Pettson and Findus Pancake Pie by Sven Nordqvist

Pancake Pie (1984) is a Swedish picture book written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, and is the first in the Pettson and Findus series starring a man and his cat who live together on a rustic farm, along with many little creatures who make the setting seem alive.

What is a pancake pie? Is it just… a pancake? I’m reminded of a certain song about a big pizza pie (actually just a pizza), which is much improved after the moray meme came out.

The Pettson and Findus books have been adapted for children’s TV. The Pancake Pie book became Pancake Pudding in the adaptation. I’ve not heard of a pancake pudding, but it does look more like a storybook cake, and I can see it works better on the screen. The storytellers don’t really want the audience to be stuck, as I am, on the question of what the food is. The food is not central to the story.

This is likely why Swedish Pannkakstårtan was first translated as Pancake Pie in 1985 but later as The Birthday Cake in 1999

SETTING OF FINDUS AND PETTSON

Max and Marla Are Having A Picnic
Contrast with Max and Marla, another human/animal duo who go off on adventures, sometimes by bike. The owl doesn’t talk in this one, so if you find Pettson’s cat a bit irritating, you may prefer the silent, stoic owl.
  1. PERIOD — Findus and Pettson live on a storybook farm which is clearly Scandinavian, if you are at all familiar with with a Scandinavian farm looks like, with the open rectangular arrangement of the farm buildings.
  2. DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
  3. LOCATION — rural Sweden
  4. ARENA — The whole story takes place between the farm and the nearby village where it is possible to buy anything you don’t have at home, in this case flour.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — The Swedish farm buildings, the village shops, the well (which looks unlike your archetypal storybook well — this one must be based on a Swedish well.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
  7. WEATHER — The Pettson and Findus stories span all the seasons. Some of them take place when it’s snowing; this one happens in a temperate season, perhaps summer.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Pettson’s bicycle is important to his characterisation. I really love this guy, with his pedal power and his cat. If he drove a car he’d be a different sort of guy altogether.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the hierarchy of human struggles, this is an unlikely, fantasy, carnivalesque struggle in which the goal is simple; to bake a birthday cake. It’s not even a high stakes birthday given that the birthday person celebrates birthdays three times a year, just because.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — In the TV adaptation, Findus is annoyed that Pettson seems to have forgotten one of his superfluous birthdays. This story is also about how annoying things happen and there’s no point apportioning blame for these things. Rather, we have no choice but to get on and deal with them if we want to achieve our goal.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PANCAKE PIE

PARATEXT

Translators over the years have had a bit of a job deciding on how to translate this series into English. The paper below makes for an interesting case study into how publishers try something then later change their minds.

From Pettson and Findus to Festus and Mercury… and Back Again: A Comparison of Four Translations of Sven Nordqvist’s Picture Books

The book title Pancake Pie is also translated as Pancakes For Findus (which I admit makes more sense). The title is probably modelled on Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClusky.

Pancakes for Findus is the first story in the adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus. Pettson wants to bake a birthday cake for Findus, who has three birthdays a year. But how will they get the eggs with the bull in the way?
Findus and Pettson live in a ramshackle cottage in the country, with a henhouse, workshop, and woodshed. Their fascinating, magical world is inhabited by tiny creatures who move Pettson’s things about when he isn’t looking.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

We know from other books in the series that Pettson is probably a widower and his neighbours find him a little odd. The cat comes across to the reader like a proxy child. For storytelling purposes we can consider Findus a child ranging between the ages of 5 and 10, depending on what the situation calls for.

Pettson wears glasses as part of his character design. This shows how he is oblivious to the small creatures around him who are alive. Another character with the exact same trope is Muriel of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In both cases the pet can see all the opponents but the human occupant sees nothing. In Muriel’s case she fails to see some pretty dire baddies, but the setting of the Pettson and Findus stories is more utopian. The creatures are mischievous and sometimes cranky, but never evil.

The co-star Findus has all the shortcomings typical of a small child, and as in any comedic series, he never grows up. He continues to be self-centred and petulent, in a lovable way. I I find the TV version of Findus unlikeable, and I think it’s mainly to do with the English dub of his voice, which is irritating. Voicing animals is always difficult.

Another example of this exact difficulty: ‘Dog’ of Footrot Flats by Murray Ball. New Zealanders were already in love with Dog from the newspaper comic strips, and the makers of the 1980s Footrot Flats film had a hell of a time settling on how Dog’s voice should sound. I have a Border collie myself these days and I think they got it right.

The creators of the 1980s Garfield animations also got Garfield right, but as a kid I didn’t think so. I was shocked to find that Garfield had a lazy adult male voice when I had expected something more like… the Findus voice. More ‘miowy’, more aimed at kids. Now I’m an adult I can see Garfield’s voice is correct, and that as a kid I had been far too generous in my interpretation of that cat’s character.

DESIRE

Self-centred Findus wants three birthdays per year and Pettson wants to oblige his cat. However, this kind of self-absorption is only briefly critiqued, and only in the TV adaptation, in which a hen clucks at the extravagance of three birthdays per year. The young reader is not encouraged to side with the judgy hen though, so the idea of three birthdays per year is a carnivalesque bit of fun and also wish fulfilment. What kid wouldn’t want three birthdays per year?

On a deeper level, Findus wants to be the centre of attention with luxuries foisted upon him.

