This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Yesterday I analysed the structure of an Australian bush ballad. Today I stay in Australia, with the modern picture book classic Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.
Like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Diary of a Wombat is a parody of a diary. We expect that if someone has taken the trouble to write something down then it must be something important. But wombats don’t really do much and have little to report. Jackie French could have anthropomorphised the wombat and taken her off on an adventure to save the world, but this wombat is inspired by the wombats around French’s own house. Bruce Whatley illustrates animals in a mostly realistic style, with only a few modifications to make the facial expressions more human, making the pairing perfect.
STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WOMBAT
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
Unusually for a children’s book, the wombat is female yet has not been given any typically feminine markers, such as a big pink bow. This is partly to do with the realistic style of art. (There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in wombats — you can’t easily tell the sex of a wombat unless you’re an expert.) I wonder if you assumed the wombat was male until “For Pete’s sake! Give her some carrots!” A study by Janet McCabe told us that unless animal characters are given obvious female markers then we tend to read them as male.
The wombat hasn’t been given a name. Often this is because a character stands in for a group. In this case, she stands for your typical wombat, doing typical wombatty things.
A standout feature of the wombat is the distinctive round bottom, which may be why Bruce Whatley chose to depict the wombat from behind in a number of illustrations. This is surprisingly uncommon for picture books, in which we’re more likely to see ‘posed for a photo‘ characters. Bruce Whatley doesn’t vary the top-bottom angle of the wombat, keeping to one-point perspective throughout, without making use of high/low angles. This allows the reader to remain right alongside the wombat as an equal at all times. His choice to depict the wombat in various cardinal directions may partly be to do with the need to vary each illustration from the others. But when wombat sits and stars at the boarded-up door, we really feel her petulant patience for carrots, even though we can’t see her face.
The choice is masterful.
What is wrong with her?
Since our main character a wombat she is unable to communicate what she wants to the humans. This is one of the reasons animals are so common in picture books. They are like young children, also unable to communicate what they need in words.
She is also capricious and according to typical human work ethic, she’s comically lazy.
This is an oblivious character who doesn’t see the havoc she wreaks behind her. She doesn’t realise the humans filled up her hole because they didn’t want a hole. Unlike Peter Rabbit, she doesn’t realise the carrots in the garden have been planted there by someone and that she thieved them. She thinks she happened upon them.
WHAT DOES SHE WANT?
The wombat has simple needs and lives in a wombat utopia — a rural human environment with a large supply of carrots growing in the garden, good soil for digging holes and everything else she could possibly want. The wombat’s stand-out feature is that she wants for nothing. But for narrative drive, a story requires that the main character want something.
Jackie French has fulfilled this story step by giving our wombat the strong desire for carrots. Not only that, she is endlessly greedy for carrots and even when given carrots, she still wants more. This desire drives most of the story but, comically, she eventually has enough of carrots and decides she wants rolled oats instead. This is where her main weakness comes in: she is unable to tell the humans that she now wants rolled oats.
By the way, comic characters often have insatiable appetites. In a comedy ensemble you’ll usually get one who is obsessed with food.
In Kath and Kim, Kim is always eating. (Sharon stress eats as well.)
In Seinfeld it’s Kramer who is always going to Jerry’s for cereal and whatnot. He is shown to be a fruit connoisseur, and in another episode the big gag is that Kramer could have won a lot of money after being scalded by hot coffee, but he is delighted with a lifetime’s supply of free coffees instead.
In The Simpsons, Homer is the character who represents the stomach.
Characters are also funny if we can laugh at their stupidity. The obliviousness of the wombat means that Jackie French created her loosely based upon the classic Dolt character. There are many different comedy character archetypes. Here are a few more.
The human family are in opposition to the wombat not because the humans are trying to get rid of her, but because they have different goals which cannot coexist:
Family wants a front door, wombat wants to gain their attention so chews the nice front door.
Family wants carrots for dinner so grows carrots in garden; wombat digs them up.
Family buys carrots from shop; wombat sits in back seat of car and eats them out of the bag.
Family wants a nice garden bed; wombat wants to dig holes where garden bed is.
Family wants to dry washing on the line; wombat doesn’t want things dangling onto her nose, so chews washing on line.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
With a lazy, roly-poly character like this wombat, you aren’t going to get a complicated plan. The plan is simple: to walk to the family’s front door and make a nuisance of oneself until food is provided.
The family’s plan is to work around the mischief of the wombat, filling in holes once they’re dug, buying more carrots once the home store is depleted.
