A comparison between Mo Willems’ Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus! and another from the same series, The Pigeon Wants A Puppy, highlights certain shared comedy writing techniques found in both.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Directly addressing the young reader
A main character who eventually tries to trick the reader
A battle scene featuring a tantrum
A circular ending
STORY STRUCTURE OF DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS!
Pigeon is only a pigeon and is not to be trusted doing human things (even though he or she speaks English).
This weakness is connected to pigeon’s Desire, which is to drive a bus.
The adult Opponent within the world of the story is the bus driver who, before the title page, has told the reader that he’s just popping out for a few moments — could the reader please not let the pigeon drive the bus while he’s away?
This is funny in its own right because it suggests the pigeon has previously done just this. And the thought bubble coming out of pigeon’s head on the front papers suggests memory, not just wishes, in light of this fact.
But with the bus driver gone, Willems turns the reader into Pigeon’s Opposition, as is the case in Pigeon Wants A Puppy. In this story, the pigeon pleads with the reader and the reader (hopefully) is on side with the authority figure and knows not to say yes.
Pigeon’s plan is to make a case with the reader:
They will be careful.
They have a cousin who drives a bus. We extrapolate that Pigeon would therefore be excellent at it.
A sob story: “I never get to do anything!”
Next, Pigeon tries to trick the reader into playing a ‘game’ which is presumably driving the bus for real.
Finally, ending this sequence, four ‘pages’ per page, each with a new reason for letting Pigeon drive the bus speeds up the pace and suggests Pigeon goes on and on about this for ages.
Pigeon throws a tantrum. Pigeon also threw a tantrum in The Pigeon Wants A Puppy. Big letters are scrawled across the page. Feathers float off (which kind of look like droplets of sweat — because I have anthropomorphised Pigeon).
We never know exactly what Pigeon is thinking after that because the ‘speech bubble’ is an angry scribble. But Pigeon looks resigned and downcast. Pigeon has the revelation that this is not going to happen.
This is confirmed when the bus driver returns and Pigeon has still not had a go at the wheel.
But this is another circular plot and once the bus drives off, a big, red truck comes along. Pigeon decides they would like to drive that. No words are used for this — just another thought bubble. This time, Pigeon stands on the other side of the page (the right side). This creates a visual ending to THIS particular story.
The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems is one of my daughter’s favourite books. The Pigeon books are similar to the Elephant and Piggie books in graphic design and in humour.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE PIGEON WANTS A PUPPY
When I read this quote from the author/illustrator I knew that Willems thinks of story in the same way I do:
I don’t know if I can explain him — I can describe him. Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants, he thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the injustice of it all. And the irony is that the kids who are usually suffering the injustice of it all, the kids who are being told when to go to bed, or what to do, or to eat, or how to eat, or how to dress — the second they get to stick it to the pigeon, they do.
I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental, deep questions: What is love? Why are things the way they are? Why can’t I get what I want? Why can’t I drive a bus? I mean, you know, Sophocles.
The desire is right there in the title. Perhaps not much more needs saying.
Oh, except note how masterfully Willems has connected Desire to Weakness. This is always the best form of Desire in a story, returning the best results: Pigeon desires a puppy because he fails to do his research and understand consequences. He acts on his whims.
Note also: Willems is really ramming home the Desire line. There’s much humour in this because of pigeon’s complete lack of self-awareness. Of course he hasn’t wanted a puppy ‘for ages’. He’s decided right then and there. (If we didn’t already suspect that, we learn it by the end.)
By the way, the image on the colophon page perfectly illustrates how Willems may have brainstormed this series. We see list unwinding, headed “Things I Want”:
Drive a bus!
Eat a hot dog all by myself!
Stay up late!
A big, red truck!
A driver’s license!
This list encapsulates pigeon’s whimsical desires at the centre of other books in the series — a comedic mixture of childlike (big, red truck) and mature (real estate).
The main opposition is the puppy, who stands in direct opposition to Pigeon’s desire because she doesn’t live up to Pigeon’s idealised conception of what a puppy would be.
