach?

  • The term ‘beach’ in Australia has a wider meaning than its geographical qualities. 
  • Beaches exist all over the world but are an internationally iconic image of Australia. The beach is pervasive in Australian advertising, tourism and popular representation. The beach is presented as idyllic, almost nostalgic and beautiful.
  • Tourist photos of the Australian beach tend to focus on the natural aspects and remove amenities. The exception to this is The Gold Coast, in which the beach and urban cannot be disentangled. Images will include skyscrapers along the waterfront. 
  • Some beaches are far more hospitable than others. There is great variation. Water temperature varies a lot at any given time. Tasmanian beaches are more suitable for picnicking than swimming because the water is generally cold. Northern beaches near Darwin are unsafe because of crocodiles.
  • In Australia rural and urban areas tend to stand in opposition to one another (with preference for the rural). The beach falls into both camps — it is ‘natural landscape’ but it is also an extension of suburbia.
  • The beach is associated with leisure, hedonism pleasure, indolence. The beach is healing, a place of escape, a spiritual place.
  • When the beach is depicted as healing, there’s a big difference between characters who live at the beach and those who holiday there. Tourists don’t have to fit beach time around the ordinary aspects of their lives. The holiday is itself an escape.
  • But beach holidays often induce guilt. Characters feel guilty at what they leave behind. Guilt can provide the motivation to make big changes in a character’s ordinary, non-holiday life. The holiday itself triggers a character arc.
  • In fiction targeted at women, a holiday to the beach can make a female main character reassess who she is looking for as a romantic partner. She might be an uptight sort of character who loses her sexual inhibitions on holiday and is forever changed because of it. Beach holidays can let women reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve lost touch with (apart from sexual aspects). They can forget about societal expectations placed upon women in everyday life, giving them a feminist ideology.
  • In this way, the beach can act as a type of mirror. The natural beauty of the beach allows a woman to see the natural beauty in herself.
  • Beautiful places have been shown to be good for mental health. (We get the same effect in a forest.)
  • A beautiful setting allows for a binary to exist — beautiful versus non-beautiful. This is why the mythic natural beauty of the beach can symbolise heaven on earth. Horror films subvert this, juxtaposing a beautiful beach against death. The beautiful playground of a beach can become a kind of prison. Characters move from freedom to slavery.
  • The message of some horror beach films is that characters create their own fate by disturbing a pristine environment. They had no business being there. Nature (or supernature) shrugs them off.
  • Australia has no legend based on how we live as an urban coastal society, unlike the myth of the bush, which is a strong tradition. Yet for many modern Australians, the beach is a more familiar territory than ‘the bush’. 
  • British people tend to see natural landscape in terms of ‘countryside’ and ‘seaside’. At the ‘seaside’ you get resorts, relaxation and therapeutic results. But The Australian beach is a place for swimming and surfing. Australian beachgoers are not passive. Even when not swimming or surfing, Australians bring their beach furniture with them and decide where to sit. They are holidaymakers rather than beachgoers.
  • When compared to American beaches, Australian beaches feel ‘transient’. Australian holidaymakers are responsible for bringing everything — you can’t hire umbrellas and lounges like you can in Honolulu. Holiday resorts do exist in Australia (e.g. Byron Bay) but there is not much emphasis on those in literature. Australian beach culture is far more accepting of nature than in trying to impose human order onto it.
  • Bush mythologies tend to idealise individuality. You’re on your own out there. Survival in the bush is seen as a personal achievement. But the beach is all about pleasures shared with others. ‘Indecent’ pleasures challenge social norms in a community. Competitive sport flourishes.
  • The naturalness of the beach is part of the myth of the Australian beach. This is the beach of our imagination. In this imagined version of the beach, we’re the only person walking along pristine beaches of untouched sand.
  • In fact the beach is surveilled: The beach is under the eye of the lifeguard from the tower, and increasingly, the beach is also observed through technological means such as cameras installed to detect erosion.