On the most surface level, Pettson and Findus want to celebrate the day by baking something and eating it as a treat, whether we call it a pancake pie or a pancake pudding or whatever.

OPPONENT

The storyworld itself stands between Pettson getting flour, or not. But ‘things going wrong in the world’ doesn’t usually make for a satisfying opposition, so literally populating the arena with tiny creatures, each with their own agenda, is a masterful way to make a setting come alive. Pettson doesn’t simply get a hole in his bicycle tyre; a little creature bites a hole in it.

This is literally how people of yore saw the world. We only need look into earlier versions of fairytales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker to know this. That tale’s reason for existence is to warn people against fraternising with small creatures and spirits in the home, so clearly many people thought they actually existed!

We might as well consider these little creatures fairies. They don’t look like the 21st century conception of a fairy — small, butterfly-like femme coded creatures influenced by Disney’s Tinkerbell. Fairies can refer to any creature who lives in the world around us, and in our living spaces. Earlier humans imagined fairies absolutely everywhere. (Modern audiences get the feeling we now understand Earth and seem more concerned with populating space… we call them aliens though, not fairies.)

This page layout beautifully expresses the flow of events from fishing a key out of the well, to fixing a tyre to riding to town to the goal of enjoying pancake pie for Findus. Notice how each image blends into the one below, creating a clear visual sequence for the reader.
This image reminds me very much of The Tomten. I haven’t even read The Tomten yet, but I still recognise the imagery of a Scandinavian character peering in through a window.

The neighbour who ambles by right as Pettson is washing his pants in a bucket also functions as an ‘observer opponent’. I’ve seen these scenes in other children’s stories, recently in Bluey, in which the father is playing a ridiculous game with his daughter when a dressed-up judgy poodle walks by and drags him with side-eye. She hasn’t got the memo that this small snippet is part of a game.

Audiences seem to love this gag — in which a main character is caught in the most humiliating part of a plot when someone happens to amble by. A funny moment now becomes comedically humiliating with the addition of an intradiegetic audience member. Funny how that works.

In such scenes, is it not humiliating enough that we, the audience, are watching? No, not if the fourth wall remains intact. Also, we are in possession of the complete story. We know how the character got into that position. Humour derives from the fact that the passerby is in audience inferior position. The joke is sort of actually on them, for failing to understand the whole scenario.

PLAN

Pancake Pie is basically a There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly cumulative plot, except for one major difference: In the fly story, the old lady’s self-formulated plan is ridiculous. She herself is ridiculous. Perhaps for this reason I have never found that old lady an empathetic character. I couldn’t care less whether she lives or dies (and both endings exist in the world).

In the case of the empathetic Pettson, the scenarios are ridiculous (thanks to the fairies) but his plans are quite sensible, given the world of the story. Key falls down the well? Get a long stick and fish it out. Pants covered in egg? Take them off and wash them in a bucket.

It’s not Pettson who is eccentric; it’s his farm. Pettson is a misunderstood widower.

Another beautiful sequence of events illustrated on a single page. These pages are excellent examples of Continuous Narrative Art. This describes art which gives clues about the sequence of events, without making use of frames. In a Western picture book, the reader’s eyes are trained to move from top to bottom, left to right.

Honestly, I couldn’t follow the Plan part of the plot sequence on first reading. if you’d quizzed me immediately after for comprehension I would not have been able to tell you how Pettson goes from looking for flour to being chased by a bull in a field. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoy the spectacle and don’t mind the sequence.

That said, the sequence must make sense for the story to work, and it does if you’re paying attention, with a clear path from A to B to Z. Lucky for me, someone else wrote the sequence down in a humorous consumer review:

If Pettson, P, is to make a pancake pie, then P must buy flour.

If P is to buy flour, then P must cycle to town.

If P is to use a cycle C, then C’s tires must be intact.

If P is to make C’s tires intact, then P must obtain a cycle repair kit R.

If P is to obtain R, then P must have the key to the toolshed K.

If K is in the well W, then P must have a fishing rod F.

If F is on the roof, then P must have a ladder L.

If L is in the bull B’s field, then P must scare away B.

If P’s neighbor N had known all of the above, then N wouldn’t necessarily have thought P had lost his wits when he saw him playing Jussi Björling records for B on P’s wind-up phonograph.

That’s logic. What do they teach them in schools these days?

Goodreads

THE BIG STRUGGLE

This story might align more closely to the carnivalesque picture book story structure if it weren’t for the bull sequence.

The animals in this story span a broad section of the ‘animal-ness continuum’, with Findus basically human (a child), and the hens who are middle-aged gossipy women archetypes and also this bull who is nothing more than an actual bull.

The bull is a Minotaur opponent (more literally than most Minotaur opponents, which can come in any shape or form and most have nothing to do with actual bulls).

That curtain tied around Findus’ ankle is very handy to the illustrator as a framing device which double as indicating the flow, leading the eye in the correct direction. As an accomplished adult reader you probably take this skill for granted. Younger, emerging readers need help with this.

The story climaxes at the bull fight. Although the ridiculous events around baking a simple pancake pie build into something more and more ridiculous, the level of ridiculousness is not enough to ‘finish off the story’, which must be finished somehow. So Nordqvist ends it with an actual battle scene, complete with danger of death and a chase.