In this way, the Opponent of The Pigeon Wants A Puppy is similar to the opponent in a crime story because the audience doesn’t see the villain until the big reveal near the end. There’s no crime here, of course. But the storytelling problem is the same: The storyteller must really build up the opposition
to create payoff at the end
to give the main part of the story its narrative drive
What crime writers do: Create other opponents along the way, much like mythic structure. Opponents apart from the main one, that is. (Family, colleagues, uncooperative politicians who won’t hand over the information you need etc.)
How has Willems created extra opposition, apart from the unseen ironic ‘villain’ of the puppy? Yep, he makes THE READER part of the pigeon’s web of opposition. It’s masterful. Willems achieves this by using the narrative technique of direct address.
Pigeon has a Plan which demonstrates to the reader, in audience superior position, that Pigeon has NO idea what a puppy even is. Pigeon plans to:
water it once a month
go for piggyback rides on its back
play tennis with it
Notice how Willems made use of the Rule of Three— three specific things Pigeon plans to do with a new puppy.
In picture books the Battle tends to comprise a large proportion of the total story. It tends to be a Battle Sequence.
Set up (how much Pigeon wants the puppy and how he is wrong about puppies)
Escalation (Woof! What’s that? Woof! Woof!)
Climax/Low Point (Pigeon gets scared half to death by a massive puppy head coming onto the page — by the way, notice how Pigeon is now facing backwards, opposite to the turn of the page? He has had a shock — this is common picture book convention.)
Resolution (what I’d call the Self-revelation, though this may be a better word for it, since so often there is no Self-revelation)
Wink (the reader knows this exact scenario will play out twice)
(For more on the Battle sequence and the forms it tends to take in picture books, see my post on Battles in Storytelling.)
“Really, I had no idea!”
The comedic thing about this particular Self-revelation: Pigeon is unable to generalise learning to new situations. He (or she) learns that PUPPIES are not as expected but fails to learn that maybe WALRUSES won’t be, either.
I recently read We Learn Nothing — essays by Tim Kreider and I believe it’s more common we learn nothing than learn something, in fact. No life lesson is learned. Just a very specific one. In this respect, Pigeon is identical to Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug, who learns a very specific aspect of Not Being An Asshole in every book, but there are so many different ways of being an asshole an entire series has been generated from Pig’s assholery.
At the end — ‘the wink’ — Pigeon wants another wholly unsuitable pet. This makes the story a circular plot, ending where it began with slightly different variables, w swapped out for p.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS
The front cover says ‘pictures’. Is this simply because toddlers will understand ‘pictures’ but may not understand ‘illustrations’? I suspect there’s more to it than that — these are perhaps better described as pictures.
Every single thing in these minimalist picture books is there because it carries meaning. There is no background detail. These are stories about plot (centred on character) — they are not the sort of books in which the reader is invited to linger, enjoying the environment e.g. Blackdog by Levi Pinfold or anything by Shaun Tan.
It’s ultimately reductive, but my sort of cheat sheet is: If you were to look at all of my drawings [for a book] without any words and understand it, then there are too many drawings. The drawings are too detailed. And if you were to read the entire manuscript and it made sense, then there are too many words.
So it’s that marriage, that very delicate marriage between words and pictures, and then that marriage between author and audience where the audience is creating so much of the meaning. So my job is to create incomprehensible books for illiterates.
Other techniques derive from comic book convention, for instance the love hearts all around the speech bubble.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH BABYMOUSE: PUPPY LOVE
The Puppy Love book of the Babymouse series by Jennier and Matthew Holm has a similar plot structure but expanded into a middle grade graphic novel length. Babymouse goes through a series of pets but proves an unreliable owner. Each of her pets escapes. Eventually a stray dog turns up. Owning a dog is not what she hoped it would be. The dog gets up to mischief, first chewing her shoes and clothes, then chewing her entire room.
The story ends when the dog’s owner comes to get it. (Behind the scenes the mother must have put out the word about finding a lost dog.) The plot reveal is that the dog is a girl, not a boy as Babymouse had assumed.
In an ideal world this would not be a reveal, but studies have shown that animal characters are automatically coded male unless given an obvious feminine marker, such as the bow Babymouse herself wears on her forehead. So this ending asks readers to perhaps not assume, next time, that an animal who gets up to mischief MUST be male.