  • Many Indigenous texts place more importance on fresh water than the beach. Yet there are still some important aspects of the beach that feature in the writing of Indigenous authors and in films that feature Indigenous characters.
  • Iconic Australian beaches: Surfers Paradise (Gold Coast, Queensland) and Bondi Beach (Sydney, New South Wales). These settings are also common in Australian stories.
  • Normally the word ‘badlands‘ conjures images of extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation, for instance the barren plateau region of the western US (North and South Dakota and Nebraska). But the Australian beach can be used as a type of badlands.
  • In the 1960s the Beaumont children went missing. (Their mother recently died without ever knowing what happened to them.) They disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia on 26 January 1966 (Australia Day)
  • Harold Holt went swimming in the sea and never returned. He was Australia’s prime minister. The fact that a prime minister can go missing like that is seen as a quintessentially Australian thing. We like to think this could never happen to the American president, whose body is protected, his every move monitored.
  • In the 1980s and 90s, infamous gay hate murders took place on Bondi beaches
  • Bra Boys is a movie about the Cronulla riots of 2005
  • Crime, assaults and kidnapped children continue to be plots in fictional texts with beach settings. 
  • The beach is often a horror setting e.g. The Long Weekend (1978) and Lost Things (2003). Sometimes the beauty of the beach juxtaposes against the horror that unfolds e.g. The Long Weekend (1978 movie), Lost Things (2003 movie). Like any good horror story, the setting (in this case the beach) is initially set up as an idyllic, beautiful place. Also true to the horror genre, these beaches are difficult to reach and isolated. The humans are plucked off from the herd. In a Love story, the beach can act as a mirror, showing the (female) main character the beauty in herself. In a horror story the beach can also act as a mirror, but this time it reflects the evil within the main character(s).
  • In either case, the beach has the power to reveal some sort of truth.
  • The beauty of the beach is sometimes cast as ‘tempting’ e.g. Two Hands (1999 film). Bondi Beach is depicted as a glittering ocean which entices Jimmy into the water, away from his tasks. 
  • The Australian beach is increasingly urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand. 
  • Philip Drew, in his work The Coast Dwellers, believes that the Europeans brought their own understanding of space to Australia when they arrived in the late 19th century. Europeans journeyed here with a “conception of a closed centric world”. But this understanding that did not fit the geographical complexities of the country they found themselves in.
  • Even natural beach elements can be scary. Nature is unpredictable and we can’t control it (shark attacks, wild weather). 
  • The beach is considered a space of equality. Anyone can go there, whether rich or poor. No one owns the beach. Once at the beach, no one is judged on the norms of the rest of their lives — everyone is now just a person at the beach, perhaps stripped down without clothes as status symbols. Employment and wealth is discarded. However, in practice the classless beach isn’t real, sometimes made clear in fiction as well. In Puberty Blues Kathy Lette describes Green Hills beach as trendy while beaches at the sound end of Cronulla are family friendly (but not trendy).
  • Some texts objectify women on the sand. Surfing texts are very masculine. Some films objectify other kinds of bodies, including the bodies of men. 
  • Australian beach films are rarely financially or critically successful. (e.g. Newcastle) But still Australians keep trying to make beach movies and TV shows. 
  • The beach is neither marginal nor liminal. It allows the imaginative and the social to exist at once within the same landscape. This is called ‘Beachspace’. Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. In contrast, the beach can create a sense of belonging, or multiple belongings. 
  • Like high places, the beach can be used as a place to gain perspective, especially by going surfing. For surfers, waves can be a refuge and like driving, afford a sense of control. The main character of Breath by Tim Winton (2008) uses the surf in this way. He feels he can’t control death around him in his regular life.
  • Even though characters might try to use the beach as a safe space away from their ordinary lives, the beach isn’t always binary in that way. Floating in the shallows is similar to sitting in a bath, affording characters the space to think. Characters often have anagnorises in the water.

