Cannonball Simp by John Burningham Analysis

Cannonball Simp cover

Cannonball Simp is a picture book written and illustrated by John Burningham, first published 1966. This is a story from an earlier Golden Age of children’s literature, one in which ending up in a circus is a good outcome, and also, well, words sometimes change.

It’s shame that the 2020 meaning of the word ‘simp’ means something completely different, but there’s always a chance that a harmless word used in 1966 by a children’s storyteller will be appropriated by terrible people at some point. I won’t link to a definition here. Those who don’t know the modern meaning are ill-advised to find out.

Cannonball Simp by John Burningham clown

SETTING OF SIMP

  1. PERIOD — The twentieth century
  2. DURATION — A week or so? In human time, not much. For Simp, it would feel more like a year, with the complete rollercoaster of emotions.
  3. LOCATION — England
  4. ARENA — The story is mythic structure and readers will conceive of this story as a road/path through a large arena of space.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — Cities and suburbs, finally the enclosed arena of a circus, narrowing down to a stage surrounded by an adoring crowd.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — This story is very much contingent upon human technology. Simp is a dog living within a human domain and utterly dependent upon the kindness of humans. There’s no fairytale forest where she might live a lonely but well-fed existence.
  7. WEATHER — John Burningham’s illustrations are gritty and the hand of the artist is evidence, resulting in a grungy feel which puts the viewer in mind of the dirtiness of the human inhabitated spaces but also of an inhospitable climate. This feeling peaks when Simp looks at the clown through the window of his caravan. The clown’s nose is clownish, but almost makes him look like he’s got a headcold.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The dog catcher and his van are crucial.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — The wider world is industrialised to the point where everyone is too busy getting on with their aspirationally capitalist lives to notice or care for an abandoned pup among them.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Simp sees the world exactly how it is — she knows she is unpretty and that this will hamper her chances of finding a family and a loving home. Until she happens upon the circus, she does not know that the circus is another place to find misfits, and that as a misfit she’ll find a home there.

STORY STRUCTURE OF SIMP

There are many stories about outcast animals or creatures who wander round narrowly avoiding death until finding a new family. We see numerous examples in fairytale. Cannonball Simp reminds me of two fairytales in particular: Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling. Hans Christian Andersen was especially attracted to stories about rejected outcasts.

PARATEXT

A small dog, abandoned near a trash dump and captured by a dog catcher, finds a home for herself when she is befriended by a circus clown whose act needs improving.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

Simp is ugly.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but only because people are ridiculous. Racism extends to black dogs. Golden dogs don’t suffer the same suspicion and are more easily rehomed.

She will eventually meet the human equivalent of an abandoned dog — a clown who is first outcast by society by dint of being a clown, and then by the circus men who will fire him if he can’t make enough money for them.

DESIRE

Simp wants a family. Every child’s basic need and readily relatable.

OPPONENT

First the owner of her mother doesn’t want her. Then society ignores her as an outcast. This general indifference coalesces in the dogcatcher.

Because this is a mythic journey, Simp also meets characters who help her. The rats at the garbage dump give her bread, but can’t find enough food for themselves let along a dog, and advise her to move on. (That’s the part that reminds me of Thumbelina.)

PLAN

Since this is a melodramatic tale, Simp has no plan until she starts to feel less thrown around by circumstances. The change happens when she has the idea to be a cannonball. (This is the point where I worry for Simp.) Normally the plan part of a story happens before the big battles, interwoven into the character’s struggles, but in this case, the planning stage comes later, after the near death experience.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

The dog with the beard is functioning as the wise old man archetype. The knowing reader will understand that, without a family to collect her, Simp is destined for the gas chamber. This is a good example of a plot point that will be understood differently by differently aged readers; the reader too young to understand the stakes is also too young to deal with those stakes.

'Cannonball Simp' 1966 Written and illustrated by John Burningham (1936 - 2019)

But Simp manages to escape from the dog catcher.

ANAGNORISIS

Simp’s first revelation coincides with her plan — she may be ugly but she makes a good cannonball owing to her blackness and rotundity.

NEW SITUATION

Simp will continue to live with the clown, still on the road, but this time with a new family. Not only has he found a family, he has also found an adoring audience who love to see him shot out of a cannon.

We know the moment Simp has found her new family: She sleeps at the end of the clown’s bed.

Cannonball Simp bedroom

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

I know we’re supposed to believe this is perfectly safe, but I believe there’s an accident waiting to happen.