Though it’s not obvious at first sight, Diary of a Wombat has a mythic structure. Rather, this is a parody of a classic story with a mythic structure. In myths, a hero goes on a very difficult journey to achieve a goal, meets lots of challenges along the way and finally gets what he wants (or not, in a tragedy). The hero then either returns home a changed person or finds a new home wherever he ends up.
The journey of the wombat is down the garden path to the front door. Sure enough, she meets obstacles along the way, but these obstacles are no more fearsome than a bush or a pair of wet pants which tickle her nose. Her ‘big battles’ are therefore ironic.
Okay, so until now I’ve been saying the same things, which are general rules but rules can be broken. So far I’ve told you that in a story with mythic structure the battles increase in intensity until one massive life-and-death battle. This is seen clearly in the Solla Sollew picture book by Dr. Seuss, which is why I included it in this series.
Jackie French shows us that there doesn’t need to be any big battle. In fact, in a parody, where nothing much happens by design, the story wouldn’t cope with one.
So what did the author do instead, to lead us gently towards a conclusion? She used a trick I’m going to call ‘accumulation’. This is exactly what it sounds like — various things from the story come together. By ‘things’, most often I mean ‘objects’. Another (really obvious) example of an ‘accumulation battle’ occurs in Stuck by Oliver Jeffers in which a boy gets something stuck in a tree. He keeps throwing more and more things into the tree hoping to get the other things down. The story gets more and more ridiculous as the things accumulate in the tree.
In Diary of a Wombat, the gag doesn’t rely on the accumulation plot, so it’s much more subtle. You can see it in the line, ‘Demanded oats AND carrots’. Oats and carrots have been the important twin desire lines throughout the story and they come together at the end.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
Wombat learns that if she makes a big enough nuisance of herself then the humans will give her exactly what she wants.
The reader learns, comically, that animals can train humans, not just the other way around!
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
In this mythic journey the wombat finds a new home, even closer to the humans than before, burrowed under the house.
We can extrapolate that things will continue as they did before, but this time the wombat’s life is even more convenient as she doesn’t even have to walk up the garden path to get fed.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
I’ve already mentioned Stuck by Oliver Jeffers as another example of an accumulation plot. Another example of an accumulation plot is Let’s Go For A Drive! an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems. In this early reader, two characters collect all sorts of things they’ll need for a drive. These things pile up on the floor. They eventually realise they haven’t got a car so they have to play make believe instead.
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins has other subtle similarities. The hen in Rosie’s Walk (Rosie) is unaware that a fox is trying to catch her. She walks happily through a farm. Rosie’s Walk has been heavily influential as a story in which the text says something completely different from the pictures. Jackie French’s wombat is similarly oblivious, though her life is not in danger. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a big gap between the pictures and the text. The text is first ‘person’, from the wombat’s point of view, but only the reader knows how much of a nuisance she’s being to the humans she lives with.
Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.
We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.
But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.
The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:
There are variations on this basic plan, of course.
For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.
Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.
The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean
An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.
A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically fake. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic.
The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.
Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store bought sweets.
The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.
To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a homebaked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)
Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:
I have had not so good of a week.
Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.
— Clementine, Sara Pennypacker
Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.
In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.
Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair.
Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee.
Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.
“Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.
“Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”
— Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)
We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.
We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:
“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”
“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”
“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”
— Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets told off by the teacher authority figure.
A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a slightly wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist problem — concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)
Junie B. Jones
Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)
Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness.
Billy B. Brown
By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.
Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.
— The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence
It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”
Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.
— The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin
Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.
The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer.
Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. She is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes with her nose in the air.
The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in opposition to the feminist ‘girls can do anything’ intent.
Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys
I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents — these heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.
In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often have frenemies. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not allowed from girls.
So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:
Only girls are able to pull this off
Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
Girls are basically liars.
The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath.
Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.
There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.
Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.
Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.
The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the reader to despise her. We don’t like women to have all the answers.
The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.
Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg
When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to hate her even more. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.
Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:
I would argue that Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person. We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.
It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner
As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:
Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness.
Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.
You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:
[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.
Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished
[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists.
You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.
The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.
Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.
Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.
Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.
For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.
There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.
Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling
I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:
Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
Harry Potter (Hermione)
Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?
These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’. This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.
But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:
One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organization is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.
So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.
We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:
I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.
— Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate
This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.
Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.
A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls
Could we change the character web template and still engage girls? Here’s what I’d love to see:
More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.
At first I thought The Useless Donkeys was going to be a more realistic, earlier version of Walter The Farting Dog in which an adult threatens to get rid of a family pet, but over the course of the story the pet(s) prove their true worth and end up staying with the children.
I was a little off in my prediction. Instead, these donkeys are donkeys in the realistic sense. There’s nothing anthropomorphised about them at all. So they just wander around being donkeys, without ever proving their worth. Instead, the oldest daughter in this story happens upon what’s nowadays known as ‘The Benjamin Franklin Effect‘, in which the more you do for someone the better you like them.