FURTHER READING

Header painting is a View of Sydney from the West side of the Cover painted in 1806 by a convict artist John Eyre. Some convicts were artists. Some of them were even convicted because of art — for forgery.

How To Write Like Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings books

Paul Jennings has been an influential children’s author in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s.



A PUBLISHING SUCCESS STORY

The Un-series took off internationally, became a TV series, the rest is history. Many people my age grew up with Paul Jennings. Schools across Australia and New Zealand all have (or had) multiple copies, sometimes class sets for study in class. I have taught Paul Jennings stories myself. These are considered texts to draw the reluctant reader in.

After revisiting the tales this year, I realised something else. Jennings’ stories serve to uphold a system of misogyny and sexism typical of the 1980s. Paul Jennings stories served a specific purpose in a specific era, but it’s now time to retire these books from the classroom. Childhood is very short, in comparison to the sheer volume of reading material available. We desperately need contemporary, woke, diverse, feminist hi-lo readers with fun, twisty endings to fill the Paul Jennings space.

That said, Paul Jennings is a master storyteller who cracked the difficult knack of genuinely writing for children, not for a dual audience, nor for advanced middle grade readers only. There’s a lot to learn from Paul Jennings in that regard.

FEATURES OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES

STORY STRUCTURE AND NARRATION

  • Titles often have a pun element, not obvious until after the twist.
  • Opening sentences often introduce intriguing high concepts.
  • Or, the story will open with a character in a scary/impossible situation e.g. perched high on a ladder (“Eyes Knows”). In other words, Jennings is making use of ‘in medias res’. We continue reading to find out how they got there.
  • Or, there will be a weird scenario (a character has a huge nose) and the backstory that follows will explain how this happened.
  • Or, the story will begin with a boy having just got himself into trouble with an authority figure (“UFD”).
  • Many of these stories are tall tales, and use the techniques of that genre.
  • Some are retellings of classic stories or a new spin on an old yarn. “Ice Maiden” = the Greek myth of Pygmalion. “Greensleeves” is a spin on “Jonah and the Whale”. “Know All” is a new spin on Pandora’s Box.
  • A lot of Jennings’ stories are bookended. He loves the story-within-a-story structure. To use the terms of narratology, Jennings makes use of two diegetic levels diegetic and metadiegetic. This conjures the ambience of a ‘storyteller around a campfire‘. Either an interesting adult tells a tall story to a child viewpoint character, or the child viewpoint character themselves launches into some wild backstory to explain the situation at hand. The stand-out example is the standalone story illustrated by Terry Denton, called Sucked In. The story’s title comes from the fact that a group of kids have been taken in by a tall tale… or have they?
  • The bookend story has a seven step story structure all of its own. (Its own opponent, plan, big struggle etc.) Because we have two of everything, this packs a lot into a short story and creates a fast-paced reading experience.
  • The Battle sequences are especially fun for the audience of these stories, with massive high-octane, ridiculous hilarity and plenty of revenge against authority and outright villainy.
  • Stories are written in first person, unless there’s some reason to write in third. For instance, the story will be written in third person if the first person viewpoint character isn’t going to be sticking around for the entire story. (“One-shot Toothpaste”) Stories are also written in third person if there are two main characters instead of one (e.g. “Birdscrap”), or perhaps if the story is about an adult rather than a child (“The Velvet Throne”).
  • Jennings doesn’t care that his Chekhov’s Guns are wholly unsubtle. If a character mentions a valuable painting, you can be sure that valuable painting will be found at the end of the story (“Skeleton On The Dunny”). A young reader is in the moment. Unlike a more sophisticated audience, they are not picking up the Chekhov’s Guns and making predictions.
  • It’s interesting to see which dots are joined for the young reader. Paul Jennings likes the reader to piece together their own endings. But everything else is handed to them on a plate. For instance, if there is a ghost, the reader is told there is a ghost. There’s no doubt about it (to my mind) because Jennings is using all the ghost tropes. But Jennings never forgets: He’s writing for eight year olds. Eight year olds haven’t got a long history of hearing ghost stories. Eight year olds don’t have a long history of anything. They’re eight. This is why, in a story like “Lighthouse Blues” we have sentences like ‘It had to be ghosts. The ghosts of Captain Rickard and Alan Rickard’. Any adult reader has already worked this out by section five. And so have the young readers, probably. But young readers like this confirmed. They were right! They feel smart. In a story for older readers, this sort of explanation might be considered ‘overexplanation’, and edited out.