But even if the cannonball trick works well forever, I’m still salty that the clown and the dog are making money for those capitalist fuckers who run the circus, who are quite happy to metaphorically fire their talent. It would’ve been a happier ending if the clown and the dog struck out on their own, imo.

Green is well known as a calming colour, but is also useful if you want to create something magical and eerie.
Green is well known as a calming colour, but is also useful if you want to create something magical and eerie.

RESONANCE

Apart from the degradation of the word ‘simp’, a few other cultural evolutions have happened since Cannonball Simp was published, and these I can’t complain about: More and more parents avoid supporting the exploitative industry of the traditional travelling circus, which is basically terrible for animals. Therefore I’d guess that fewer modern children will have ever seen a circus, familiar with the basic concept only via retro children’s stories such as this one. Modern children, at least where I live, will have been to related festivals and carnivals such as rural ‘shows’, which are less and less about the stock animals and more about the coffee, the rides and the show bags.

I was a child of the 80s and I did visit the circus once. Significantly, I was taken by my Nana rather than by my parents. My grandparents’ generation were about the last en masse to consider a trip to the circus an important part of childhood.

The circus still exists. However, I haven’t been. I don’t know anyone who’d support the industry and fail to see how they survive in Australia. I guess the shows look a little different these days, but who knows.

Cannonball Simp was adapted for TV in the 1980s, which was the tail end of the golden age of the circus.

THE STORYBOOK CIRCUS

The change in approach to the storybook circus mirrors changes to the storybook zoo. Below are some circus illustrations from various picture books.

The circus hasn’t always involved the iconic big tent. These illustrations by Anto Pieck show how the circus evolved from showing off in the town square. Then I guess locals get bored of your tricks so you start travelling from town to town, finding a new audience.

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Clowns in Art and Storytelling

'Hippodrome' (4 Clowns) - Poster by Jules Chèret, 1882

Once upon a time clowns were an un-ironic take on the jester archetype. Storytellers could make use of clowns to lighten a mood. Shakespeare did it.

Toon. A comic relief character generally intended to be recognized as such — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are toons (most of Shakespeare’s comic relief characters are toons). Toons have a limited place in fiction; an excess of them can render an otherwise serious work trivial. (CSFW: David Smith)

A Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction
1922 Vintage Ad Cover- Jester with Pumpkin. E.M. Jackson, illustrator
1922 Vintage Ad Cover- Jester with Pumpkin. E.M. Jackson, illustrator. Jesters are associated with tricks and tricks are associated with Halloween.
Poster by L. Bakst, 1899
Poster by L. Bakst, 1899

BRINGING IN THE CLOWNS

When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring in a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing in the clowns every so often to lighten things up.

Kurt Vonnegut

THE TRICKSTER CLOWN

The clown in a story is often a trickster. The lucky thing about villain tricksters: they can be outwitted. They are frequently single-mindedly focused on wreaking havoc and can be therefore be taken by surprise.

THE SCARY CLOWN

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Parody children's book cover, blending IT by Stephen King with the style of Dr Seuss. The commentary here is obvious: clowns are inherently scary, even when we design them for children. (Artist unknown.)
Parody children’s book cover, blending IT by Stephen King with the style of Dr Seuss. The commentary here is obvious: clowns are inherently scary, even when we design them for children. (Artist unknown.)

Take a look at children’s stories, toys and merchandise from the 20th century and clown archetypes are everywhere. The Jack-in-the-box below wears a jester’s hat, but also wears the red nose of a clown.

Perhaps children of the first and second Golden Ages didn’t find clowns so scary. Would this chalk packaging fly today? The concept is funny, end result terrifying.

Clown chalk packaging copyright notice reads 1938
Clown chalk packaging copyright notice reads 1938
Coca Cola advertisement creepy
I find it impossible to conclude that the smile on this boy was meant to be creepy, as the advertisers are clearly trying to sell a beverage to as many people as possible. This is possibly the best evidence I can find of the (modern conception of a) ‘creepy smile’ coded as ‘enthusiastic’ for an early 20th century audience.

Were clowns always a bit terrifying, though? I don’t think we can blame Stephen King for ruining clowns. An alternative theory: Early children’s stories expected to both scare AND entertain (as well as teach). There was perhaps less expectation that books would be soothing.

Remember, your skeleton is always smiling

Holly Brockwell

Part of their scariness, I believe, comes from their maquillage — make up so thick and exaggerated that it functions as a mask. The smile only makes it worse. Why? Why is the smile worse?