The front matter tells us the illustrator, Judith Cowell, is a perfectionist and spent two years working studiously on the watercolours of this book. As you’d expect, they’re worthy of framing.
Perhaps this is why Cowell seems to have produced only two books in her lifetime. I suspect you can find more of her artwork here.
STORY WORLD OF THE USELESS DONKEYS
This storybook world is something between English and Australian. I couldn’t decide whether the author was Australian or English, in fact, so wasn’t surprised to look her up and find she was English born but spent most of her life in Australia.
Lydia Pender was the daughter of George Herbert and Ethel Podger. She came to Australia with her parents and four brothers in 1920. They lived in Sydney and she went to St. Albans Church of England School, Hunters Hill, completing the Leaving Certificate. Pender won a scholarship to do a bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney but did not complete it.
There is something quite English about the diction, and the way the full names of the children are used. Then there’s that heavy rain, of course, which is often absent from Australian picturebooks set on farms. (See for example Two Summers.)
This is a cosy homestead, a small farm with a big, bustling family. The house provides safety, and the children are healthily excited about the rising river.
We have a newspaper reading father and a mother dressed as a 1940s housewife, tending to the family.
Asses, no surprise, are often depicted as hapless victim types, with no brains. They fall into traps easily, and they are drawn towards fun with no thought to consequences.
Donkeys in real life have been important to us since the age of agriculture, but only if they can be put to work. Unlike horses and ponies, donkeys in children’s literature are primarily for working rather than for companionship. Donkeys don’t save the day very often. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the donkeys in this story are actual donkeys, not people in the form of donkeys.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE USELESS DONKEYS
A pair of donkeys are useless and a bit annoying.
The mother and children want to keep the donkeys.
The father. This guy is a farmer type who values animals only for their utility.
The two eldest children row to the ‘island’ and spend the night keeping the donkeys company.
The storm sequence.
A storm can symbolize the turmoil in the character’s psyche.
– The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva
The reason for that watery watercolour technique, with those large splashes to add texture, becomes clear when it starts raining in the story and the river rises.
The more you do for somebody, the more you like them. It applies to babies and it applies to animals.
The donkeys will be allowed to stay. We know this because the father gave the final say to the more sympathetic mother.
This part of the story is implied rather than shown.
I was very wary picking up a book called Bossyboots to read to my daughter. ‘Bossy’ is a heavily gendered word. There’s no way a book called ‘Bossyboots’ would ever star a boy. So the first thing I checked was the year of publication. 1985, I thought. Well, this could be a good thing. Overtly feminist messages were pretty popular in 1985. I’m happy to say that this book subverts reader expectations.
This isn’t a story in which a bossy girl is put in her place; it’s a story which shows that a little girl’s bossiness can save the day.
This isn’t the easiest book to get hold of these days but it’s nevertheless an award winning publication. Bossyboots won a Children’s Choices Magazine Award in the USA and was included in America’s Children’s Choices List. I think the Wild West setting must be a familiar and popular one to an American audience, even though this is obviously set in Australia (with specific place names mentioned up front).
Where the hell is Narrabri, you ask?
The small town of about 6000 people exists due to the cotton growing industry.
The story follows classic structure. A further word on the setting: The ‘Wild West’ is a good one for a classic battle. In this case there’s even a ‘black hat’ with a gun. Note that, because this is a story for children, the gun ends up being not even loaded — one way to tone down the scariness of guns, I guess. Also, if you want to write a picturebook with guns, it really does need to be set in earlier times. I suspect publishers would balk at a gun-weilding criminal in a modern setting. The Wild West stories are far enough into the past as to feel mythically alien to children.
Abigail, along with the rest of the passengers, just wants to go home to Narrabri.
Australian history is full of dodgy characters with poetic names, from Mad Dog Morgan to Bold Jack Donohoe. This outlaw is appropriately named Flash Fred. He’s not all that scary looking really. He’s a hapless guy who can’t overpower a little girl. He wears a straw hat, has a large belly and skinny legs — built to topple over, as he does.
She’ll catch the train and everything will go smoothly, because everyone will do exactly as she says.
We don’t see how exactly, since this is a series of static images, but Flash Fred topples over.
Because this is a tale designed to subvert reader expectations, it’s the reader, not the main character, who has the revelation.
We realise that although this is an unappealing little girl who bosses everyone around, bossiness has its virtues; a bossy girl also has the ability to save the day. Bossiness can also mean ‘scared of nothing and no one’.
Leaf by Stephen Michael King is a book comprising pictures and onomatopoeia. No narrative text.