The other interesting thing about Babymouse is how every character in the story is an animal. Babymouse, her family and classmates are all animals, but in shape only. They are otherwise completely human. But animals who behave like regular animals also exist in the story. Of course, no explanation is given for this, and I doubt the typical reader would even think about it.
This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at a story so simple you’d wonder how it could include all seven steps. Yet it does, between words and pictures. Today’s picture book is The Chicken Book by Garth Williams, first published in 1946.
This makes The Chicken Book an example of literature which emerged between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, when the publishing industry very much took a back seat to other world events. Namely, Garth Williams wrote and illustrated The Chicken Book at the end of the second World War.
The ideology of this story is more typical of the pre-war period. Child characters from the first golden age were self-sufficient, free-range and healthy and robust. The chicks (child stand ins) are not like that at first, but are chided accordingly and end up self-sufficient by the end. It’s basically a celebration of Puritan work ethic. During the wars, there was no room for anyone to take it easy. It was all hands to the pump. Women were seconded to do ‘men’s jobs’ (and didn’t easily retire to the home once the war was over, either.) With mothers out working in bullet factories and whatnot, the war era child was required to pull their own weight within the family. These chicks are wartime chicks.
Garth Williams is a standout illustrator of American children’s books. He illustrated Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web, so his work is still widely seen. His father was a cartoonist and his mother was a landscape painter, so it’s no surprise he combined those interests and ended up in children’s books. He also studied architecture, and brought his drafting skills into his illustrative work. The Chicken Book is one of his first works from a prolific career, and the first as both writer and illustrator.
The less we know about the man himself, the better we can enjoy his legacy. There is a surprising number of people who’ve made outstanding work for children yet in their personal lives were hardly upstanding citizens. Obituaries contain the glowing bits, so here’s a link to that, from 1996.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHICKEN BOOK
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
There is an entire brood of main characters in this picture book, but they are all identical. They are siblings and they look the same. They behave the same. For story purposes, this book has one main character — a chicken.
The other question to ask here: What is wrong with them?
They’re a bit lazy, or haven’t yet learned to do for themselves.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
They all want food. Sure, they each want something slightly different — one even wants a piece of gravel for some reason. But basically they want something to peck and munch.
If The Chicken Book were a longer story an outside opponent would be necessary, but this is one of those super short narratives which gets away with ‘the main character is their own biggest enemy’.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Since these chicks are by their nature passive, they have no plan. That’s the entire problem. They literally just stand there and do nothing.
When your main character has no plan, someone else in the story has to make a plan for them. (It’s the mother who makes the plan.)
Because Garth Williams places his ‘camera’ near the ground, when the mother hen turns up she’s formidable. When she tells the chicks to go ahead and scratch it feels like a telling off — at least, that’s how it felt as child reader. The Big Battle is the mother glaring at the chicks while standing over them.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
When the chicks scratch they immediately find their hearts’ desire.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
This phase is omitted from the story because we can extrapolate on our own: We know that the chicks will keep scratching and finding good things to eat.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST THE CHICKEN BOOK
After The Fall is another example of a main character whose biggest opponent is themselves, although in Dan Santat’s book, Humpty’s anxiety is almost turned into a separate entity.
England’s Enid Blyton is an example of a children’s author who was writing and publishing prolifically all through this world war period of the 20th century. Notably, Enid Blyton makes no direct reference to war, anywhere. For her, writing was an escape, and her stories provided an escape for her young readers equally. In The Chicken Book, America’s Garth Williams has created a utopian version of an American farm, in which food is plentiful if only you know how to look for it.
You might also compare the original printing with a later one from the 1970s, in which printing technologies now allowed mass printing of highly coloured double spreads. My version, printed in the 1970s, is the full-coloured version. Printing technologies have made further advances since then.
Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.
BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.
I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!
There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.
The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.
Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).
I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie logline sounds okay on paper: “After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”, but tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.
Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?
STORY STRUCTURE OF CHICKEN LITTLE
This is a cumulative tale — you know, the kind you get sick of reading to your kid unless the wordplay is excellent. The ending is tragic, depending on how kind you feel towards foxes. In any cases, we’re not really encouraged to empathise with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them. I’m sure the characterisation of this tale has something to do with the fact that humans have a long history of eating birds but not foxes. Continue reading “Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror”
Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) to the Netflix adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The author’s voice and politics come through loud and clear.
Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.
In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.
A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.
The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)
The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.
The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.
This storyworld is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.
“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.
A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale storyworld and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.
Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.
We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.
Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.
This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the storyworld and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.
Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.
Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”
The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.
When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.
A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.
Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.
Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?
The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.
When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.
It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.
Serena is an example of a film in which the production values and acting talent far exceed the final product. Serena’s obvious symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue make for a film that’s narratively sub-par, but for students of storytelling it’s an interesting case study.
The name ‘Serena’ is meaningful — although the character comports herself serenely in public and in front of her own husband (at least until the novelty of the relationship has worn off) she has a dark underside which we just know is going to come out sooner or later. We’ve heard about her from the gossipy woman at the hunting meet.
Who is the (tragic) hero of this story? The question is always: Who changes the most over the course of the story? In which case, the answer is both George and Serena. Their relationship is the main character. George becomes Serena and vice versa, symbolised very obviously during the blood transfusion scene in which George is giving his blood to Serena after her haemorrhage. (Hollywood politics are such — and the gender pay gap is such — that Jennifer Lawrence famously got second billing in this film. Bradley Cooper has since come out and said he will share his contract details with female costars in future to help with them bargain better with movie bosses who don’t believe in equality.)
In 1920s America the character of Serena is a very unusual woman. She expects her husband’s right-hand man to shake her hand (something even modern men don’t even know whether to do or not with women). She doesn’t seem like an enlightened feminist of the first wave, though, either. She pits herself in direct opposition to the Hillary Swank type woman (Rachel) who, at the story’s beginning, George has already gotten pregnant.
Serena and Rachel are Betty and Veronica types. Casting usually ends up with contrasting hair colours for women. Men can all have the exact same hair colour and skin tone (white) and we’re expected to look at their personalities, but female actors playing in opposition to each other are expected to change the colour of their hair. We do, however, have a red-headed man in this who plays a part in George and Serena’s downfall by taking the incriminating ledger books from the safe.
Serena knows from her father’s logging business in Colorado that eagles are useful. They kill snakes, which protects the men. Serena makes a name for herself by becoming the eagle lady, importing a trained eagle (trained by a woman, she specifies) to carry out this exact job. What is the symbolism of the eagle? Could it be that the writer wants us to think of Serena as a harpy — a half eagle, half woman chimera, who swoops in seemingly ‘on the wind’ (though actually on a train). Harpies steal food from their victims while they are eating and carry evildoers (especially those who have killed their family) to the Erinyes (a.k.a. The Furies). Their name means “snatchers”.
We know early on that fire is symbolic. There is much fiddling around with cigarettes and lighters and sitting in front of fires, gazing into them. So it’s no surprise really when it is revealed that Serena bears a scar — an outward manifestation of her psychic wound — on her back. George washes her lovingly in the bath. She tells him, and us of course, the event which wounded her — as a child her house burned down. As she ran away she heard the screaming of all her younger siblings, all of whom burned to death in the fire.
Anyone who has read We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson may wonder if it was Serena who set the original fire in the first place. Apparently it is strongly implied in the Serena novel that she set the fire in order to end up sole heir. I suspect this story owes quite a bit to Jackson.
The characters are all archetypes rather than rounded. If Serena is a mysterious beautiful woman who flies into town — a modern harpy with an obvious wound which has somehow made her sociopathic. George is a ruthless business man who — I think — we’re still supposed to side with, because he tells us at the town hall that he cares for the jobs of his men. Rachel is a poor country girl whose only way out of abject poverty is to hang around George until he feels guilty enough to hand her money. Buchanan is possibly a closeted and frustrated gay man who is betrayed by his love interest’s getting married. The characters get more archetypal as we move further out from George. A character straight out of a horror film is of course Galloway, whose mother told him as a child that a woman would save his life. When Serena sort of saves him after his hand gets axed he is convinced not only that it’s her, but actually knocks on her front door to tell her husband that he is indebted to her and is in her service forever. It just so happens that he’s been in prison for murder. “He had it coming.”