Note the way Nordqvist depicts the movement. I suspect this is influenced by photography, specifically long exposure photography. I’m thinking of all those shots of highways on dusk, in which the headlights look like one long stream on the road of moving cars, or car singular.

ANAGNORISIS

Findus and Pettson have no major epiphany, because this story was all about spectacle (for the reader). They realise that when they have their hands on the flour that they can sit down to enjoy an afternoon tea of pancake pie.

NEW SITUATION

Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pie is an excellent example of a children’s book where all is well when the main characters sit down to enjoy food. A number of series work like this, including the more recent Mercy Watson picture books by Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen. Those stories end when Mercy sits down with everyone to enjoy hot buttered toast.

Food is very important in children’s stories.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.

RESONANCE

This story established the intriguing world of Pettson and Findus. I fell in love with Pettson immediately. For me the farmer is the sympathetic character, though for children I expect the cat will be relatable. In this way, the series achieves a dual audience.

Worlds populated by tiny creatures endure. The Pettson and Findus books were just a small part of that. The golden age of fairy and goblin stories may seem to have passed, but look at the Hilda series, recently adapted by Netflix, for a similar utopian world populated by tiny creatures who each have their own agenda but who pose no significant threat to the main, human characters.

PIES IN STORYTELLING

The Truth About Twinkle Pie by Kat Yeh
The Truth About Twinkle Pie by Kat Yeh
Gourmet Magazine November 1945
Gourmet Magazine June 1958 Vol. 18 No. 6
Pie by Sarah Weeks
Pie by Sarah Weeks
Old-Time Farmhouse Cooking Rural American Recipes and Farm Lore by Barbara Swell
Old-Time Farmhouse Cooking Rural American Recipes and Farm Lore by Barbara Swell
A man carrying logs for the fire admires pies cooling on a table inside a cottage.
Amos Sewell for Jan 1945 cover of Country Gentleman ‘Eyeing The Pies’

MORE MEN AND THEIR CATS

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Belling The Cat

Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats 1868

‘Belling the cat’ is idiom which means that it’s all very well to come up with good ideas as a fix, but executing those good ideas is another matter. It comes from a fable of yore, in which rats come up with a great idea for foiling a predatory cat. They’ll put a bell around its neck. But who will dare do that?

This feels like one of Aesop’s, but actually that’s unclear. It’s part of that tradition, though.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) included this story in his book “Fables”. It still says something very true about committees and hierarchy and how things get done (or not). Wikipedia sums it up nicely: This fable is about ‘the fundamental opposition between consensus and individualism’.

The Council of the Rats

OLD Rodilard, a certain cat,
Such havoc of the rats had made,
’Twas difficult to find a rat
With Nature’s debt unpaid.
The few that did remain,
To leave their holes afraid,
From usual food abstain,
Not eating half their fill.
And wonder no one will,
That one, who made on rats his revel,
With rats passed not for cat, but devil.
Now, on a day, this dread rat-eater,
Who had a wife, went out to meet her;
And while he held his caterwauling,
The unkilled rats, their chapter calling,
Discussed the point, in grave debate,
How they might shun impending fate.
Their dean, a prudent rat,
Thought best, and better soon than late,
To bell the fatal cat;
That, when he took his hunting-round,
The rats, well cautioned by the sound,
Might hide in safety underground.
Indeed, he knew no other means.
And all the rest
At once confessed
Their minds were with the dean’s.
No better plan, they all believed,
Could possibly have been conceived;
No doubt, the thing would work right well,
If any one would hang the bell.
But, one by one, said every rat,
“I’m not so big a fool as that.”
The plan knocked up in this respect,
The council closed without effect.
And many a council I have seen,
Or reverend chapter with its dean,
That, thus resolving wisely,
Fell through like this precisely.
To argue or refute,
Wise counselors abound;
The man to execute
Is harder to be found.

STORYTELLING NOTES

While fables use nameless animals to stand in as proxy humans, this poem opens by giving ‘a certain cat’ an individuating name — the name of Rodilard. This name is made up for the purposes of the poem and remains associated with this particular work: Rodilard is from Latin rodo (“gnaw”) and lardum “lard”. I imagine a few people have named their pet cats Rodilard.

In stories across history, especially in children’s stories, a cat often functions as the Minotaur opponent. This is very frequently the case in stories about mice and rats. He (and he is almost always masculo-coded) will be an irredeemable murderer, because that is part of his nature. Everyone else has no choice but to either kill him or protect themselves. As the poem states explicitly, this kind of opponent is basically ‘the devil’. And devils aren’t that interesting in their own right. A story with a Minotaur/devil opponent will be about the conflict that happens between his victims.

It’s therefore interesting that this cat has ‘a wife’. I think this is comically interesting for precisely the reason that Minotaur opponents have no ‘humanity’ (and family indicates humanity), but also because cats don’t have wives; this tom is out on the prowl, clearly. The story requires a reason to keep the Minotaur opponent occupied with something other than food. Another base instinct.

First, though, the poem depicts a world of ‘havoc’. This cat has been causing upset for quite some time. Like many children’s books in particular, the story opens in the iterative, describing what has been going on every day. Now it will switch to the singulative: Now, on a day…

It’s significant that ‘the dean’ comes up with the idea rather than, say, an underling. People in charge are good at coming up with ideas that will put underlings in danger rather than themselves. Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” is all about that.