1947

I wondered if those smiles were meant to be creepy until I happened upon this image, and its purpose: The smiling sun below graces the cover of a picture book celebrating the 50th anniversary of Queen Wilhelmina’s reign in Holland (now The Netherlands). I think we can all agree this creepy smile was not meant to be creepy.

HET GOUDEN PRENTENBOEK (1948) Piet Worm
from Eric Kincaid’s Alice in Wonderland cheshire cat
The Cheshire Cat from Eric Kincaid’s Alice in Wonderland

When describing the ogre from Greek myth, Baubo, Diane Purkiss has this to say about the associations between terror and smiling:

Fear provokes laughter as easily as screams. Children often laugh when they are frightened. Both fear and laughter depend on surprise, the rupture of expectations. Many demons found their way into the repertoire of comic masks. Aristophanes uses the word for hobgoblin to mean both demon and a comic mask. In an exactly similar way, the Romans hung masks called oscilla (literally, ‘little faces’) in trees to frighten away ghosts, yet the masks could be called by the same naes as the demons they were supposed to frighten. … Play (meaning both theatre and games) is central to demons. Terror, when acted out, is displaced, managed, controlled.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

Comedians are supposed to have sad lives, though this isn’t a cliche I entirely endorse, the sad clown not a type I’ve ever come across whereas the mean clown, the selfish clown and the downright unpleasant clown are commonplace.

Alan Bennett, Radio and TV, Untold Stories

When illustrating a smile, it’s easy to depict a scary grimace. The line is pretty fine. I can’t say what the artist was going for in the dog illustration below, but if they were going for scary, they managed it. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s I.T.

"Tige" His Story 1905 Richard Felton Outcault clown face
“Tige” His Story 1905 Richard Felton Outcault clown face

Why can an illustrated smile so easily turn evil? It’s probably an evolutionary thing. When apes and monkeys ‘grin’ at each other they are showing their teeth to convey how they could rip you to pieces if they sunk their incisors into you. Our pet dogs still use their teeth in that way despite thousands of years of domestication. So do people. We are highly attuned to the fake smile. There’s nothing more fake than a painted on smile. This fakeness explains the scariness of the clown’s smile.

J. Kuzich Del Monte Foods 1971
Fortunately someone had the foresight to not give this clown a knife. J. Kuzich Del Monte Foods, 1971.

Many children’s book villains have clownish features without conforming fully to the clown archetype. Mean Old Mister Minky of the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories shares in common with clowns those big, wide eyes and the face in rictus, rendered only slightly comical by the concentrating tongue. Mister Minky is a clown-goblin-jester mixture of dastardness.

Mister Minky catches Raggedy Ann and Andy
Mister Minky catches Raggedy Ann and Andy.

Gargamel of the Smurfs came later but is a similar archetype to Mister Minky, with his big wide eyes and long nose. The long nose denotes old age but the tufts of hair around the ears with nothing on top now look clownish… We might expect this hair to denote unmarked old age. The receding hairline presents in many men, but this hairstyle (non style?) has been used so frequently in recent clown archetypes one simply cannot get away with it in real life.

Pennywise the Clown from 1990 with his receding hairline and long back and sides.
Pennywise the Clown from 1990 with his receding hairline and long back and sides.

Noteworthy is what the Japanese call ‘wakahage‘ (youth balding), which is a less judgemental word than ‘premature balding’ (who’s to say what’s ‘premature’?). All actors who play both Pennywise and Gargamel in the ‘live action’ film adaptations are young men with full heads of hair who need to have their pate covered. The red hair of Pennywise suggests youth, though the balding does not. Again, the juxtaposition is important when it comes to clowns. Juxtaposition creates unease.

THE LONELY CLOWN

Loneliness takes many forms. If clowns are surrounded by people and they take it upon themselves to cheer everybody else up, they fall into the category of the Appreciated Outsider. The lonely person who does not appear to be lonely is wearing a metaphorical mask, which turns into a literal mask in the case of a clown, whose face is so altered by make-up that the real person is no longer visible underneath. There’s nothing more lonely than being ignored when surrounded by people. A rule of the narrative mask: The character who wears a mask will never find happiness until the mask comes off. Clowns must become known before they find friends.

The Lonely Clown archetype doesn’t always look like a clown, and the clownishness of a character doesn’t always endure throughout a story. An example of a temporary Lonely Clown can be seen in American Beauty (1999), in which Lester’s wife Carolyn sings “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in the car. The story is not about Carolyn, and she is not a sympathetic character, but we can deduce that if Lester is isolated within their marriage then Carolyn is suffering equally. We get a few brief glimpses.