How does one write flap copy for a (largely) wordless picture book? The publishers of leaf have obviously done a test read with a young reader called Amelia and they quoted her response for the flap.
This story reminds me of the advertisement for Tooheys Extra Dry — both are surreal and involve a dream sequence with real-life influence, and both are about what happens after planting hair.
But to linger for a moment on the word ‘surreal’:
Surrealism is used wrongly in everyday speech to mean “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. Surrealist art makes the viewer work before understanding the meaning.
When it comes to children’s picture books, a boy with a leaf growing out of his head is surrealism. That’s not what you’d expect. 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.
CHARACTERS IN LEAF
The first thing you may notice about the boy is that his shirt is green and his trousers are brown. Obviously, the boy = the tree.
As for the mother, this is a caring but unsympathetic character — the opponent in this scenario. She, too, is tall and thin. (For genetic reasons, it makes sense, since the boy grows tall and thin himself.) A thin, angular mother in picturebooks is ‘not warm’.
Notice her coffee. The author/illustrator makes sure we notice it in fact; she holds it out against a purple background; she holds it out against the white space; she next seems to point to it, although in the story world she is simply reaching for the shears. The steam curling up from the coffee cup is the inspiration for the boy’s leap into imagination.
STORY STRUCTURE OF LEAF
A boy does not like having his hair cut.
He wants to run in the wild with his dog with his long, untidy hair, au naturel.
The mother figure, who wants his hair to be cut.
He runs away from his scissors-wielding mother. He takes his dog for companionship and adventure.
Like many picturebooks, the ‘battle’ scene take up the middle third-or-so of the book. A bird drops a seed onto the boy’s head and a leaf grows. This marks the beginning of a carnivalesque imaginative sequence in which they get blown in the wind, the leaf almost dies from the heat of the sun, the dog gets saturated by the water from a watering can used to perk up the leaf, followed by the crescendo, which is a literal dream (at home in bed). In this dream the mother has been replaced by a man with huge gardening shears who wants to cut the leaf off the boy’s head.
The ultimate battle scene is when the mother greets him with the scissors the next morning and gives him a buzz cut.
The boy’s self-revelation is connected to his revelation that the leaf is not dead. He can still save it. He plants the cut-off hair along with the leaf. Amazingly, it grows into a tree.
The self-revelation may be that he will continue to grow, and will soon be out of the grip of his mother’s enforced buzz cuts.
A few flashforwards and we see he is now tall and thin, just like the tall tree the seedling has become. He has his own family and has grown his hair out long, just how he likes it.
As for the dog, a bird drops a seed onto the dog’s head. We presume the same story will happen to the dog.
Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.
NOTES ON THE COVER OF ERIC
Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further.
A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:
Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks:
For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s usually because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.
Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.
Why is the exchange student in this story small? As explained by John Truby in Anatomy of Story:
Whenever a character shrinks, he regresses to a small child. Negatively, he experiences a sudden loss of power and may even be terrified by his now massive and domineering surroundings. Positively, the character and the audience have the amazing feeling of seeing the world anew. “The man with the magnifying glass is … youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of the child … . Thus the minuscule, the narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”
Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?
Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is just a symbol.
Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.
Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:
The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them,and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.
Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picturebook. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural difference. Grigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.
This kid (I assumed it was a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl) She is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer.
She is looking forward to teaching an exchange student everything about her local environs. This will make her feel like an expert.
Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore.
Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.
Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:
I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excusions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.
Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. At the casino he gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.
I might have found this a little exasperating, but I kept thinking about what Mum had said, about the cultural thing. Then I didn’t mind so much.
The battle is with herself — between the self that wants to show Eric everything she knows, and the self that’s open to learning from the foreigner.
We see more of this psychological battle at the dinner table when ‘There was much speculation over dinner later that evening. Did Eric seem upset?’ and so on.
In Shaun Tan’s work, self-revelations are often accompanied by images of doors and windows.
In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.
It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.
The window, however, comes before the battle scene.
Here we have a door: the pantry door.
Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again.
This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.
Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.
Chatterbox is a very satisfying book to read aloud and my daughter just loves it.
Deborah Niland has made a great job of illustrating the characters, and I especially like that she’s drawn a very modern Nana — not your stereotypical Nana with her blue rinse and pearls. In fact, she doesn’t even have wrinkles. The main difference between the Nana and the mother is that the Nana wears glasses.
The story taps into that very common dynamic where you can’t wait for your baby to start talking. But when she does, it feels like she’ll never shut up.
STORY STRUCTURE OF CHATTERBOX
Max, the big brother, is impatient…
…for his baby sister to talk.
Daisy is the opponent as she just won’t talk.
