Whimsy: What does it mean for a book to be whimsical?

Milo Winter (1888 – 1956)

What are the common features of popular works commonly described as ‘whimsical’? A long while ago I swapped a middle grade critique with someone who had used ‘whimsical’ in the title of their work, yet the story itself did not feel whimsical. I started to wonder about the unspoken rules of ‘whimsical’. But could I be wrong about ‘whimsical’? What what does whimsy mean? Is it possible to list the attributes of this aesthetic?

Here are some examples of how ‘whimsical’ is often used in the marketing copy of books:

Suki’s favorite possession is her blue cotton kimono. A gift from her obachan, it holds special memories of her grandmother’s visit last summer. And Suki is going to wear it on her first day back to school — no matter what anyone says.

When it’s Suki’s turn to share with her classmates what she did during the summer, she tells them about the street festival she attended with her obachan and the circle dance that they took part in. In fact, she gets so carried away reminiscing that she’s soon humming the music and dancing away, much to the delight of her entire class!

Filled with gentle enthusiasm and a touch of whimsy, Suki’s Kimono is the joyful story of a little girl whose spirit leads her to march — and dance — to her own drumbeat.

MARKETING COPY

Magic and whimsy meet in this Howl’s Moving Castle for a new generation from the critically adored Sophie Anderson, author of The House with Chicken Legs.

Twelve-year-old Olia knows a thing or two about secrets. Her parents are the caretakers of Castle Mila, a soaring palace with golden domes, lush gardens, and countless room. Literally countless rooms. There are rooms that appear and disappear, and rooms that have been hiding themselves for centuries. The only person who can access them is Olia. She has a special bond with the castle, and it seems to trust her with its secrets.

But then a violent storm rolls in . . . a storm that skips over the village and surrounds the castle, threatening to tear it apart. While taking cover in a rarely-used room, Olia stumbles down a secret passage that leads to a part of Castle Mila she’s never seen before. A strange network of rooms that hide the secret to the castle’s past . . . and the truth about who’s trying to destroy it.

A heartfelt middle-grade novel from New York Times bestselling author Barbara O’Connor about a boy whose life is upended after the loss of his older brother–timeless, classic, and whimsical.

Walter Tipple is looking for adventure. He keeps having a dream that his big brother, Tank, appears before him and says, “Let’s you and me go see my world, little man.” But Tank went to the army and never came home, and Walter doesn’t know how to see the world without him.

Then he meets Posey, the brash new girl from next door, and an eccentric man named Banjo, who’s off on a bodacious adventure of his own. What follows is a summer of taking chances, becoming braver, and making friends–and maybe Walter can learn who he wants to be without the brother he always wanted to be like.

Halfway to Harmony is an utterly charming story about change and growing up.

This French book by Camille Jourdy is part of a series described as ‘whimsical’ in French about a girl who goes into the forest and encounters fantastic creatures called Les Vermeilles.

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The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame Analysis

Wind in the Willows cover David Petersen

The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).

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Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel Analysis

Owl At Home is a 1975 picture book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book comprises five very short early reader stories about a kind, anxious and lonely owl. These owl stories, along with the frog and toad stories come from the second phase of Lobel’s creative career, in which he tapped into his own emotions and acknowledged he was writing “adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories”.

In the classroom, Lobel’s picture book would make a good companion to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “To The Moon“. Owl At Home would also make a good introduction to discussions about the theme of loneliness, present in a great many works.

Owl lives by himself in a regular Western-style dream house (with the upstairs, the hearth, and everything you’d expect to see in a picture book dream house). Although published in the 1970s, there’s nothing 70s about this dream house — there are 1800s/early 1900s details, such as the candle beside the bed. (There doesn’t seem to be electricity.) Picture books set in this era feel atemporal to a modern audience. I’m not sure if this house is in fact inside a tree, because we don’t get an establishing shot.

Owl at Home (1975) black and white
Owl at Home (1975) black and white
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Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg Analysis

Burglar Bill is a picture book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, first published in 1977. There are a number of picture books about burglars who break into houses at night, one of a child’s greatest fears going to sleep. Burglars can be found all across children’s literature. (Enid Blyton loved burglars.)

Be sure to examine the pictures in this one as there are plenty of visual gags. I love that Burglar Bill hangs a mugshot of himself on the wall.

I believe Burglar Bill has been hugely influential on the comical burglar stories that came after, notably:

Children’s comedy cartoons often include an intruder episode as well:

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Tree Houses, Forts and Huts in Children’s Illustration

No Girls Allowed by Stevan Dohanos

One major task for the children’s storyteller: Getting parents out of the story. Children need to be the drivers of their own narratives. Storytellers have come up with many ways of getting adult helpers and caregivers out of the way.

Here’s another: Give the child a home of their own. Within the world of the story, this play home may function as the permanent home. Or it may be a temporary construction with the safety of real home nearby. Doesn’t matter.

Sometimes barns are used for this purpose. Fern Arable’s ‘other’ home was the barn, and her ‘other family’ comprised the animals who lived in the barn. (Charlotte’s Web)

Ships and boats are also useful as second homes. They often end up on islands, where the child is free to do exactly as they wish for a little while before returning home. See Where The Wild Things Are.

Or perhaps the children go camping and pitch a tent. This might be in the back yard.

Scene from Bluey, made in Australia, a series all about having fun at home, dealing with emotions, suffering through rifts and making up.

Then there are forts.

Kids begin to build forts indoors around age 4, Sobel found, then start venturing outside around age 6 or 7 to construct dens, treehouses and other fort-like structures more independently, a practice that continues into their tweens. Metaphorically and physically, building forts reflects children’s growth as individuals, Sobel says; they create a “home away from home,” free from parental control. Forts also foster creativity.

Why Kids Love Building Forts

But I do love a good tree house.

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Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Blueberries For Sal (1948) is a picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, also well-known for Make Way For Ducklings. Both stories are thrillers for the preschool set, especially this one. In fact, I’m about to try and convince you that Blueberries For Sal is the inspiration behind Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, with blueberries swapped out for drug money.

McCloskey makes use of a number of established thriller genre techniques in this story, and creates an exciting yet cosy tale. How does he accomplish that? Let’s take a look.

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Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown Analysis

Creepy Carrots book cover

Creepy Carrots (2012) is a picture book written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. For anyone wondering how to create a scary book for the very young reader without keeping them awake all night, this book is our masterclass in the horror-comedy blend.

First of all, the story is about carrots — a familiar, everyday food item not typically associated with horror. This story is therefore an inherently funny ironic juxtaposition.

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Little House On The Prairie Analysis

Little House On The Prairie cover

Every year my kid and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that they’re 12, they’re ready for the books. The kid picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge.

They also appeal to the wish fulifillment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communities, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.

From Jugend, 1904
From Jugend, 1904
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Haystacks In Art and Storytelling

'Every trapdoor must have a lid and a railing' Illustrator unknown, 1930s barn hay

Haystacks and haybales are multivalent symbols in storytelling, utilised in horror as well as in cosy pastoral stories.

The Thing That Stalks The Fields is a supernatural story about haystacks. It is also an example of a creepypasta.

A creepypasta is an urban legend for the Internet age: a paranormal story that has become a meme. In earlier days of the Internet, memes were ‘copy and pasted’ rather than ‘reblogged’, ‘retweeted’ and ‘shared’. ‘Creepypasta’ is a corruption of ‘copy paste’. (Nothing to do with pasta.) Like a tall tale told around the campfire, the aim is to shock readers by sort of getting them to… believe it.

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