In the scene below, the juxtaposition between Carolyn’s inner loneliness contrasts with the upbeat, carnivalesque nature of the song and her rendition of it, which together evoke the classic Lonely Clown idea. Carolyn’s loneliness is only magnified by the happy song, because the audience can see she is wearing a mask.

(Also relevant, we associated clowns with parades.)

An outstanding picture book example of a lonely clown is The Farmer And The Clown by Marla Frazee. In line with picture book ‘rules’, the story ends with a clown character who is no longer lonely, reunited with family in this case. But the Lonely Clown archetype is at play. For a depiction of a lonely landscape conveyed entirely via art work, check out this book as a mentor text.

CLOWN AS LIMINAL CREATURE

Robert Ingpen, Australian, 1936 From the book Halloween Circus, written by Charise Neugebauer
Robert Ingpen, Australian, 1936 From the book Halloween Circus, written by Charise Neugebauer

The clown is an outsider, lonely because he is alone on his stage, never truly known. He exists on the fringe of our culture, and therefore makes the perfect liminal creature. In Ingpen’s illustration above the clown exists in a graveyard, another liminal space, where the living go to greet the dead, forced to contemplate their own mortality.

Header illustration: ‘Hippodrome’ (4 Clowns) – Poster by Jules Chèret, 1882

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Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques

IT 2017 movie poster

IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.

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THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT

I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.

He’s also one-dimensional.

Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:

  • In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
  • In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
  • In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.

And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.

IT: MODERN MONSTER

IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.

SETTING OF IT

Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.

Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.

A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.
A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.

CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS

One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:

Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.

Richie Tozier : I hear the list is longer than my wang.
Stanley Uris : That’s not saying much.

Richie Tozier : Hey Eddie, are these your birth control pills?
Eddie Kaspbrak : Yeah, I’m saving them for your sister!

I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.

It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.

CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR

Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.

This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.

There’s a nail in the door
And there’s glass on the lawn
Tacks on the floor
And the TV is on
And I always sleep with my guns
When you’re gone

There’s a blade by the bed
And a phone in my hand
A dog on the floor
And some cash on the nightstand
When I’m all alone the dreaming stops
And I just can’t stand

On it goes. Fans of child literature, however, are more likely to think of the eponymous but innocent story by Margaret Wise Brown.

That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:

If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.

Creepy Children Singing

The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.

Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.

The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.

RELATED

10 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen King’s IT from Mental Floss

How IT handles the book’s most controversial scene from Entertainment Weekly

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The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee Analysis

the farmer and the clown

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 The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories, even when those stories don’t have words.

(Frazee is pronounced FRAY-zee.)

The Farmer and the Clown is part of a trilogy. Frazee has said that they can be read ‘individually, and taken together, with a beginning, middle and end. The FARMER AND THE MONKEY is the “winter” book; a time of seeking warmth.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN

The Farmer and The Clown is an example of a carnivalesque story. Carnivalesque stories are popular with children. ‘Carnivalesque’ is a term coined by a guy called Mikhail Bahktin to describe the kind of story in which a character breaks away from ordinary life for a while and has fun. At the end of the story the character returns to their ordinary life. In this case, two characters go off on a picnic.

Carnivalesque tales don’t necessarily have a single thing to do with ‘carnivals’, though in The Farmer and The Clown, Frazee has taken characters from a circus to use in her story.

Farmer and the Clown circus wagon

For more on picnics in children’s literature, see this post.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER AND WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEM?

Who is the main character? This question isn’t always as easy to answer as it seems. In this case the title suggests two characters who are equally central to the story. Sometimes a story is about a pair/group of people equally. If you’re not sure, here’s the question to ask: Who changes the most over the course of the story?

I argue that the farmer changes the most. Therefore, the farmer is the main character in this story, by a little bit. The young clown also changes, I guess. He or she learns that being separated from family can be fun, but not for too long or you start to get homesick.

What’s wrong with the farmer? He is isolated. The single chair on the verandah shows that he lives alone, and we know that even before we’re inside his house.

What’s wrong with the child clown? They are missing their own family, and because of youth, there’s no easy way to get back.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Carnivalesque stories tend to be unvarying in some of these steps. In a carnivalesque tale, the characters always desire fun. They desire a break from the routine and restrictions of their regular lives. But they also need to return to those regular lives at the end of the story. Unending fun is as terrible as never-ending routine.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

This is tough. I’m trying to persuade you that every story needs an opponent. But where’s the opponent in this story? At first glance there is no opponent — just hard circumstances (falling off a wagon and becoming separated from family).