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

Masters of War, Bob Dylan

In this case, the dean of a chapter of rats doesn’t have sufficient power to force an underling rat to bell the cat, so the meeting closes with the idea tabled and no plan. While other stories would start right about now, this story ends before it kicks off, because not a single character dares carry it out.

In case the reader has failed to realise what the rats realised, four lines at the end summarise the message for us.

We can extrapolate that the rat community continues to suffer, with the cat keeping the rat population down. Rats are not typically sympathetic characters in stories, which makes them an appropriate choice for this particular fable.

CATS AND MICE IN ART

Cat Calendar art c. 1980s Gary Patterson (1941-present)
Iliane Roels, 1969
Iliane Roels, 1969
Mouse Club Rules by Louis William Wain (1860-1939)
Mouse Club Rules by Louis William Wain (1860-1939)
John Dickson Batten, illustrator (1860-1932)
John Dickson Batten, illustrator (1860-1932)
Cover of Almanaque de la Esquella de la Torratxa, 1911
Ida Bohatta
Ida Bohatta

SEE ALSO

Strat and Chatto

ISLAND OF THE SKOG

The Island of the Skog is a 1973 American picture book by Steven Kellogg which is basically an allegory for cosy colonialism. There is an animated version, including a clear ‘belling the cat’ scene. The mice, who have fled persecution as ‘underdogs’ and decided to make a new life on an almost deserted island, know they must first defeat the Skog, fearsome by reputation. They come up with a plan, but who will carry it out?

Listen to Betsy and Kate discuss The Island of the Skog on the Fuse 8 n Kate podcast.

Header image: Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats, 1868.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Higglety Piggelty Pop! or There Must Be More To Life Analysis

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life is an illustrated short story, though some might just call it a picture book. The language is too sophisticated to count as an early reader, unlike the Mercy Watson series, of a similar length and also divided into chapters.

Why divide such a short story into chapters, anyway? In the case of the Mercy Watson series, the young reader feels a sense of achievement after finishing each chapter. Also, the point of view switches between Mercy Watson’s house and that of their neighbours, Eugenia and Baby. In Higglety Pigglety Pop! the chapters strike me as a parody of a longer, mythically structured work.

The Kirkus reviewer also had difficulty classifying this story as a picture book:

Maurice Sendak’s books have been, right along, projections of concepts rather than pictorializations of plots, so that it is almost gratuitous to hail his arrival as an author; but this tidy little package, despite its size and shape, is not a picture book, nor is it, like Hector Protector an elaboration of Mother Goose for little children – there is more to life, and his supple style matches his consummate skill as an artist.

Kirkus Reviews

Despite the title, the main character of this story is a dog. (The pig is secondary.) The terrier is called Jennie, and she is based on a real dog:

Dogs frequently appear in the picture books of Maurice Sendak. The best known is Jennie, the Sealyham terrier pursued down the stairs by Max in Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Reflecting on the fourteen-year partnership with his dog, Sendak said, “Jennie was the love of my life.” Jennie appeared in most of Sendak’s books from 1954 to her death, which is memorialized in Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must be More to Life (1967). The dramatist, Tony Kushner, has written that Higglety Pigglety Pop is “perhaps the most personal work of an artist who unstintingly mines his own psyche and soul for his art. Higglety belongs to the select library of essential art about death and grief.”

Jan Susina, Sendak Goes to the Dogs: Maurice Sendak’s Empathic View of Dogs

Sendak wrote this book while grieving the death of his dog Jennie.

Typically, picture books about death and grief require a metaphorical interpretation from the reader. See also Australian picture book John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Australian example also features a beloved dog with a typically human name.

Why are picture books about death so surreal and metaphorical? A young child, perhaps not yet ready for stories about death and grief, will instead be enjoying a surface level narrative, in this case the story of a dog who leaves him to be an actor in a play. I believe the thinking behind this is: The child won’t understand the sadness until they are developmentally ready to understand it.

Whether this works in practice, I don’t know. In theory it’s possible to have a sophisticated metaphorical understanding of narrative and still not be developmentally ready for death plots.

Besides, there’s plenty that’s harrowing in the surface reading of this story: The absent parents who have forgotten how to get back home to baby, the fact that everyone else has forgotten baby’s name, the button near the ground that means the nurse will be fed to the lions and also its seventh victim (in a plot point reminiscent of Bluebeard).

There’s also this idea that children can hook into the deeper meanings of texts precisely because of their lack of experience in the world. The Kirkus reviewer clearly subscribed to that idea:

You can’t compress the reverberations into a review, and certainly not the ominous illustrations; it may by-pass some adults because Sendak speaks directly to the elastic imagination of children.

Kirkus Reviews

It’s worth noting that Maurice Sendak never self-identified as a children’s writer. He said he just made things, and others decided who would read it.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

Others have pointed out that Sendak’s illustrations are reminiscent of Doré and Dürer. They are rich in hatching and line detail, and relatively flat, tonally.

