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 have always been a favourite device for prophecy and warning from the bird with bright feathers carrying the millstone in “The Juniper Tree” to Poe’s Raven. Birds have less obvious physical presence than animals — they may fly away or disappear, and seem naturally proud and arbitrary. In reality they often look arrogant, gay, heartless or beautiful — they seldom look humble unless there is something wrong with them; and there seems to be an unwritten law that magic animals are ancient, powerful, experienced, educated and erudite. Birds have this look, whether heraldic or real, from the Gryphon to Dudu the raven in Mrs Molesworth’s The Tapestry Room (1879).
Mrs Molesworth was, indeed, the first writer to take such a bird out of a fairy tale and place it in what one feels to be the right setting — a contemporary one. The Cuckoo Clock, written in 1877, has in it a bird character who besides being very moral is there in the clock. The arbiter of time, punctuality, rules and rightness, he is also there in a different kind of reality, always heralded by ‘the faint coming sound’ and able to take the lonely child Griselda on magic adventures. The old moral tales took a long time to fade; the Cuckoo from the clock insists on Griselda’s doing as she is old, attending to her lessons and being patient. But he provides the companionship she needs until she is lonely no longer and he can turn once more to wood. He is stern, logical and philosophical.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Whereas dogs as companions in children’s literature tend to be true companions, when birds fill this role they tend to be more than friends — they’re more like ‘engineers of children’s fates’.
For another example of a bird in a short story from around this period, see The Griffin and the Minor Canon. In this story the Griffin is powerful and frightening enough to be almost a winged dragon. But it’s a humorous treatment compared to The Tapestry Room. This bird is as conceited as every fabulous bird ever conceived.
BIRDS IN FAIRYTALES
Once upon a time people believed that secret messages are contained in birdsong. Certain people declared that they could understand what birds were saying. (Manifestations of mental illness?) A bird whose song contains meaning can be seen, for instance, in “The Juniper Tree”.
[The] oddly moral nature of talking birds seems self-perpetuating. Bird omens and oracles are more familiar than bird friends; perhaps we love birds less than we think. Their formality and frequency in heraldic design, as crests or emblems may have something to do with it — their decorative properties give them a didactic coldness. E. Nesbit’s Phoenix, of The Phoenix and the Carpet, 1904, is hardly a cold bird, but it is, like the others, proud, vain, beautiful, condescending and extraordinarily well educated. It is in full command of every situation, and far more than a device for granting wishes, as was the Psammead who preceded him — indeed, the Carpet does this.Margaret Blount, Animal Land
BIRDS IN CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATIONS
BIRDS WEARING CLOTHES
In illustrated books featuring personified animals, even when all of the other animals are wearing clothes, birds tend to be ‘naked’, wearing only their feathers. Few illustrators manage to draw clothes on birds realistically. The main reason may be that birds, with their brightly coloured plumage, already look as if they are wearing clothes. The most obvious example of this is the penguin, who looks as if he is wearing a ‘penguin suit’. Robins also tend to look dressed in formal attire.
Here are the birds from Peter Rabbit: Although Peter is wearing the blue coat, the birds are stark naked.
But here’s a modern solution: This birdy is wearing glasses!
Just because a group accepts you, it doesn’t mean the group will accept your friends.
In my first read-through of Nerdy Birdy, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Matt Davies, I thought the story would be over when Nerdy Birdy befriends Vulture. Surprise! Nerdy Birdy accepts Vulture, but all of the seemingly inclusive nerd-birds won’t allow a non-conformer. Nerdy Birdy realizes has to leave his newly found tribe in order to keep his new friend.
The bird is in direct opposition to the mouse when it comes to clothes; it is rare to find mice without clothes, and equally rare to find birds wearing them. Except for the robin, who looks as if he (always he) is wearing a suit.
BIRDS IN THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF QUENTIN BLAKE
[Lauren] Child asks why [birds] are a recurring theme in [Quentin Blake’s] work. ‘They are full of possibility,’ he explains, ‘and a useful thing to put in when you need a little dot of colour for the composition.’ She wants to know why he never did a book about ‘one of my favourite pictures ever’, the ‘owl fancier’ in Blake’s Words and Pictures – a drawing of a rather scruffy man with owls at his feet. Answer: he couldn’t think of a story.Quentin Blake and Lauren Child interview
For an example of a Quentin Blake story starring a bird, see my analysis of Loveykins, both written and illustrated by Blake.
GROUPS OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF BIRD
Sometimes birds hang out with each other, cross ‘breed’. Below, only birds sit at the table. A squirrel and a cat sit in the background.
Here we have a table full of birds plus a squirrel and a hedgehog. But mostly birds.
Perhaps the most famous tale about a group of different kinds of birds is Chicken Licken.
Thanks to Aesop (and partly thanks to roosters themselves), the rooster as character comes pre-loaded with characteristics of vanity, bossiness, vanity and volume.
Chickens, on the other hand, are vulnerable and mostly stupid, although The Little Red Hen is a sensible, industrious type. When chickens are described as ‘hens‘ they are motherly.
Whereas ducks are ho-hum and tend to leave the most disgusting droppings on your patio, no one can tell me ducklings aren’t cute. My husband was in a near car accident when the woman in front of him on the highway braked suddenly for ducklings. I bet she had read Make Way For Ducklings, the Robert McCloskey children’s classic.
Ducklings are also loyal, in a very naive sense: They are known to fall in love with whomever they first clap eyes on. The adorability of ducklings can be exploited for ironic purposes, for instance in an episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog, in which a cute duckling turns out to be evil.
Parrots are useful in mystery plots because they talk… or rather, they repeat secrets and half-truths.
Swans are about transformation. They are associated with rags to riches stories, the most notable being, of course, “The Ugly Duckling”.
Header painting: Henry Stacey Marks – A Select Committee 1891
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 log line 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?
It’s funny — we all grow up on a diet of stories about the lone voice of reason trying to warn everyone about some imminent calamity, from Noah to Jor-El, and instinctively side with this hero and despite the ignorant ovine masses who jeer him or try to silence him. And yet whenever such a person appears in real life, our reflex is to join in with the mobs of scoffers and call them alarmists, hysterics, conspiracy freaks, and doomsayers.
— Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing
Which stories is Kreider talking about? My first thought is Chicken Little, but in fact it doesn’t come under that umbrella because Chicken Little turns out to be wrong about the sky falling. We are urged to laugh at him, though I maintain his punishment is a little harsh.
STORY STRUCTURE OF CHICKEN LITTLE
Chicken Little 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 side with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them. 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.