Don’t play it too cool. Don’t trust us to figure it out if you can’t trust us to figure it out. Always try to think of any other interpretation that your reader may have. When in doubt, spell it out.

Matt Bird

  • Paul Jennings doesn’t lampshade coincidence. He makes the most of it. That is a feature of the tall tale. Almost all of his stories contain an element of unbelievable coincidence. Or, to be kind, we could call it ‘non-mimetic’ coincidence. (Events in a story don’t even try to emulate how the real world works.) The events of “Greensleeves” rely heavily on comical levels of coincidence, reminiscent of a fairytale.
  • Jennings is using “fairytale logic” and also fairytale archetypes. Mothers are often dead. The boy main character is most often reminiscent of the underdog third son. Virtue is richly rewarded by some unseen force.
  • Oftentimes the Battle sequence is a prearranged competition (“Birdman”, “Wunderpants”, “Little Squirt”) in which boys big struggle for prestige and dominance. The underdog will win after previously stumbling upon some magic. It might be a speech in front of the class rather than a competition (“Without A Shirt”), but the story structure is the same.
  • Ticking clocks come in various forms, but Jennings likes to make use of a magical piece of equipment which only lasts for a certain number of times or a certain length of time. (Super glue which only sticks for two hours; a lie detector that only works seven times.) This, too, is from fairytales. A genie grants three wishes, etc.
  • If a ghost is going to appear, often there’s a character who appears first to explain the backstory of the ghost. (The police officer in “A Good Tip For Ghosts”, the annoying girl classmate in “Cracking Up”.) This utilises the trick of having characters talk about an intriguing character before that character appears on the scene.
  • In a Paul Jennings story the planning step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. For instance, a boy wants to prove a flying dog exists. Instead of making a plan to that effect, he goes along with his father to buy ice-cream. A boy wants to get out of trouble for ruining his mother’s precious notebook. The grandfather just happens to turn up so he goes along on a frog-finding mission with him. This goes against how most writers cover the plan phase of a story. But in a way, it’s more mimetic for a child audience. A low mimetic child hero doesn’t have great executive functioning, and neither does the typical reader. Kids like this aren’t up to making plans. Instead, everything fits together as if by fate. The boys in these stories fulfil their desires, but often it’s through no good planning of their own. These white boys get what they want through sheer ‘dumb luck’, as Professor McGonnagal might say. (And I do say ‘white boy’ for a reason. We accept that kind of privilege in white boy characters.)

sheer dumb luck

STORYWORLD

  • Magical items appear without explanation. Magic simply is. In common with fairytales, we are given the very basics, then left to imagine the rest. In “Birdscrap”, Jennings doesn’t bother going into backstory of why a pair of rubies are significant. They just are. We know they are special precisely because the main characters are looking for them. The item with magic attached is common in fairytale and children’s stories but we sometimes see it in stories for adults, such as Annie Proux’s “A Pair of Spurs”.
  • A magical item will help the main character achieve their goal, but first they need to learn how to use it. The magical item will lead them through a series (probably two) humiliating gag scenes before helping with the goal. (“Birdman”, “The Mouth Organ”, “Spaghetti Pig-out”). This avoids the trap of magical items all writers need to skirt around the character needs to save the day, not the magic. This magical item might be a machine typical of 1980s technology, like the VCR of “Spaghetti Pig-out”. A modern audience may not have seen the rewind function in action. More to the point, many modern remote controls (e.g. PS4) don’t need to be pointed directly at the machine.
  • Fantasy creatures appear, special rubies exist, and mundane objects have a fantastical backstory. In this respect, Paul Jennings is the kiddie equivalent of Stephen King. For instance, both Jennings and King made use of a monster inside a drain, around the same time. The everyday world is simply a veneer masking terror below. They both make use of the snail under the leaf setting.
  • Jennings tends to give a ‘standout detail’ rather than creating a rounded picture. One of the more lengthy examples is the description of the annoying little helper called Snookle, who turns up inside a milk bottle. ‘All I could see was a large pair of gloomy eyes. He must have had a body but it was nowhere to be seen. The eyes simply floated in the air about fifteen centimetres above the bottom of the bottle.’
  • Overall, there’s a distinctly Australian feel to the settings (of course). This mapped equally well onto my New Zealand childhood, with its strong beach culture and houses which tend to be near the sea. Beaches hide buried treasure. Where the land meets the sea is often used in stories to evoke that liminal sense of where fantasy meets reality.
  • A form of magic beloved of Paul Jennings is the magic which takes over control of a boy’s body. (“Without A Shirt”, “Birdman”)
  • A similar form of magic is when a boy feels compelled to do as a magic item tells him. (“On The Bottom”, “Eyes Knows”)