Sendak drew his toddlers with the faces and facial expressions of much older people, which I find creepy, though this creepiness fits the overall vibe.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life Story and pictures by Maurice Sendak 1967
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life Story and pictures by Maurice Sendak 1967

SETTING OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS

  1. PERIOD — during the real Jennie’s lifetime, mid 20th century. But there are so many fairytale/mythological aspects to this story that it’s in some ways atemporal (save the details which place it firmly in the 20th century — the house furnishings etc.)
  2. DURATION — Unclear. Maybe a week, maybe weeks. Being is time and time is finite. For human beings, time comes to an end with our death. Stories about death tend to be ambiguous in this regard.
  3. LOCATION — Starts in the home, sees the hero on a mythic path, ends on a stage.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — The road is a literal road in this story (sometimes a river, for instance, in other stories). There’s a house, an aristocratic house (where the baby lives) and a castle.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS The Forest is significant. The flat land is bordered by mountains in the distance.
  6. WEATHER — Comfortable, like a utopian setting. Moonlit at night.
  7. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORYThe details of Jennie’s medicines are oddly specific, and once you know Jennie was a real dog, we can deduce that the real Jennie was using these medicines at the end of her life. This technology isn’t ‘necessary’ for the story to work, but do show the reader that Jennie is probably elderly.
  8. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This refers to the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. Life and death is an evergreen psychological conflict.
  9. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The land which lives inside the main character. Jennie is wrong to think that nothing is better than everything, but she has to experience having nothing to see that this is not what she wanted, either. To have nothing is to be dead. After she experiences nothingness, she moves onto the next plane in something akin to Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. However, Being-toward-death refers to the acceptance that one is going to die someday. The ‘acceptance’ that happens in this story is an end-of-life acceptance, and I think that’s something different. Perhaps a Heidegger expert can clarify.

STORY STRUCTURE OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE MUST BE MORE TO LIFE

Higglety, Pigglety, Pop,
The dog has eaten the mop.
The pig’s in a hurry,
The cat’s in a flurry,
Higglety, pigglety, pop.

Mother Goose nusery rhyme

Only the end (story-within-a-story play) part of the structure has much to do with the nursery rhyme, aside from the cast, which includes a dog (main character), pig and cat in both nursery rhyme and storybook. Clearly, there’s not a helluva lot to work with in five lines, so Sendak fleshed it right out and turned it into mythological journey into the darkest reaches of the soul, culminating in metaphorical death.

PARATEXT

A daring imagination has woven a simple rhyme into a brilliantly original tale about Jennie, the Sealyham terrier, who seeks Experience and becomes the star of the World Mother Goose Theatre.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

The ideology of this story: Satisfaction in life comes from wanting more. Humans are compelled to always want something more. This is psychologically true and explains how humans have come to dominate (and wreck) the planet. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that having nothing is also not great.

On the surface, Jennie leaves home because she is ineffably dissasfied. (It’s right there in the subtitle.) The young men of fairy tales often start out like this, leaving home to ‘seek their fortune’, presumably because they’re bored with how things are panning out at home. A significant number of children’s stories start with the character in a place of boredom. In this particular story, there’s an existential loneliness mixed in.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life  Maurice Sendak - 1967
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life Maurice Sendak – 1967

If we approach this story from a philosophical point of view, using the terminology of Heidegger, the words Vorlaufen and Erwarten come in handy.

Heidegger drew a distinction between anticipation (Vorlaufen) and expectation, or awaiting (Erwarten). At the beginning of this story, Jennie is anticipating something, and we see her ‘awaiting’ something as she looks out of the window (a very common visual metaphor in children’s stories). But as soon as she leaves the house, she metaphorically enters a new phase of understanding: she is on a journey towards death acceptance. Not death in general — she doesn’t give a damn about the life of that plant she just ate — her own death. She won’t fully understand death until she contemplates the end of her own life.

(Heidegger worked on the idea that only human beings die. He thought plants and animals simply perish. Sendak has personified the plant. The plant’s death is clearly the first real death of this story.)

DESIRE

Stories don’t satisfy an audience until the main character wants something. Although Jennie starts out with no goal in mind (other than to get the hell out of the house), she very soon does settle upon a goal: she wants to act in a play. This desire is what propels her forward in her journey. First she requires ‘Experience’.

Sendak plays with the various permutations of this word and how we typically use it in English to mean

  1. Work experience, a prerequisite for many jobs
  2. A positive event in one’s life
  3. A negative event in one’s life (euphemistically)

Presumably because she is a dog, Jennie’s understanding of English is limited. She shares this in common with the child reader. Jennie embodies both adult and child at once — a naive child in the adult role of a nurse, and the brave role of a lion-fighting knight.

OPPONENT

Typically in stories there are two distinct layers of opposition: the ‘family’ and the ‘Minotaur’. Friends and family are natural opponents for wanting different things. These things don’t tend to be life and death. Jennie and the potplant are opponents because Jennie wants to leave and the plant clearly wants to dissuade her, craving company. Jennie eats off all of its leaves and it can’t talk anymore.

Next, Jennie and the Baby are opponents. The baby won’t eat, and if the baby won’t eat, Jennie will be fed to the lion. As far as ‘family opposition’ goes, the threat of death is stronger than average. Normally in stories, families are squabbling about relatively incosequential things (in comparison to the big, outside, Minotaur opposition).

As for the Minotaur opponent in this tale, that would be the big, bad opposition that represents life and death: the Lion — typically used as Minotaur opposition — unreasonable, with the huge appetite of an ogre. An ogre/Lion can like you perfectly well and still want to eat you up. It’s impossible to reason with this category of opponent.