Max, along with the rest of his family, try to get her to repeat things. They say things slowly and take her to all sorts of interesting places but she just won’t copy anyone.
The battle scene is when Daisy suddenly spews out all the nonsense that’s been repeated at her.
By the look on Max’s face, he regrets wanting Daisy to talk.
On the surface, Shaun Tan’s award-winning picture book Rules Of Summer is simply a list of rules. Below I take a look at how Rules Of Summer is in fact a complete narrative.
There is also a message here. Readers are asked to wonder: What are the real rules of summer? Play together. Use your imaginations. Work out your differences.
STORY STRUCTURE OF RULES OF SUMMER
Does this picturebook — more like a coffee table book of art in some ways — follow the universal seven steps of narrative, as outlined by John Truby? Yes, it does, though it requires the reader to provide some of that story. Shaun Tan doesn’t hand it to us on a plate.
Two brothers are faced with a long summer and they must learn to entertain themselves and how to get along.
They want to have fun
They turn everyday situations into imaginary scenarios to fight the boredom of long, never-ending days of summer holidays.
Notice the pictures get darker. Especially the skies.
They have a fist-fight. The older brother wins. The younger brother feels isolated as he waits for an apology.
If he waits long enough, the older brother will eventually come back to him. This emotional state is depicted as a snowy, cold landscape.
The boys sit together on the couch looking at the TV.
Sure enough, Rules Of Summer is a complete narrative, and this is what makes the book resonant.
Throughout history, folklore has included stories of dogs who roam towns at night, especially in Britain. There’s Wiltshire’s Wilton dog or the fierce mastiff that roamed the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Anyone who has ever seen a huge unfriendly dog standing right outside their glass door will know how frightening it can be. Pinfold takes that fear and now we have Blackdog.
A black dog is the name given to an entity found primarily in the folklore of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes. It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk), and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.
The illustrations are so beautiful in this author/illustrator picture book I suspected the story wouldn’t quite reach the same level. Readers will have varied responses to this, but for me, the story is structurally fine but the message problematic: Readers are taught to face their fears head-on, using the metaphor of a big dog outside the house. The problem is, I’ve been trying to teach my kid the opposite when it comes to dogs, as there are a lot of dangerous ones in our neighbourhood: If a dog looks scary, it probably is! I’m therefore left wishing the dog could have been some mythical, non-existent creature. The final scene shows a young child hugging the dog in a way that dogs should never, ever be hugged, as it’s a sign of domination, and little kids tend to be right at eye-level too. Even when picture books are to be read at the metaphorical level, we can’t forget that the literal level doesn’t suddenly cease to exist. So for entirely practical/safety purposes I do have a couple of issues with this book.
ALLEGORY AND SYMBOL
There may be a good symbolic reason for using a black dog, however, as the black dog has been used as a metaphor for depression and other mental illness, i.e. The Black Dog Institute. I have absolutely no idea if this were intended by the author/illustrator, but because of the black dog connection I can’t read this book as anything other than an allegory for agoraphobia/anxiety. (Update: I’m more sure of the symbolism since happening across the history of black dogs as metaphors of mental illness.)
Let’s look at Blackdog through this lens and see if it holds up.
Agoraphobia isn’t contagious insofar as I know, so it would be unusual for an entire family to be simultaneously terrified of going outside. For this reason, I’m interpreting the family as ‘different aspects of the same individual’, in much the same way as the Winnie-the-Pooh characters are each different facets of a child’s single personality. Sometimes this person looks out of the window and is not quite so scared — other days the size of the menace is overwhelming. But there is one small part inside this individual which has sufficient bravery to face the world. This is the classic mouse tale trope, in which the smallest character is ironically the bravest. (And anyone who’s ever had a mouse infestation knows they’re not timid at all — mice are stupid brave for their size, relying on speed more than smarts!) This technique definitely lends the feel of ‘fable’ to this story, with thanks to Aesop and The Lion and the Mouse.
By going out into the world and practising exposure therapy the small child in this story shrinks the black dog down to size. Again, a metaphor for mental illness: mental illness is always a part of you, but it can be reduced to a manageable size.
A MINIATURE WORLD
The presence of a massive dog temporarily turns this family into miniatures, of the type you’ve seen in The Borrowers and Stuart Little. There are specific narrative reasons for making use of miniatures.
A miniature has three main uses in a story:
1. It lets the audience see the world of the story as a whole.
2. It allows the author to express various aspects, or facets, of a character.
3. It shows the exercise of power, often of tyranny.
— John Truby, TheAnatomy of Story
All three reasons are at play in Blackdog: We see the warm interior/foggy, cold exterior all at once; we see each member of the family react differently to the same event; we can easily imagine how scared we would be at this tyrannical creature outside our house.