CHARACTERISATION

  • The typical reader is an 8-10 year old, and the typical age of a main character is 14-16. This affords the characters more freedom. Some characters are younger than that. It seems to depend on whether there’s a romantic element. If Jennings needs a romance plot, he’ll age the main character up.
  • Wish fulfilment in Paul Jennings stories cover a large repeating territory: the wish to be respected (especially by girls), the wish to have money or treasure, to fly, to solve a mystery by your very own detective work, to have super powers, to find a magic item which solves a large problem.
  • Main characters are overwhelmingly boys. These boys are low-mimetic heroes according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. These boys are slightly more hapless, stupid, unobservant than the reader. This creates empathy, and we also laugh at them. We feel smarter than they are for working things out before they do.
  • Paul Jennings gets the parents out of the way and he doesn’t care how he does it. (The parents in Come Back Gizmo have gone out and haven’t even told their son where they’ve gone.) Jennings can get rid of adults suddenly with a one-sentence explanation. Or, we simply accept that parents aren’t there. In fairytale tradition, parents might have died in a car crash.
  • Adult opponents are often authority figures (principals, teachers, mean nurses, cranky neighbours). The meanest will receive punishment at the end, with vengeful plot ‘twists’.
  • Nasty opponents are both nasty and illogical. For instance, a nasty teacher has a precious plant, yet entrusts the care of it to his students each night so it doesn’t get covered in dust while the cleaners are doing their jobs (“Cracking Up”).
  • Jennings likes the archetype of the “little man” (described thus) who appears out of nowhere to serve whatever purpose Jennings sees fit. The “little man” in Come Back Gizmo appears to say the main character’s dog has been found. The “little man” in “Box Strap Flyer” appears as a trickster to outwit another trickster. Why does Jennings describe these men as “little”? Because they are meant to work mostly invisibly, behind the scenes, popping in occasionally to interfere with the machinations of a mystery.
  • When girls appear, they are most often girl archetypes (beautiful bitches, blonde sexual objects, wimpy, annoying sisters). They are therefore most often an opponent, romantic or potentially romantic, despite lack of interest on their part. When there are no girls at all in the story (“The Paw Thing”) Jennings doesn’t have the opportunity to muck it up.
  • Even adult women are a continuation of the female maturity principle, in which men and boys embark on these wacky, dangerous plans while the women tut-tut, oblivious to the fantasy world around them. In “Birdman” the mother is in a strop with the father because she thinks the flying competition is too dangerous. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” the mother gets into a strop because the father has bought a dodgy video down at the pub, but the father is always vindicated, because these machines and tricks always turn out to fix a big problem. Crazy dads are rewarded. Sensible mums are proven wrong to be sensible, every time.
  • Because this is the 1980s, the mothers are the ones calling their kids in for tea. The dads are the ones going out to work. This is believable for the 1980s, but my own mother went out to work in the 1980s, and so did the mothers of most of my friends. So Jennings was still behind in his parental gender roles.
  • Characters are often symbolically named e.g. a dog called Ripper who rips holes in your pants, or Chomper, a ghost who (it is revealed) searches the tip each night in search of his false teeth. The big, bad opponent in a story is most likely to be symbolically named in this way. The Every Boy gets more of a classic white boy name.
  • The son or daughter of the mayor is likely to be corrupt.