Metaphorically, the Lion represents our greatest fear — fear of death. The following sentence offers clear insight into that:

Lions chased through Jennie’s head.

PLAN

Because Jennie is naively stumbling through the world, she misinterprets the requirements of acting. She is told she needs Experience, subtext reading she needs acting experience, but when she hears of a (dangerous) nursing job and is told that it will certainly be ‘an Experience’ she figures that’ll do nicely to propel her toward her goal.

Sendak employs the ticking clock technique by setting a time limit on applying for the role of actor.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Stories that culminate in a play/sports event/competition have a climax baked into the plot. But we shouldn’t confuse that part of the story for the near-death section — metaphorically the part where the hero reaches the centre of the labyrinth and confronts the Minotaur.

The mythological vibe of Higglety Pigglety Pop! is clear. Jennie pops her head right into the lion’s mouth. Turns out she was only bluffing as a way to save Baby and she escapes without her beard ‘which never grew back’. This is Jennie’s near-death experience.

In a differently structured story, also featuring a ‘play’, contrast with About A Boy. In that story, the stage performance is the near death experience. (Social death, for the young boy.) The stage scene also functions to show the audience that the older ‘boy’ (played by Hugh Grant in the movie) has finally sacrificed his dignity to do something nice for someone else. He has grown as a human being.

ANAGNORISIS

To tie up this story, Jennie accidentally guesses the baby’s name, even though she never realised the importance of guessing it (contrasting with the similar plot point of Rumpelstiltskin.)

Jennie has come to terms with dying.

“You escaped from the lion!” […]

They all climbed up on the lion’s back.

Significantly, there is nothing morbid about Being-towards-death. And there is nothing morbid about Jennie at the conclusion of this book.

Everything = an unsatisfactory life; nothing = death.
Everything leads to despair because we no longer seek out new Experiences.
Life = Experiences.

NEW SITUATION

Surface reading: Jennie is a stage actor now.

Metaphorical reading: Jennie has accepted her imminent death.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Extrapolating for metaphor, the stage play has functioned as the portal into death, and a microcosm of the overall absurdism/futility of life. When taking a broad view of life, it’s difficult to take seriously things which once seemed so very important.

There IS more to life: death! Life and death are part of the same cycle, an ideology that wends its way right through children’s literature.

Scene: room in a very terrific place.

We can assume they end up in Heaven, or the reader’s cultural equivalent.

RESONANCE

Looking through the various reactions to this story from consumers, Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a divisive story. Readers seem to find it either attractively surreal or creepily off-putting. But Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are cemented Sendak’s position as an influential American 20th century storyteller, ensuring that there will long be an audience who seek out his other work.

Sendak’s book is now better known (at least on the Internet) than the Mother Goose nursery rhyme around which it is written.

Higglety Pigglety Pop has been made into a short film.

SEE ALSO

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John Brown, Rose and The Midnight Cat (1979) Picture Book Analysis

Akseli-Gallen-Kallela-Illustration-for-Kalevala-Lemminkäinens-Mother-1897-death-swan-sickness

John Brown and the Midnight Cat is a classic Australian picture book written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks. This story is an excellent example of how a story for children can mean something completely different — and disturbing — for adults. This children’s story gives me chills.

As you read, pay special attention to the pictures in this one, which tell a very different story. Recall everything you’ve ever absorbed about universal symbols. Pay attention also to the way vertical lines and framing is used to separate character from each other, also separating inside from outside.

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Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore (1993) Analysis

Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore

Six Dinner Sid (1993) is a picture book written and illustrated by Inga Moore.

The plot of the cat who goes from house to house pretending to be anyone’s will be familiar to anyone who’s ever known a cat. There’s an episode of cult hit This Country (“The Vicar’s Son”) in which Kerry Mucklowe eats her mum’s dinners, then sort of falls opportunistically into a scheme whereby she cadges dinner off an elderly lady living in the same village. The audience soon realises that Kerry is behaving exactly like a house cat.

Six Dinner Sid is a picture book cat who does the same thing. In these stories about opportunistic tricksters, there’s a storytelling rule which I have not yet seen broken: At the climax, their scheming ways are exposed for all to see. The mask comes off. Two types of stories rely heavily on the mask: thrillers and comedies. This is more comedy than thriller. For a thriller cat picture book which also uses a mask, see Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd.

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Unappealing Cats In Illustration

Cat Hater's Handbook 1963

Considering how similar cats look in reality, breeding and colour differences aside, it’s surprising how illustrators come up with so many ways of depicting cats in art. Like any other fashion, cat faces have also changed according to era, even though the faces of actual cats have remained… the exact same.

How Humans Created Cats: Following the invention of agriculture, one thing led to another, and ta da! the world’s most popular pet, from The Atlantic

Cats can be rendered as very cute, though the concept of cute itself changes over time. I don’t find the big-eyed cats of Louis Wain appealing, for instance.

Despite being a cat lover, this is a collection of cat illustrations I personally feel unappealing. In some cases, the illustrator has deliberately gone for ‘unappealing’. In other cases, the lack of appeal is probably down to changes in aesthetics over time.

The change in cat illustration somewhat reflects the change in our attitudes towards cats, from familiars to loving pets.