“He had it coming” is exactly the sort of uninspiring snippets of dialogue found throughout the film. “I have your child inside me,” Serena says to George, upping the stakes when their ‘future’ is at risk. Dialogue exists almost solely to tell the audience what should already be clear: “It’s so obvious now. My friend was never my friend,” says George after Serena and all of the entire audience has already worked that out. After describing the lethal fire of her childhood Serena finishes up with, “After that day I swore that I would never love anyone ever again. I can’t lose you.” Likewise, when Rachel Hermann asks for her job back we are told “If she don’t get a job her and that boy will starve.” With the most rudimentary of historical contexts we already know what a dire predicament Rachel is in, with no social welfare and no husband to support her.
At the end there is a chase scene, as the horror-figure of Galloway is determined to carry out the murder of Rachel and Jacob on Serena’s behalf. Miraculously, George finds Rachel and Jacob hiding at the exact same time Galloway does. He is able to fight him to the death right then and there in the climactic battle scene. Another coincidence of timing happens when George is killed by the panther, who might as well be fighting on a stage — all of the men out looking for him arrive just at that exact moment. These coincidences lend a very Old West air to the story. In Westerns symbolism is everything and we don’t question it.
The photo album allows the audience to see into George’s head. We can see him extend allegiance from Serena to Rachel. Did we really need such obvious visuals? The photo album I can stomach. When George actually places the loose photograph of his son on top of his own childhood photo, that’s when I groaned.
Advertising copy for this film usually says something like George’s trouble began when he married Serena. I would encourage people not to take this at face value. It’s often the case that advertising material for a film is more misogynistic than the story itself, which has the benefit of depth and layers. It is certainly not the case that Serena was the cause of George’s problems. He had already abandoned a woman he impregnated in favour of a more sophisticated one with the potential to add expertise to his precarious fortune. He killed his right-hand man without any help from Serena. This is in fact the story of two disturbed individuals whose union made each of them worse.
This is not necessarily easy for women to watch, even though it has been dismissed as a mere ‘chick flick’ by amateur reviewers on IMDb. The women do not talk to each other — in fact one of them is decidedly laconic, in a way that George finds strangely appealing. Both women are motived singularly by their relationship to a man and even the woman at the beginning is a gossipy stereotype who, in Pride and Prejudice fashion, ends up throwing Serena and George together while meaning to do the exact opposite. Serena absolutely falls apart when she discovers she cannot procreate, despite being invested in and motivated by the logging business. A more nuanced story might see her eventually throw her energies into that as a way of moving forward. That’s not what this is, of course. This was always meant to be a tragedy and I have no criticism for that. Instead I’m sick of the same old female tropes, and dismiss it therefore as a film for and about women.
The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling episode of Courage reminds me of a type of picture book in which a cute character (often an annoying younger brother or sister) gets away with doing mean things behind the parents’ back. This must be a common family dynamic because I remember my own younger brother hamming up the cuteness in a way the adults didn’t seem to notice!
I’m reminded in particular of a picture book from the 1980s which I cannot find — perhaps it’s out of print. It’s about a girl called Caroline who does all sorts of naughty things. But was it really Caroline? “No, not Caroline, adorable sweet Caroline!” It stands out vividly to me because there was a girl called Caroline in my Standard 1 class who giggled and giggled whenever the teacher read it to the class. I remember wishing there was a picture book starring me, but I have yet to find a single children’s book with a character named Lynley.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ThePrecious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling
Courage is kind, and this comes back to bite him in ThePrecious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling. He rescues an egg which has been abandoned. We watch the flock fly across the sky. Initially our empathy for this left-behind egg are aroused. We’re half expecting an Ugly Duckling tale a la Hans Christian Andersen.
At first the opponent is Eustace, who thinks the egg is for his breakfast.
But when he cracks the egg into the pan and a chicken plops out, the chick immediately falls in love with Eustace. This is making use of the well-known phenomenon in which a duckling falls in love with whoever nurtures it. Taken to an extreme, this duckling falls madly in love at first sight, to the exclusion of all else. Muriel and Courage are immediate enemies.
