The Cider Duck (1969) is an Australian picture book written by Joan Woodberry and illustrated by Molly Stephens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR
Joan Woodberry (1921-2010) was an influential, widely-travelled Tasmanian feminist whose efforts made women’s lives palpably better in Tasmania.
Finding information on Molly Stephens is a little more difficult partly because she was also known as Molly Pascall, her birth name. The Cider Duck is perhaps the only published book she illustrated. It seems she was a fine artist and teacher the rest of the time. She may have liked cats? If it’s the same Molly Stephens, she left some of her estate to The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Like Joan, Molly was a teacher. She was born in 1920 and educated in England, as an artist, then after the war spent a while in Egypt. She then emigrated to Australia. She lived in Tasmania until her death in 1970, first in Smithton, then in Hobart. She specialised in portraits.
In short, both writer and illustrator were well-travelled women who lived through the 20th century wars. They both worked with children and settled in Tasmania. I’m guessing — though it’s just a guess — they knew each other and collaborated, unlike most writer/illustrator combos today, who are set up by the publisher and rarely meet until the job is done, if at all.
STORYWORLD OF THE CIDER DUCK
The reader is left in no doubt about the setting:
When? 1832, conveyed as intratext across the bridge. Night time.
Where? The Eider Duck Inn, Richmond, Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania), Australia. Richmond is not far from Hobart, to the NNE. I’m not sure if The Eider Duck Inn was a real place — let me know if you have the answer.
Weather: windy, rainy, with lightning.
Pictured above is The Richmond Bridge.
The Richmond Bridge is a heritage listed arch bridge located on the B31 (“Convict Trail”) in Richmond, 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) north of Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. It is the oldest stone span bridge in Australia.
Well, the duck gets drunk. Drunk on fermented apples, to be specific. This isn’t on the page, but deduced after she wanders into the kitchen and ‘falls asleep’ so soundly that she doesn’t notice all of her feathers being plucked out. Because she is drunk she is powerless to stop it.
I figure this duck had a brush with death by alcohol poisoning. The child audience believes the little duck is gloriously happy frolicking about in the utopian world of wind-fallen fruit, finally getting so tired she simply nods off.
All the duck wants is to walk about eating delicious things.
We assume she does not want to be eaten herself. But she’s out to it. Instead, this desire is transferred to the child audience, now reading a harrowing story about a duck who’s about to get cooked.
The duck is more duck-like than human-like, though we are to believe the duck has human emotions (such as pride, in the end). Therefore, the plot revelation is had by the human main character — the ‘kind hostess’ realises the duck wasn’t dead at all. It was simply asleep.
So the duck’s opponent also functions as the human proxy after this harrowing near-death experience.
To make amends, the hostess knits jumpers for the duck — one for every day of the week. Here I am reminded that the creators of this book had pedagogical interests — this sequence feels like an overt exercise in teaching young children the days of the week.
We see the teaching of the days of the week in a Little Golden Book from around the same era — The Tawny Scrawny Lion. This was also the era of ‘animals who aren’t quite animals but aren’t quite human, either’.
By the time The Cider Duck was published, half a century had passed since Beatrix Potter, but Potter’s influence remained strong. Reading these stories today, they seem horrific. Sure, the animals seem to live in utopias with beautiful forests full of food, but death lurks behind every corner. There may be food on the ground just waiting for you to enjoy it, but you yourself are food for someone else.
The modern reader may find the plucking scene disturbing in itself.
Live plucking causes birds considerable pain and distress. Once their feathers are ripped out, many of the birds, paralyzed with fear, are left with gaping wounds—some even die as a result of the procedure.
But in this book from 1969 we are to imagine being plucked as akin to taking one’s clothes off. This is therefore not the Battle scene of the plot.
For that we get a trope borrowed from cosmic horror. I’ve recently seen this trope given a name: ‘Spatial Horror’.
When the Cider Duck wakes up and doesn’t know where she is, she is completely disoriented and falls into a dark hole. (Actually off the table.)
I’d offer this is a picture book example of spatial horror. It also marks the end of the Battle sequence.
The Self-revelation phases gives way to the utopian world of the apple orchard. The duck is basically famous now, for her ability to escape death. She becomes a local celebrity.
The anagnorisis in this story is implicit — after admiring herself in jumpers, the duck seems to realise her value. The humans will not eat her, because they have welcomed her into the human world, removing her from the menu. She must realise at some point that she is safe.
The Cider Duck becomes the mascot for the inn. This is her job now.