JUXTAPOSITION OF SETTING
The snowy, ethereal setting of Blackdog is a brilliant choice, and is in stark contrast to the warm, but oddly grotesque interior:
There’s something steampunk about this house, and the scene of the bathroom and playground, with the rivets and steel, remind me very much of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.
Though Pinfold has his own distinctive style, the colour choice, too, is very Shaun Tan, especially when you look at the accent colours. Pinfold makes use of inset thumbnails, too, and in this book we have tiny sepia drawings decorating the text. It’s tempting to skip over these thumbnails because the eye tends to linger on the full-colour spreads, but if you go back and examine them closely, these thumbnails offer the ‘alternative view’ of the story: While the full colour spreads in the first half of the story depict only the inside of the house and a little of what can be seen through the window, the thumbnails show us the massive dog outside in a long shot view of the tall, skinny house.
There’s something gothic about that house. It’s a three-storied structure with an attic which would never get approved by any local council, and must have therefore come from another era. This is the trope of the Terrifying House. But this house is both terrifying and warm.
Opposite the warm house, the terrifying house is usually a house that has gone over the line from cocoon to prison. In the best stories of this kind, the house is terrifying because it is an outgrowth of the great weakness and need of the character. This house is the hero’s biggest fear made manifest. In the extreme, the character’s mind has rotted in some way, and the house too is in ruins. But it is no less powerful a prison.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
It’s warm because it’s cosy, with the roaring fire and comfort of family. It’s cheery like a rainbow, in fact, with each room having its own dominant hue. This is more obvious when you view the various parts of this house together in a single image. Orange, yellow, green, pink…
But the accoutrements scattered around — the stone animals with their staring eyes, the cluttered chaos, the soap-holder that looks almost like a mechanical hand reaching into the dirty old bath, the red tricycle that will always scare anyone who ever watched Saw — there’s something definitely spooky here. And of course your warm house is spooky… when you can never leave. The mother looks a lot like a Marionette as she clutches the jug in the orange image above.
Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing — as well as his other work — features industrial smoke and city smog, but here the outside world is shrouded in a clean, forest mist — a great choice given the accepted symbolism of fog and mist. In fiction, fog equals obfuscation and mystery. In Blackdog I think it also has connections to ‘mental fug’ and not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, but ploughing on anyway.
WEIRD THING I DON’T GET
What on earth is a Big Jeffy, though? I expected to be rewarded with the answer after looking closely at the pictures, and I did see much earlier in the story a child’s sketch of Jeffy on the sideboard, but in the end I resorted to the internet and learned that Big Jeffy is off Sesame Street. His inclusion in this story puzzles me. Big Jeffy is a member of Little Jerry and the Monotones, supplying bass back-up for the group. He is considered to be the fourth member of the band. Maybe the author is a particular fan of Sesame Street and will reference a muppet in every picture book? Chris Van Allsburg puts a little white dog in all of his books. (It’s not even his own dog — it was his brother-in-law’s!) I haven’t read Pinfold’s other work so I can’t tell if they also include Sesame Street characters. Also, I wouldn’t be brave enough to try those guys on copyright. It’s possible that Pinfold’s Big Jeffy has no connection to the minor Sesame Street character at all.
To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Once by Maurice Gleitzman, an Australian middle grade novel by one of our best known children’s book authors, I’m going to take a close look at it using the 7-step story structure which applies to pretty much everything from advertisements to picture books to novels.
The Redemptive Power Of Literature
This is also a story about the Redemptive Power of Literature, about how creating your own stories in the midst of terror can get you through tough times. This is a common theme in MG fiction and it sells pretty well, perhaps because people buying the bulk of books love stories which are about the greatness of books. (Our picture book app The Artifacts is another example, as is The Amazing Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore app by Moonbot Studios.) We know that Felix’s family is ‘Good’ because they owned a bookshop. The mother cared more about books than about clothes, which is what the former bookshop has become since it was taken over by Nazi Germans. (Subtext: Books = depth of emotion, clothes = surface/superficiality/image.) The boy whose family now owns his old book shop even used to wipe his bogeys on the pages of books, which is a concise way of building an ignorant, uncouth character who we know not to identify with. The nun who shelters Felix, too, is a book lover who never had anything bad to say about a book.
On the other hand, books which glorify books can sound a bit insular and twee — Felix has been a big reader, but the downside of this attribute is also shown; Felix learned how to tell if something is dead out of a book, yet he has no street smarts. He’s all knowledge, no clues.