This reminds me of writing advice from Elizabeth Lyons who in her book Manuscript Makeover says that readers are like ducklings — we fall in love with the first character we see. That very much works in this episode — Courage is the first character we see and we are definitely on his side.
The duckling takes great care of Eustace, putting on his slippers, fanning him while he sleeps, smashing Muriel’s cup of tea and replacing it with a more lavish tray.
Courage is soon given a broken leg by this cute little duckling but plans to talk to him about being naughty around the house. Courage gives the duckling a lecture about not throwing cups of tea onto the rug. (We don’t hear the words, just a mumbly sound.)
The duckling doubles down.
The battle sequence is a real Tom and Jerry escapade which takes place inside the house. This is a truly evil duckling who wants to murder Muriel and disable Courage. Courage must save Muriel, who has no idea that the duckling has another side to him.
It all culminates in the basement, where the duckling has built a rocket in order to send Muriel into space. He gets his own wing stuck in the door. Courage manages to save Muriel by gnawing away at the rope tying her to the outside.
Muriel’s revelation is that the duckling is bad after all.
The bad characters in this are duly punished, so the message to the reader is that badly behaved characters end badly.
(I would say that this is the most satisfying way to end episodes of a comedy like this, but is not reflective of real life.)
Instead of Muriel, Eustace and the Duckling end up on the moon together. The duckling is very happy about this. It’s what he’s wanted all along.
Duck Cakes For Sale from 1989 is an example of the circular story, in which the picture book ends, but we suspect exactly the same thing is going to happen again, because the main character hasn’t had a self-revelation. Like a Chekhovian short story, picture books often elicit the revelation from the young reader; the character remains unchanged, much like a sit-come character. Continue reading “Duck Cakes For Sale by Janet Lunn and Kim LaFave”
Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Könnecke is a great book for parents who would like to teach their kids The Magic of Reality (as expressed by Richard Dawkins and others).
Written and illustrated by a German picturebook maker, this was translated by New Zealand’s Gecko Press.
Anton Can Do Magic is part of a trilogy (The Anton Saga):
Anton and the Girls (2004)
Anton Can Do Magic (2006)
Anton’s Secret (2007)
As far as I know, only this one has been translated into English by Gecko.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ANTON CAN DO MAGIC
Anton’s weakness becomes clear only as the story progresses and we see he is easily duped and overconfident.
Anton wishes to impress his friends by performing a real magic trick. This desire is made clear even before the story begins, on the interior title page, where we see Anton gazing up at a poster of a famous (we assume) magician.
The reader is addressed as one such friend, and from the first page we are told, ‘Here comes Anton. Anton has a magic hat. A real one.’ We are invited to believe it. On the following page:
Anton wants to do some magic. He wants to make something disappear.
This little bird with a mind of its own may ruin Anton’s magic trick and the stakes are upped when ‘the girls’ come along, since boys are especially keen on impressing girls.
But the bird turns out to be a false-enemy ally, or we might consider the bird to have no motivations whatsoever. The bird simply flits around. This is a ‘real’ bird rather than a storybook bird who wears clothes.
A better opponent is Luke, the boy who doesn’t believe that Anton can do magic. There’s more at stake when the opponent is human, because there’s a chance Anton will be humiliated. The reader does not want him to be humiliated, no matter how silly he is.
Often in stories the initial plan does not work and needs to be modified.
Anton stares at the tree.
Then he does some magic.
When this doesn’t work he changes his plan slightly. He’ll try something smaller. The bird.
The battle scene is the bit where three children are waiting for Anton to produce the missing bird.
Anton produces the bird from under the hat and wins the battle, as well as the respect of the three children.
This is a Chekhovian story in that the main character is not the one who undergoes the revelation — Anton walks off the page at the end of the story and as far as he knows, he has made a bird appear. But the reader knows differently. We learn that although sometimes something appears to be magic, but it is really just coincidence and circumstance.
The final image shows us that Greta is happy to have her bird back, Luke is trying to do his own magic with the flower in his little pot, and Anton is satisfied.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST ANTON CAN DO MAGIC
When the child is a few years older, it’s time for this book. (Yes, much could be said about Richard Dawkins and all the junk that comes out of his Twitter feed, but I have to say it, this book is excellent.)