This is a different take on the rags-to-riches tale — it’s the menu-to-mascot tale.
What can I say about “The Scarlet Ibis” that isn’t on Wikipedia? This 1960 short story is loved by English teachers because of its clear literary symbols — a good introduction to symbolism, especially to colour symbolism.
Students can be highly suspicious of close reading when teachers talk about colours and their symbolism. Colours can have multiple readings e.g. red can mean heat and anger but also love. So what’s the point, right?
Let’s take one step back. What even is a symbol? As shown by the ‘blue curtains’ meme in that post, sometimes a colour is simply an off-duty detail.
But the colour symbolism in “The Scarlet Ibis” is very much ‘on-duty’.
There is a good, watertight reason why Hurst’s older, wiser narrator sits in a green parlour, and here’s why.
Take the distinction between the youthful main character and his wiser, older narrator self, who I consider two separate characters (despite being simply the younger and older versions of the same person).
The older narrator barely resembles his younger self. This distinction — and his flipped sense of old man morality — is conveyed nicely in the opening paragraph via the complementary colours of red and green.
Summer was dead, but autumn had not yet been born when the ibis came to the bleeding tree. It’s strange that all this is so clear to me, now that time has had its way. But sometimes (like right now) I sit in the cool green parlor, and I remember Doodle.
Colour symbolism varies significantly between cultures and context, but red and green will always be opposite in a scientific sense — unlike many instances of colour symbolism, colour theory does not change from context to context, from culture to culture.
Complementary colours, in stories, can be unambiguous markers of inversion. In other words, something in the story has done a one-eighty.
Young narrator: immoral.
Older, wiser narrator telling this story after many years of reflection: moral.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE SCARLET IBIS”
Apart from peripheral parents there are two characters in this story — big brother, little brother. And, as mentioned above, the big brother has two alters — young character, older narrator.
Take note of the ways in which Hurst compares the children to old people:
Doodle was born when I was seven and was, from the start, a disappointment. He seemed all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man’s.
So I dragged him across the cotton field to share the beauty of Old Woman Swamp.
Alice Munro uses this technique a lot. She tends to write across a person’s entire life, in which a young woman is simultaneously an old woman, perhaps because the old woman is looking back. Yet the older woman is right there alongside the younger woman the entire time, affording the reader a compressed but also expanded sense of time. This has the effect of expanding time even within the brevity of the short story format.
Annie Proulx has a different way of achieving similar ends — Proulx tends to write inter-generationally — sometimes across three generations. Then she connects those characters to the landscape, focusing on the magnitude of the landscape, miniaturising the characters.
So what does Hurst achieve in this story, with mention of ‘old man’, ‘old woman’? Perhaps this story is an examination of culpability. Can the narrator’s younger self be excused for this reprehensible behaviour just because he was young? If he imagines himself as a person, simultaneously old and young — just a person — it is harder to justify his own actions. Hence the regretful, confessional tone.
WEAKNESS/NEED OF THE NARRATOR
Values The main character starts with a set of beliefs and values.
This is a story of the patriarchy, in which there is only one way to be a man: Strong, able-bodied and protective. The narrator learned this young. He has learned to be disgusted by anything that doesn’t fit this stereotype. When Doodle cries he is chastised by his father:
“What are you crying for?” asked Daddy, but I couldn’t answer. They didn’t know that I did it just for myself, that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.
It’s the crying itself that’s the problem, so far as the father’s concerned.
This is ultimately a story of remorse. The narrator doesn’t exactly paint a flattering portrait of himself as a young man. How reliable is he as a storyteller? How reliable is his memory? This story isn’t held up as an example of unreliable narration, but one way of reading this story is as a work of self-flagellation. Perhaps there is a lot of sibling guilt in here, guilt that might come with the knowledge that the brothers’ situations could easily have been flipped. It could have been the narrator with the health issues, not the brother. Anyone could think this at any time about anyone, but when it’s your sibling, it’s easier to imagine the flipped positions.
Flipped. Inverse. Opposite. Again with the complementary red and the green, you see.
There’s also embarrassment.
Doodle was five years old when I turned 13. I was embarrassed at having a brother of that age who couldn’t walk, so I set out to teach him.
I put it to you that the narrator has been culturally conditioned to believe that a person can do anything so long as they put their mind to it.
“Oh, yes, you can, Doodle. All you got to do is try.”
I’ve heard it said that this is an idea that exemplifies California. I’ve heard it come out of various actors’ mouths in interviews — they are where they are today because they worked really hard and they had a dream, and because they believed in the dream — like, REALLY believed it — the universe delivered!