IDEOLOGY

  • Inversions are utilised as gags. For instance, a boy and dog switch bodies (Gizmo Come Back) or a father and dog switch bodies (“Birdman”). (See also: Inversion does not equal subversion.)
  • Typical of men of his era, Jennings fails to subvert some troubling, misogynistic tropes. Instead, his stories serve to keep girl characters subdued and under control. Yet he is able to subvert other kinds of authority by making the most of the carnivalesque. (“Lucky Lips” is perhaps the worst of the lot, with a carnivalesque, gross-out and also rapey set of scenarios leading to a disturbing climax, not dissimilar to the controversial pilot episode of Black Mirror.)
  • Paul Jennings uses fat kids as the bully character. This was very common in the 1980s. Fat boys were either enemies or pathetic. In modern stories, the fat boy is still sidekick to the main character Every Boy, though he’s often a nicer person than everyone else. This isn’t really an inversion until fat boys get to be the stars of their own stories, which aren’t about the experience of being fat. In The Cabbage Patch Wars, two dads with beer bellies engage in a weight loss competition, in an era before Biggest Loser was a thing.
  • There’s a disproportionate number of redheaded kids in Paul Jennings stories. Like most children’s writers, he tends to use red hair as a ‘stand out’ attribute by giving a kid red hair he is saying ‘keep an eye on this character’. Jennings uses a red headed kid for the bully in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” but the red headed kid is a main character in “Ice Maiden”, and despite hating red hair himself, he ends up falling in love with a red headed girl. Also, his red hair saves his life. So Jennings is trying to tell us that red hair isn’t so bad in one story, yet uses red hair however he sees fit in other stories.
  • If an evil person is introduced, and that evil person is mistreating others you can bet Paul Jennings will exact punishment on that character, even if it requires a final section of the story to do just that. In other words, he ties off every other strand in the story, and it might end there, but then he goes back in for the punishment. These stories are famous for being about anarchy and fun, but they are conservative in their values.
  • Look closely at these stories and you’ll find they are basically very conservative, and sometimes clearly didactic. “The Busker” is about how you can’t buy friendship. Yet in “Spaghetti Pig-out”, the main character buys friends with a magical device. So stories contradict each other in their moralism.
  • The idea that bad people do bad things and also get away with it is not part of the Paul Jennings setting, although it is part of real life.
  • Stories which revolve around a reordering of hierarchy are so common, not just in the Paul Jennings oeuvre, that we rarely stop to think about how to completely subvert the hierarchy itself. As Matt Bird says about Battle sequences in general, at first the main character is socially challenged (usually via humiliation). This is absolutely true of Paul Jennings stories. We are lately starting to see a pushback on this fundamental idea. Australian feminist philosopher Kate Manne says it best in her critique of Jordan Peterson’s viral “12 Rules For Life”:

Critiquing these hierarchical structures and finding, when possible, a way to live outside of them in more co-operative ways are obvious alternatives for human beings about which Peterson says little.

  • I have exactly the same thing to say about Paul Jennings, who has nothing to say about how to live outside hierarchies, or about dismantling the hierarchies altogether. Instead, story after story fulfils the wish to move from underdog to king pin, often by dumb luck and with magical help rather than by achieving any special insight.

WRITING STYLE

  • The writing style is conversational rather than literary.
  • A strong 1980s, 1990s Australian voice comes through, in emulation of the ‘True, blue Aussie’ which certain politicians like to emulate, even today. This voice is in itself a kind of fictional caricature, which isn’t to say that certain people don’t make full use of it as a character gag. Mick Gould who stars in Australia’s 2019 Married At First Sight also uses this distinctly Australian larrikin persona for enduring comic value and audience empathy, so it hasn’t gone away. This voice is full of idiomatic expressions, mixed metaphors for comic effect, telling it like it is, positioning oneself as hapless and unpretentious, and making use of borderline inappropriate language (insofar as a children’s book will allow, hence “Birdscrap”, which can be explained away as “Bird Scrap” rather than its real meaning of “Birds’ Crap”).
  • Emotions are described matter-of-factly in a single sentence e.g. ‘I felt embarrassed,’ ‘I felt silly‘.