The view of cats as evil led to incredible cruelties toward them. During witch hunts, cats were burned together with their mistresses. At the same times, there is evidence of cats being put into walls of newly built houses to bring luck.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the cat’s reputation was exculpated, and cats became popular pets in upper- and middle-class families, which is, among other things, reflected in numerous nursery rhymes, fables, cartoons, children’s stories and picturebooks. Cats became benign and often sweet characters, adapted to children’s and family reading. Most of modern cat stories are picturebooks portraying anthropomorphic cats, representing humans. The shape is, just as in George and Martha books, arbitrary and interchangeable. It is hardly worth mentioning the abundant felines rubbing against their owners’ feet or purring on their laps, merely to create an atmosphere. In hundreds of books, a child gets a kitten for pet. Occasionally, a black cat may prompt, most often erroneously, that its owner is a witch.

Maria Nikolajeva, Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers

Even in the 1870s, people were obsessed with ridiculous photos of cats, from io9

Puss In Boots for a Charles Perrault collection, 1900
Puss In Boots is frequently depicted in a way which feels slightly off-putting to contemporary cat lovers. This is from an old French Charles Perrault collection of fairy tales (illustrator not found). The creators of Shrek 2 (2004) were perhaps inspired by the unappealing illustrations of Puss when compared to more modern renditions. In the film, Puss changes from unappealing to adorable on the comical turn of a dime.
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The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter Analysis

Tom Kitten cover

The Tale of Tom Kitten was created soon after Beatrix Potter had moved into her farm in the Lake District, which she’d bought with the proceeds earned from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations are recognisably of Hill Top and of the farmstead’s surrounding village. The cats of the illustrations were real cats who lived there.

It was Beatrix’s publisher Harold Warne who thought cats would make good characters for one of her picture books. His own daughter had a pet cat. It seems fluffy mammals are an easier sell. In contrast, Beatrix had a hard time selling the concept of Jeremy Fisher. She made the background illustrations particularly beguiling to compensate for the ick factor of the frog. Contemporary picture books are full of all sorts of lovable animals from every classification, but Beatrix Potter was paving the way and her publisher was testing the waters.

Although Potter succeeded in creating lovable frogs, and hedgehogs, her publisher was right about cats. Consumers do love cats. After the success of Tom Kitten, Warne was approached by a company who wanted to make a musical version.

Beatrix dismissed this idea as “considerable twaddle”.

Tourists to the Lake District can visit Hill Top, Potter’s seventeenth century farm house, known to fans as “Tom Kitten’s house”.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TOM KITTEN”

The story starts off with the child characters constricted by the requirements of polite society, then evolves into an unsupervised carnivalesque adventure. the child characters end up back inside the home, though their freedom has not been fully curtailed — they will find a way to have fun.

SHORTCOMING

The Tale of Tom Kitten is equally the tale of Tom’s sisters, Mittens and Moppet. But Beatrix Potter did not subvert the stereotype that girl children are well-behaved while boy children are mischievous and interesting. It is Peter Rabbit who goes out on his adventure rather than one of his better-behaved sisters.

In a misogynistic pecking order where boys are at the top, Tom is affronted by his mother’s requirement to dress up for guests because dressing up and looking pretty is a girly thing to do. In different circumstances, Mittens and Moppet may be equally rebellious.

Indeed they are, though they appear docile while under the watchful eye of Mother. Beatrix Potter does eventually afford the sisters a little freedom at the end, where we see their true, playful natures. We might consider this a minor gender subversion.

DESIRE

In common with the childlike heroes of any carnivalesque tale, these kittens want to have fun. Their deeper psychologies remain unexplored, though we do get an insight into the insecurities of their mother.

OPPONENT

The Opponent is the adult character who wants to make the kittens behave like well-behaved little grown-ups — in this case the mother, Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit. Tabitha is overly-concerned about appearance. When her friends arrive for their fancy party she lies that the kittens have got measles and that’s why they’re in bed.

But for the adventure part of this story, Tabitha is out of the picture. She has turfed her children out of the house.

PLAN CARNIVALESQUE ADVENTURES

The kittens want to play without impediment so their clothes become dirty and dishevelled, then come completely off.

Beatrix Potter would have been familiar with the constricting nature of clothing. She lived in an era where women’s clothing was highly impractical, yet she’d just moved to a farm. It’s one thing to sit inside and paint while wearing Edwardian women’s clothing; it’s another to be doing farm work in it.

beatrix potter dressed in edwardian clothing
by Charles King, circa 1913

BIG STRUGGLE

The climax of these adventures involve ducks. Potter makes the most of the natural comedy of ducks. who are graceful on water but comical on land.

The ducks put on the kittens’ discarded clothes — hat on a dog humour. This sort of gag appeals to preschoolers in particular.

Why is it so funny that the ducks are wearing clothes, when we probably didn’t laugh at kittens wearing clothes?

Beatrix Potter anthropomorphised all of her animal characters, but they don’t all sit at the same place on an animal—human continuum. The cats are more human than the ducks are. Therefore it is more funny to see the ducks wearing human clothes.

ANAGNORISIS

In a carnivalesque tale there doesn’t tend to be a Anagnorisis at the end. The revelation comes earlier and it is always this: Having fun is fun!

NEW SITUATION

In many carnivalesque tales, the story ends with the child back to constricted normality but in this case Beatrix Potter affords the kittens some freedom to continue their fun.