Here’s the thing, though: ‘Opposition’ is often very subtle. All this means is that the characters want different things. It doesn’t mean they have to have a big fight because of their differences. Sometimes the characters are very loving. (Another example of this kind of story is Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, in which two characters are always happy in each other’s company, never arguing.)

Frazee depicts a different kind of opposition in this wordless picturebook.

Look at the farmer’s face when we first see him. He looks grumpy, right? We assume he’s a grumpy old miser who prefers to be alone.

Look at the little clown’s face. They have a painted on smile, but we assume he is happy. It’s only when the facepaint is washed off that we see they are not happy at all.

Frazee thereby presents an opposition between the characters and the reader, bringing the reader into the story as one of the participants.

When the farmer says goodbye to the little clown, his hands are clasped firmly behind his back. This tells us that he knows he has to say goodbye to the little clown, but he doesn’t want to. He’s restraining himself from leaping forward and keeping the clown for himself.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The farmer watches the clown sleep, wondering what to do

The farmer has no idea how to get the clown back with their family, so he simply looks after them. When the little clown becomes sad, he goes out of his way to make their time together fun, by teaching the clown how to milk a cow, by doing tricks with his hat, by taking them on a picnic.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene of this story is as subtle as the opposition. (If the opposition is subtle, the big struggle will be, too.)

The big struggle is an inner struggle. This is what makes The Farmer and The Clown so masterful — Marla Frazee uses no words, yet we still know exactly how that farmer is feeling when he is forced to say goodbye to the little clown. It’s all in those hands, clasped behind his back.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Another way of putting this: How does the character change? What is the character arc?

In old tales, like the fairytales transcribed by Charles Perrault, stories for children ended with a paragraph about what the child reader should take away from the story.

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

The ending Perrault gave to Little Red Riding Hood

These are called ‘didactic’ (moralistic) stories and are no longer published for modern kids. Exception: Overt, didactic messages are still found in ironic children’s literature, which pokes fun at those old didactic tales. Lemony Snicket started that big trend in middle grade fiction, but there must have been something in the air, because in the same year  A Series Of Unfortunate Events was published, we had the massive hit series from Nickelodeon, SpongeBob Squarepants (1999), which often ends with a mock didactic message, sometimes in the form of an outro (musical sequence to end on).

Contemporary stories, even for the very young, are rarely obvious about what the character has learned. Sometimes, even in picture books, the character winds up dead, and has therefore learned nothing!

Still, characters must change in some way. We deduce this change for ourselves. The farmer now knows what it is to have young company. When he leaps into the air, trying to cheer up the little clown to get him out of bed the next morning, I’m reminded of Grandpa George from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Frazee makes use of the trope that old people regain some of their youthful vigour when exposed to youth and novelty.

Frazee received a letter from a grandmother whose three year old granddaughter had made the observation that when we meet someone, even after that person moves on, we have kept something about that person and made it a part of ourselves. (That kid is an emotional genius.) We deduce that the farmer has changed simply from spending a bit of time with this child.

How does the reader change?

Marla Frazee loves a Mem Fox quote which goes something like, “A good picture book changes the reader’s emotional temperature over the course of the story.”

In a story, it’s not always the character who changes. Oftentimes it’s the reader. Did you find yourself welling up as you finished reading The Farmer and the Clown? I did! I was perfectly happy before I opened this book, but by the end my emotional temperature had certainly changed.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

The young clown will be with his real family. The farmer has a new companion, so we can extrapolate that he won’t be as lonely as he was before.

Farmer and the Clown reunited
Found Family

A lot of children’s stories are about ‘found family’. A young character has no family, or a terrible family, so goes out into the big, wide world and meets a person/people to call kith and kin. This kind of story can still work, so long as the author makes it clear that the child had no family to begin with. Contemporary stories about found family have a real-life political backdrop of children who have been taken from their families, often for no good reason. Speaking of Samson and Delilah, here in Australia The Stolen Generation and their descendants are still dealing with the intergenerational trauma of Australia’s White Australia policy, in which Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in White families. Other countries have similar histories.