HUMOUR

  • A useful taxonomy of humour in children’s stories. Paul Jennings makes heavy use of slapstick.
  • Physiological reactions are comical they could easily happen in a Cartoon Network show. Knees knocking, obvious blushing, teeth chattering.
  • Titles such as “Birdscrap” are word play and also taboo.
  • Readers take delight in upending authority. This kind of carnivalesque humour is utilised across many picture books, which makes these hi-lo readers a natural progression for young readers. This type of humour is still very popular here in Australian children’s publishing, with the Treehouse creators saying that children crave ‘irreverent’ humour. Irreverent is another way of saying the same thing. Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths also talk about the importance of ‘anarchy‘, and this applies equally to Paul Jennings, who has surely been influential on their work.
  • Humour has been classified into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Men and boys are more likely to use ‘negative’ humour to belittle, to humiliate etc. Paul Jennings stories are far more likely to belittle and humiliate, with a few exceptions e.g. “The Mouth Organ” (in which, no coincidence, he chooses a girl for his narrator).
  • Jennings makes use of gross-out elements. (A sea of bird poo, a creature picking a boy’s nose for him, being stuck in a skip full of rubbish, a dug up skeleton etc.)
  • In tall story tradition Jennings plays around with scale and size. (This is also a feature of myths e.g. Greek myth.) For example, a shack is surrounded by a sea of seagull poo, a tooth grows bigger than the man to whom it belongs. Jennings understands that by playing around with scale, he creates resonant imagery for the reader. Other examples: ‘A pumpkin so big it took four men to lift it’, ‘peas as big as golf balls’, ‘beans were as long as your arm’, so many flies they black out the sun. Extreme stench is utilised in several different stories. In the humour taxonomy, this is gross-out overlaid with hyperbole.
  • Related to big things as small, small things as big, creatures and things operate in the way we don’t expect. Oftentimes, it’s a simple inversion. For instance, in Sucked In, we are led to expect that a cat is about to eat the escaped appendix. The illustration shows a massive cat (so massive the cat is partly off the page) with the much smaller appendix in a vulnerable position beneath the cat. But turn the page and the appendix eats the cat. This is ‘man bites dog’ humour, funny because it subverts expectations.
  • Bad smells are a common feature of Paul Jennings stories, especially if they overwhelm an entire town. (“Greensleeves” is one example)
  • Humiliation of the main character is often a large component of the humour. We empathise with the main character because he is in an underdog embarrassing situation. He comes up trumps at the end, not because of his own superpowers coming to the fore, but because the gods are smiling upon him. He remains a low-mimetic hero (Northrop Frye’s classification).
  • Disembodied body parts are commonly utilised throughout Paul Jennings stories. False teeth are the star of several different narratives (“A Good Tip For Ghosts, The Cabbage Patch War). In Sucked In, an appendix in a jar is the star. We have a dismembered finger in “On The Bottom”.
  • Nudity is both funny and humiliating (cringe humour). Bums especially so (“On The Bottom”). Mention of exposed genitalia would be considered inappropriate for this age group, but we do have an entire story about a pissing contest.

HOW DOES JENNINGS TWIST HIS TALES?

The big selling point of a Paul Jennings collection is the twist-in-the-tale. You’ll find this promise on the advertising copy. This seems to be what impresses readers the most.

Some of the stories contain two twists: One in the Level 0 story, another in the Level 1, meta story.

Some of the ‘twists’ only work on a child audience. The sophisticated adult reader sees them a mile out. Paul Jennings does not attempt a dual audience, and that largely explains his success: His stories for kids are really for kids. On the other hand, sometimes the reward is in knowing exactly what’s coming. There’s a visceral delight in that.

Christopher Vogler has pointed out that ‘twist endings’ are most often sardonic, bitter, wry and I would add ‘vengeful’. It is much more difficult to write a twist ending that does not invoke these negative (but satisfying) emotions in us. A rare exception is the famous short story by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”. Paul Jennings doesn’t do ‘kind’ twist endings. (Twist endings which say something lovely about humankind are very hard to pull off.)