Necessary Prior Knowledge
The reader needs to know the very basics of WW2 — that Nazis killed Jews in Poland. Even then, younger readers without this knowledge will travel through the story with the same level of naivety of Felix, and undergo an historical revelation at the same time Felix discovers the truth. In other words, young readers will respond differently to this book depending upon this prior knowledge.
Once by Morris Gleitzman is an excellent example of a MG story with an unreliable narrator. The reader is given enough information within the first few chapters to know that Felix is a Jewish boy living in Poland during the Nazi era and his life is in danger. Poor, naive Felix knows something fishy is going on but he hasn’t got his facts quite right: he thinks the Germans are after his Jewish parents because they don’t like the books they sell in their shop. He doesn’t know about the plan to rid the world of Jews.
The book is written from the first person point of view and in the present tense. The linguistic trick which is repeated: Every chapter opens with the titular word ‘Once’. Maria Nikolajeva, when writing about children’s literature in From Mythic To Linear: Time In Children’s Literature breaks prose in children’s books into two distinct categories according to the treatment of time:
1. The iterative — In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening.
2. The singulative — In a singulative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening happened in this one story.
Whereas the iterative is associated with the phrase ‘Once upon a time’ (there lived three bears in a cottage…), by truncating this fairytale opening to ‘Once’, Gleitzman plunges the reader straight into the singular — the events in this book happened one time, to one boy. Yet the fairytale quality is still there: This happened long ago. The storyteller narrator is now much older, and is deliberately toying with us, letting us in on the joke of the dramatic irony.
It’s therefore a great choice to switch to the present tense after the single, past tense sentence that opens every chapter. A story written by an unreliable narrator — but one who has since learned the truth — would have no reason not to simply tell the reader the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But the present tense voice is youthful, it takes the narrator himself right back to 1942, and the reader now feels as if the boy is telling us the story rather than the hypothetical old man who is a famous author running a cake shop in 1983. Whereas the opening sentence of each chapter is quite long, the present tense voice is almost staccato, and reads like a Paul Jennings story, with mostly very short sentences.
There is also a thematic reason for the word ‘Once’, which has its counterpoint on the dedication page:
For all the children whose stories have never been told.
In other words, this particular story only happened once to this one boy, but this sort of story has happened so many times over the course of history that the ‘once’ becomes an ironic counterpoint.
On the inside of the back cover we read:
Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.
This is truncated from the part where Barney buys Felix some secondhand books with three precious turnips and justifies them by saying everybody deserves something good in their life at least once.
There is a juxtaposition between the dire situation of Hitler’s eugenics regime and the voice of our narrator which, because of his naivety, feels justified.
The Main Character
Felix is immediately likeable, which is important in a character who is basically clueless. This is like the MG equivalent of a picture book like Rosie’s Walk — he’s walking around in extreme danger of being shot but narrowly avoids it at every turn.
Likeable child heroes stand up for other children. We see Felix do just that in the opening pages. Likeable heroes are generally the underdog, which is also by far the most common stock character in comedies for adults, too. We like to see underdogs get into and out of scrapes. On the road, he even saves a girl by carrying her on his back. Boys are even more likeable if they rescue girls than if they rescue other boys — a narrative we also saw in the aftermath of 9/11, which Susan Faludi points out in her book Terror Dream, became the dominant narrative — male firefighters saving women and children — and plunged America back into a mindset which glamorised the gender dynamic of the 1950s that exists mostly in our collective imagination.
Felix becomes even more likeable as we see that Zelda, the little girl he has rescued, behaves like a spoilt brat, with some stock brat behaviours such as sticking out her bottom lip, being ungrateful to Felix who has saved her, and turning Felix’s story around to be about her. She complains about Felix’s smelly hat, as prissy girls do.
An audience also loves trickster characters. There’s an element of Felix getting away with something by pretending to be an orphan when he’s not. (At least, he thinks he’s pretending, and we hope so, too.)
Seven Step Story Structure of Once
As in the best MG stories, the weakness/need, desire and opponent are all established within the first few pages.
Felix is naive. This is going to endanger his life, because if he knew what was good for him, he’d stay where he is, sheltered in the Catholic orphanage in the mountains of Poland. Naivety is a pretty common weakness in MG heroes.
In order to live a good life, Felix must learn the truth of his situation.
It has been more than 3 years since his parents left him in the orphanage and his great desire is to be reunited with them.
The opponents are the Nazis, not that Felix knows this. However, the reader knows this, which is enough.
The inciting incident happens on the first page. Felix finds a whole carrot floating in his soup. He takes this as some sort of sign from his parents. He will break out of the orphanage, go back to his house in the village and find his parents working in their bookshop.
He finds that when he gets to the bookshop his parents are no longer living there.
The battle is often a three part affair: gate, gauntlet, visit to death.