This 2013 speech by Angelina Jolie garnered attention because she’s saying something too rarely hear from the one per cent: That she is where she is today largely because of… luck. Privilege. Random fortune of circumstance.
If we really believe anyone can do anything if only they set their mind to it, that can lead us to the following conclusion: If you’re living in poverty, homeless, desperate — well, you must have done something wrong. You deserve to be where you are.
If the narrator in “The Scarlet Ibis” can teach his brother to walk, this confirms such a view. He will also no longer be embarrassed by Doodle. He will also feel like Jesus.
Since I had succeeded in teaching Doodle to walk, I began to believe in my own infallibility.
There is inside me (and with sadness I have seen it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love. And at times I was mean to Doodle.
The first thing he does wrong:
One time I showed him his casket, telling him how we all believed he would die. When I made him touch the casket, he screamed. And even when we were outside in the bright sunshine he clung to me, crying, “Don’t leave me, Brother! Don’t leave me!”
Desire The main character comes up with a goal toward which all else is sacrificed.
The narrator wants Doodle to walk, for the reasons listed above.
This goal leads them into direct conflict with an opponent who has a differing set of values but the same goal.
This story isn’t about differing values. I’m confident Doodle would love to walk and run and do everything most other kids can. He simply cannot.
Or is it? Doodle knows to give up trying to run before the narrator does — probably not just out of pain — he knows, viscerally, that ‘trying hard’ won’t do jack. Sometimes it really is a matter of ‘can’t’, as in ‘permanently cannot’.
Drive The main character and the opponent take a series of actions to reach the goal.
The brothers go down to Old Woman Swamp and practise walking.
The immoral action is pushing Doodle way too far, causing him pain and physical damage.
In this particular short story there are only two characters, but also the third as I mention above — the much older narrator looking back. Via the psychological insights offered by this extradiegetic character, the same ends are achieved. In other words, the narrator himself guides the reader in our criticism of his younger self.
Justification: The main character tries to justify his actions. They may see the deeper truth and right of the situation at the end of the story, but not now.
Throughout the narration, the reader is given all the reasons why the narrator keeps going with his plan.
Attack by Ally The main character’s closest friend makes a strong case that the hero’s methods are wrong.
This is Doodle himself, not saying the narrator’s methods are wrong, but simply impossible.
Obsessive Drive Galvanised by new revelations about how to win, the main character becomes obsessed with reaching the goal and will do almost anything to succeed.
The parents are pleased with the narrator. The narrator feels less embarrassed. The younger brother looks up to big brother — his behaviours are positively reinforced. No wonder he keeps going.
The narrator pushes his brother beyond his limitations, and we know he isn’t going to back down.
Criticism: Attacks by other characters grow as well.
The father criticises the narrator for crying, though the criticism is for the crying, not for the immoral actions against Doodle. As far as the father is concerned, it’s great that Doodle can walk now.
It’s fully up to the reader to extrapolate that the narrator feels the way he does about Doodle because Doodle is failing to live up to society’s idea of a man. And that these ideas come down from their father.
Justification: The main character vehemently defends their own actions.Doodle was both tired and frightened.
He slipped on the mud and fell. I helped him up, and he smiled at me ashamedly. He had failed and we both knew it.He would never be like the other boys at school.
Battle The final conflict that decides the goal. Regardless of who wins, the audience learns which values and ideas are superior.
The big struggle is made more intense via the pathetic fallacy of the lightning storm.
The narrator must choose whether to run home through the rain and lightning, or to go back and help his own brother. He chooses to run without his brother. So he makes an immoral decision, according to common decency.
At that moment, the bird began to flutter. It tumbled down through the bleeding tree and landed at our feet with a thud. Its graceful neck jerked twice and then straightened out, and the bird was still. It lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and even death could not mar its beauty.
The reader realises before the young narrator does that beauty comes in many different forms. If the scarlet ibis can be beautiful even when it’s dead, why can’t the little brother be beautiful even with his physical disabilities? The older narrator knows that now. He leads the reader to realise this point before he makes his immoral decision to leave his own brother behind in the storm. We therefore judge him negatively, as he has judged himself.
The younger brother is dead; the older brother must live forever with the result of his decision. He immediately knows he chose wrongly.
Carson McCullers also wrote a story about two boys from the same family in which the older one abuses the younger. She wrote it when she was still a teenager herself. She called it “Sucker”.
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 big struggle 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 shortcoming 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.