Another twist Paul Jennings does NOT do: The scary supernatural creature turns out to be no such thing. Once Jennings creates his scary opposition, that opposition is real within the setting. The ‘and it wasn’t really real’ twist is not satisfying. It’s a close cousin of ‘And then I woke up and it was all a dream‘.

  • Jennings reveals that an authority figure has the same desires as the kids, proving himself not so high and mighty after all. (“Pink Bow Tie”). This is a carnivalesque trick because it upends the adult-child hierarchy.
  • A storyteller spins a yarn which the young viewpoint character fully believes. The twist is that the storyteller is full of yarns, and the existence of the second yarn disproves the veracity of the main yarn. (“One Shot Toothpaste”.) This is a tall tale trick.
  • A character with a certain strong character trait (e.g. fearlessness) goes through an experience which serves to invert that trait (e.g. he is now scared of not scary things) (“Inside Out”). This draws on the mechanism of irony. The reader expects a character arc to be: Child learns to conquer his fears.
  • A mysterious storyteller who tells his tale in third person is revealed to have been telling the story about himself all along. (“The Busker”)
  • A fantastic tale is not fantasy at all, then leaves off with a detail or explanation that suggests the fantastic tale might be fantastic, or it might not. (“Souperman”)
  • A situation is resolved, seemingly forever, but then it is revealed in the final paragraph that this is a repeating story and is likely to happen again. Paul Jennings gets a lot of mileage out of this one. (“One Shot Toothpaste”, “The Gum Leaf War”, “Come Back Gizmo”, Sucked In) Often, the first and main story happens to a boy, then the next (untold) story is about to happen to a girl. DreamWorks did the same in its movie adaptation of Boss Baby. (They probably think this counts as gender diversity.)
  • A Holy Grail object of desire is revealed to have been right there, staring them in the face all along. (“Birdscrap”)
  • A villain opponent is revealed to be more of an ally, and ends up helping the young character get with they want. Sometimes this is a ghost, who seems scary at first but is revealed to be kind. (“Birdscrap”, “Skeleton On The Dunny”)
  • An opponent with a formidable reputation turns out to be much less scary once met face to face (“A Good Tip For Ghosts”).
  • An opponent for the child viewpoint character turns out to be an ally for another character, because everyone’s needs are different. (“Snookle”)
  • A weird situation is revealed to be supernatural in origin, and has a classic horror story resolution (“Without a shirt”)
  • A smart trickster outwits an evil trickster (“Box Strap Flyer”, The Paw Thing)
  • The reader thinks the worst that could happen has already happened, but then something outrageous and unimaginable is about to happen next. This scene may be so risqué it is left entirely for the reader to imagine. (“Lucky Lips”).
  • An object which is terrible turns out to have a silver lining for the main character. (“Cow Dung Custard”)
  • A character accomplishes something using a certain trick which is not revealed to the reader until the final sentence. (“Wunderpants”) This is how heist stories work. The character makes plans behind the scenes. The character has a realisation midway through the story and this is not related to the audience.
  • Rather than a twist, Jennings sometimes uses the inverse: Everything in the story leads to an expected and satisfying payoff… or rather, payback. In “Birdscrap”, the story ends at the point where the highly unempathetic opponent is about to land headfirst in manure. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” we wait for the magic remote to work against the bullies.
  • After a psychological horror sequence, a character realises what they need to do to get themselves out of a horrible situation, so they do it and it works via off-the-page magic. (“The Velvet Throne”)
  • To emphasise his twist, Jennings sometimes gives us the ‘twist’, swiftly followed by the answer to a mystery he has set up. This feels extra satisfying, and can make up for a less-than-stellar twist. He does this in The Cabbage Patch War. We learn in quick succession that the person accused of stealing the cabbage is not the real thief. Then we learn that one character won a weightloss competition by removing his false teeth.
  • A character is killed, then brought back to life with hitherto unseen magic (“Frozen Stiff”).
  • Sometimes a main character works something out before the reader does, then sets about to fix a situation. (Russell works out his mean teacher’s smile has been stolen before we do in “Cracking Up”, “Know All”.)