This is why every piece of art is political. When authors write picture books, even carnivalesque picture books like The Farmer and the Clown, history has an impact on the story. When the young clown reunites with his family of clowns, this is a good thing. We know this, because the clowns are clearly excited to see him (or her). The farmer may or may not be sad to see him go, and lonely from now on. Frazee’s ending makes for a perfect blend of bittersweet which, ideologically, is very much a story of its time: ‘If you have a family who care for you, your own people are always the best people for you.’

Marla Frazee softens the ending a bit. When you turn the page, the final spot illustration shows that the monkey has jumped off the wagon to join the farmer. The monkey has one finger to his/her lips, looking conspiratorially at the reader. A lot of picture books end in this way — this is a circular plot. Now we know that this story is going to play out again, but this time with a monkey. Perhaps the clowns won’t come back for the monkey. This is acceptable in a contemporary milieu because the  monkey never was part of the clown family — itself stolen from its own kin. We can imagine the monkey will stay with the farmer forever, keeping him company.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN

Marla Frazee works with real media rather than digital illustration. She feels that even when hand-painting something that would be heaps faster on a computer, the subtle difference between hand-painted and digitally painted art is worth it. As a child she hugely appreciated the time and effort that went into the illustrations that appeared in her favourite picture books. (I would like to add, from experience, that it’s perfectly possible to do painstaking hand-drawn work straight onto a computer, via a tablet.)

Marla Frazee says in this video that she is influenced by Maurice Sendak, who is most famous for Where The Wild Things Are. It’s easy to forget this now, but when Wild Things came out it was unlike anything that had come before, in its honest expression of a child’s strong emotions.

Frazee was also influenced by Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCluskey (who also wrote Make Way For Ducklings).

Frazee also says she loves stories in which an older person tells a story about what happened to them as a younger person, which then inspired what they do as adults. The fancy name for this kind of story is hypodiegetic narration.

The farmer’s cottage in the middle of nowhere reminds me very much of the setting of Courage the Cowardly Dog, a Cartoon Network show from the late 1990s.

Farmer's house Farmer and the Clown
Nowhere, Courage the Cowardly Dog

A small, rickety house in the middle of an empty plain also reminds me a lot of Samson and Delilah, an Australian film about two Aboriginal teens learning to live independently in the Australian outback. (A must watch for teenage viewers and older, because not much of Australia looks like the set of Neighbours or Home and Away.)

Samson and Delilah outback cottage

When characters exist in a small cottage in the middle of nowhere, this increases the vulnerability, which also increases our sympathy. Notice too how Marla Frazee chose to keep her ‘camera’ higher than the characters. We’re looking at the farmer and the clown as if we’re up high, like we’re birds. This also makes the pair seem vulnerable, and also young and small. Even though the farmer is an adult, we can consider both farmer and clown as children. They both have a childlike sense of fun.

When the child clown reunites with his clown family inside the wagon, we know that the farmer will be alone once more. Did you feel a pang of sadness for him?

Colour Palette of The Farmer and the Clown

The palette is ochres, though the end papers are red to lend some colour. (Clowns are also associated with red because of their noses.) The clowns themselves are colourful, showing that they are not a part of this environment. The clowns belong to an entirely different world.

Dreamy
Farmer and Clown picnic

Many of the illustrations are not full bleed, meaning they don’t fill the entire page. (I’m not talking about the spot illustrations either, which are small pictures without the background.) A number of the illustrations in this book are almost a cross between full bleed and spot, with a fuzzy border. This lends a dreamy atmosphere to the story. Have you ever had an unusual experience which, looking back, feels almost like you dreamt it? For me, the years I spent in Japan as an exchange student feel like a dream now, because the experience was so different from my normal life and also because it happened a long time ago. I’m not sure young readers have been around long enough to know what memories turn into after several decades, but adult readers would.

Continuous Narrative in The Farmer and The Clown

There is a type of narrative art known as ‘continuous narrative‘. Marla Frazee is a big fan of this type of illustration, and includes an example in most of her picture books. Here’s an example:

continuous narrative from Farmer and the Clown

The youngest readers of picture books don’t understand that there is only one little clown. They think there are six identical clowns. But after exposure to enough books, we learn to decode pictures as they are intended: There are not six clowns but one, and this is the same clown in six different states. Continuous narrative in illustration is good for depicting movement.

STORY SPECS OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN

The Farmer and The Clown won the Horn Book’s ‘Mock Caldecott’ 2015 by a country mile, but lost out when it came to the real Caldecott Medal. (You know what won? Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, also very good, obviously.)

Marla Frazee is also well-known for illustrating the Clementine middle grade novels and for writing Boss Baby, recently turned into a feature film by DreamWorks.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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