The gate scenes happen as the two children walk to the city, where they come across death and destruction everywhere. The image of the dead old lady is resonant, especially since Felix wants to carry her on his back as well as Zelda but doesn’t have the capacity.
There is a really clear gauntlet scene as the children walk into the city. There are soldiers lining the street and Gleitzman paints a really clear picture:
The wide streets are dirty and the tall buildings, five levels high some of them, have all got Nazi flags hanging off the balconies and out of the windows. Army trucks and tanks are parked everywhere and lots of soldiers are standing around telling each other foreign jokes and laughing.
Then there is an actual gate:
We’re heading for a big brick wall right across the street. That’s a very strange place to build a wall. There’s a gate in the wall with soldiers guarding it and the people ahead of us are going through the gate.
The visit to death is where Felix has the revelation that things are much worse than he thought:
What was that noise?
Everyone is screaming.
Over by the wall two people are lying on the ground bleeding.
Zelda is taken away from Felix at gunpoint and he winds up on the ground. This is a clear ‘visit to death’.
He is saved by a large man in ‘scuffed’ attire. This reminds me of stories such as the Grimm Brothers’ version of Little Red Riding Hood in which a large man rides in to save the child from the beast. It’s generally a good idea to have kids find their own way out of trouble, but in a situation such as this that would be unrealistic. Also, the young hero’s entire desire is to find his parents and save them. Being saved by a large man emphasises how powerless he really is compared to how much he thinks he can achieve. He thinks that if only his parents hadn’t put him in an orphanage he would have been able to save them somehow.
It’s worth noting that later, in the dire situation in the train, on their way to the Death Camp, it is indeed Felix who saves everyone, though inadvertently. He literally saves the day with his book of stories by generously donating the notebook as toilet paper, which he tries to hang on a bolt of the wall, then realises the boards are rotten and they can all escape. The other take home point there is that the earlier battle scene wasn’t actually the most dire. Gleitzman really does get our hero into the worst situation before he comes good.
In the face of evidence everywhere, Felix eventually works out what has probably happened to his parents. There is no single epiphany — we see his psychological slump when he doesn’t want to tell the other children he meets up with his stories. They have a fairytale quality and he feels they’re irrelevant and pointless in the face of such doom. But he doesn’t lose hope entirely. When Barney tells Felix his parents might not ever be found, Felix is sure he is wrong.
There is an audience reveal near the end of the story too — Zelda’s parents are actually Polish Nazis who have been killed by the Polish resistance for being turncoats. This revelation adds some much needed gray area into a story about war. The problem with war stories is that the audience always roots for the hero. The enemy appears in ‘long shots’ — like the nemesis in superhero stories the enemy tends to be outright evil, and never victims of the same circumstance.
This part of the story has been truncated for the purpose of leaving the reader uncertain about Felix and Zelda’s future. “At least we get to choose,” Felix says, of the decision to either jump from the moving train or not. Likewise, the readers get to choose our own ending, and just enough detail is given about the cake shop scenario (an example of side shadowing) that readers can choose that as the story’s reality if they want to. When the story leaves off, however, Zelda and Felix are in the middle of nowhere, having jumped from a death camp train during wartime and Zelda is injured.
A further note on the ending: Just before the last third of the story we are encouraged to believe that Felix is not going to find his parents, but we’re fairly confident Barney the kind dentist will step in to be the parental figure. When Barney heads off towards the Death Camp with a pocket full of syringes this alternative ending we’ve been asked to consider makes the actual ending so much more sad. A similar technique is used in many tragedies, for example in the film Million Dollar Baby. In the hospital Maggie and Frankie discuss going to live in a cabin somewhere in the woods where Frankie will be able to immerse himself in his books while looking after Maggie. Because this alternative ending has been posed, Maggie’s death seems all the more of a shock. The story craft lesson here: In order to get the most emotion out of a sad ending, make sure you pose an alternative, happy ending first, whether this is done overtly (as in the dialogue of Million Dollar Baby), or subtly, as books are better able to do.
And a further note on the character of Barney: This is a rare example of a an adult male who displays emotion.
“I can feel Barney’s tears falling on me. For a while he doesn’t say anything, just strokes my head.”
This is great to see in a children’s book since they aren’t seeing it on the screen. As Howard Suber (film expert) quite rightly points out about movies:
Three kinds of people are allowed to express fear: children, women and men who will come to an unfortunate end. In all three cases, fear is a weakness that either requires someone else to do the job or is a kind of fatal flaw.
— Howard Suber, writing about film (also in 2006)
Although Once reads like a standalone book, it is actually the first of a four part series. So readers do in fact get to know what happens to Felix and Zelda next.
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