Potter also tells us about the ducks — who she must consider an integral part of the cast. They lose the clothes in the pond and have been looking for them ever since. This is no doubt an etiological tale explaining why ducks are constantly putting their heads under the water.

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Tobermory Short Story by Saki Analysis

Tobermory” is a short story by Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki. Anyone with a pet has probably wondered what that pet would say to you if it could talk. Many children’s stories have this premise, and this particular wish fulfilment fantasy. We imagine if our pets could talk they would say satisfying things.

Saki’s story, about a talking cat, reminds me of a cartoon in which a man wishes his dog could talk. But as soon as the dog starts talking the man is weirded out and says, “You’ve seen too  much.” He immediately takes the power of talking away from his pet.

Gary Larson has also mined this gag, also on dogs:

Man invents talking machine for dogs and they only say hey hey hey

But cats are thought to be more circumspect. We consider them haughty, knowing and at the top of their own hierarchy. The heterodiegetic narrator of Tobermory is like a cat himself, and as viewpoint character, sees through bluff and bluster of the assembled human party.

HUMOUR OF SAKI

The humour of Saki’s stories derives from an ironic gap between the highly formal register, most often used by the highly educated, and the subject matter, which is completely unbelievable. The register tips over into ostentatious and affected. Saki makes deliberate use of purple language such as ‘he expostulated’.

The comparisons he makes go way outside the bounds of the story itself. Here is a sentence which says ‘Cornelius Appin was crestfallen.’

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement.

Australian author Kathy Lette writes in a similar fashion in some of her novels, such as The Boy Who Fell To Earth. This story gets a lot of its humour from its great many parenthetical asides.

It’s the ironic gap between register and subject matter that makes Saki’s humour feel irreverent. Add to that insights on human nature from his narrator and you have a wry social commentary. No better character than a talking cat to criticise humans.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TOBERMORY”

SHORTCOMING

The great shortcoming of this group of people is that they don’t really like each other at all, yet here they are, all forced to commingle. They’ve been saying nasty things about each other behind backs.

DESIRE

Each has their own conflicting desire which they bring to the dinner party:

  • Mr Cornelius Appin wants to demonstrate his wonderful invention (foiled because the invention is terrible)
  • Sir Wilfrid does not want to be taken for a fool (foiled because he is revealed to be a fool anyway)
  • Lady Blemley wants to be a good hostess (foiled by the cat)
  • Mrs Cornett wants to be regarded a beauty (though she spends much time with make-up to get herself looking presentable)
  • Miss Scrawen, ironically, doesn’t want everyone to know she leads such a good and virtuous life
  • Odo Finsberry wants to keep his private life private since he is meant to be reading for the Church
  • Agnes Resker wants to enjoy a free meal since she is experiencing financial hardship
  • and so on

OPPONENT

The talking cat is the opponent, but only because the web of opposition has already been set up.

PLAN

Sir Wilfrid suggests they put strychnine in the table scraps and leave them out for the cat to eat.

The rest of the party do their best to paper over that a huge rift has emerged between the neighbours of the Tower.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle of cat eating poison and dying is subverted. The death happens off-stage in an unexpected fight with a Tom. On the other hand, this is entirely expected. We might imagine the cat was able to articulate nastiness to other cats as well as to other humans.

ANAGNORISIS

This story includes an entire cast of characters but Saki has chosen to home in on one character’s response to all this: That of Lady Blemley, who ‘sufficiently recovers her spirits to write an extremely nasty letter to the Rectory about the loss of her valuable pet’.

This is displaced anger, of course. And this is the reader’s revelation. People deal with humiliation by branching out with it. It’s called lateral violence, when it happens as part of a system.

NEW SITUATION

Saki finishes in children’s picture book fashion (also utilised a lot by Paul Jennings) in which another similar story happens a second time, but with a different main character. This time it’s an elephant, and the reveal is that the elephant learned to talk and got sick of an Englishman who was trying German irregular verbs on it.

The joke is readily understood by any English speaker who has ever tried learning German verb conjugation. (Though English is far less regular than German.) Note that Saki has not waited until the final paragraph to mention the elephant — one of the characters suggested elephants at the dinner party, since elephants can’t sneak about under chairs and whatnot and therefore make a safe subject.

It’s a good idea to prepare the reader in this way if you mean to end your short story like this. This is how you get your ending to feel ‘both expected and surprising’. Otherwise, readers will complain that the ending feels ‘tacked on’.

Elephants are an excellent choice for this final episode. My father remembers a traveling circus coming to the small town of Amberley. This was the 1950s. He and another boy rode their bikes to see the animals before the circus opened, one evening in summer. The friend had nothing to offer the elephant, so offered it a stone. The elephant took the stone in its trunk, perhaps thinking it was a peanut. But after realising its mistake, the elephant heaved the stone at the boy. The elephant seemed to know it had been tricked, then exacted revenge.

HOW WOULD YOU ILLUSTRATE THIS CAT?

The wonderful thing about cats is that they can be depicted in so many ways, from contemplative, gentle, silky creatures to mischievous tricksters to evil familiars.

wood engraving by Tirzah Garwood Ravilious  The Cat Wife, 1930 a LaFontaine fable
wood engraving by Tirzah Garwood Ravilious The Cat Wife, 1930 a LaFontaine fable

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Compare “The Child” by Ali Smith, in which a woman finds a baby in her supermarket trolley. The child can talk, and it says nasty things.

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