“Purple Blooms” is a short story by American-born Canadian writer Carol Shields (1935 – 2003), included in the collection Various Miracles (1985).
This short story showcases how different the lyrical short form can be from the novel. For one thing, “Purple Blooms” doesn’t seem to have a typical ending. Look closer, and that’s because the plot is an unusual shape: Cumulative. Another short story with a cumulative plot shape is “The Fifth Story” by Clarice Lispector, though Lispector’s story is more obviously so. In a cumulative story the author keeps circling around a topic, enlarging it with each revisit.
Sometimes, the shape of a lyrical short story echoes its symbol web. In this case, I feel the shape of the story continues the motif of ‘blooming’. The ‘purple bloom’ of the title is a verb as well as a noun; to bloom is to start small and then, well, blossom. That’s how it feels to read a short story shaped in this fashion. This plot shape is especially well-suited to the short form. The shorter the better, probably. Adult readers have limited patience for revisiting something over and over. (In contrast, the cumulative plot shape is far more common in picture books. Young children seem to require repetition; it helps them to learn language and to understand their world.)
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain (1981) is a cumulative picture book written by Verna Aardema and illustrated by and Beatriz Vidal. The rhyming scheme borrows from the well-known childhood rhyme, “This is the house that Jack built“.
Vidal’s illustrations have a folktale vibe about them, partly due to those nice white outlines reminiscent of a woodcut.
I don’t know how Kapiti is meant to be pronounced — semi-arid lands in Kenya with a 550mm average rainfall — but my pronunciation is influenced by the name of the south-western North Island of New Zealand, called Kapiti Coast, in which the first syllable is stressed.
Here is a PDF of a book written by a white person about the Nandi people in 1909, so you can guess what to expect, but it does include a collection of Nandi folktales. On page 123, I was interested to find a Nandi equivalent of “The House That Jack Built” cumulative tales, because this style of story can be found all over the world. However, it’s not this one. It’s a story about an old woman and her pig. This rhyme is clearly meant to be shared between two or more people, each taking a part. That is the joy of cumulative tales.
STORY STRUCTURE OF BRINGING THE RAIN TO KAPITI PLAIN
A cumulative rhyme relating how Ki-pat brought rain to the drought-stricken Kapiti Plain. Verna Aardema has brought the original story closer to the English nursery rhyme by putting in a cumulative refrain and giving the tale the rhythm of “The House That Jack Built.”
Why the cumulative story structure? These can be tedious to read for tired parents, especially if you’re reading at bedtime; in my experience I start yawning uncontrollably. However, a cumulative tale that builds on itself is a good narrative choice for an environmental story, because cumulative tales emphasise connections between things.
This particular story is mythic rather than scientific. But still.
Well, I’m guessing there wil be another drought in Kipat’s lifetime. At some point he’s going to learn that him shooting that arrow into the sky was coincidental rather than causal. Until then, I’m sure he’s properly full of himself.
Rain (too much and too little) is a growing problem as the climate changes.
The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash (1980) is a carnivalesque, cumulative picture book written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. This picture book is a great mentor text for the way it handles dialogue visually, and also for the way the ironic distance between text and image expands at the end, leading to a satisfying climax.
Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present (1993) is a picture book written and illustrated by British storyteller John Burningham. The pacing in this story is a little different to most picture books seen in bookstores today. The word count is higher than 300-400 words. There’s a reason for this. The cumulative nature of this narrative feels designed to lull excited children to sleep on Christmas Eve.
I know it’s a hugely controversial thing to say that some reading material is designed to lull children to sleep. After all, shouldn’t reading be fun and exciting at all times, to hook kids on reading? I don’t think this is the case in reality. Some books are writtten to soothe and calm. Also, I feel there is a time and a place for lulling children to sleep. I suspect this story can do the trick nicely. Also, kids seem to have a much higher tolerance for repeating scenes than I do; it is in fact myself who starts yawning uncontrollably while reading some stories structured like this one. (Also, I suspect some kids will be riled up by the excitement of what’s in Harvey’s present.)
“The Fifth Story” (1964) is a work of microfiction by Ukraine-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977). I tend to analyse short stories by looking at their dramatic arc, but what of a story like this? Surely “The Fifth Story” does not fit traditional ideas of what makes a complete narrative.
I also love when I read a story for adults which helps me to understand how children’s story works. (It more often works the other way, to be fair.)
If I could persuade the fiction writers of the world to do one thing every year, it would be to read the winners of the Newbery Medal and other awards for best children’s literature. Writers of children’s fiction know that the apparent simplicity of the novel is anything but simple to write. Yet, their accomplishment offer superb models of all elements of craft.
The author of “The Fifth Story” introduces the story as a story, author to reader, forewarning us not to expect the usual structure. Is this necessary when writing a non-traditional story? Interesting question. When users of a product (or readers of a narrative) know approximately what to expect, reception tends to be better. Consider this the cover copy as intro:
This story could be called “The Statues.” Another possible title would be “The Killing.” Or even “How to Kill Cockroaches.” So I shall tell at least three stories, all of them true, because none of the three will contradict the others. Although they constitute one story, they could become a thousand and one, were I to be granted a thousand and one nights.
Jane Alison explains: ‘The first incarnation of the story is a sketch of events minus detail or depth.’
The first story, “How To Kill Cockroaches,” begins like this: I was complaining about the cockroaches. A woman heard me complain. She gave me a recipe for killing them. I was to mix together equal quantities of sugar, flour and gypsum. The flour and sugar would attract the cockroaches, the gypsum would dry up their insides. I followed her advice. The cockroaches died.
‘Next comes the second story: same beginning and plot, but the loupe now magnifies the desire to kill cockroaches.’ (I love Alison’s use of the word ‘loupe’, a small magnifying glass used by jewellers and watchmakers.) Though this story seems to wave dismissively at traditional narrative structure, I note with interest that Lispector has nonetheless started her story with
The Character’s Shortcoming (she’s been infested by cockroaches and needs them gone, but doesn’t feel comfortable as an exterminator) and
The Character’s Plan. So although this is a fractal/branching story, it still follows the ‘rules’, as I am increasingly comfortable calling them. Continue on, and we find all of the seven steps in this single loupe:
Anagnorisis, metaphorical — ‘On our behalf, it was beginning to grow light,
New Situation, ‘On a nearby hill, a cockerel crowed.’ (All is back to normal, since cockerels crow every morning, or we think they do. They actually crow all the damn time, in my experience.)
The next story is really the first, and it is called “The Killing.” It begins like this: I was complaining about the cockroaches. A woman heard me complain. The recipe follows. And then the killing takes place. The truth is that I had only complained in abstract terms about the cockroaches, for they were not even mine: they belonged to the ground floor and climbed up the pipes in the building into our apartment. It was only when I prepared the mixture that they also became mine. On our behalf, therefore, I began to measure and weigh ingredients with greater concentration. A vague loathing had taken possession of me, a sense of outrage. By day, the cockroaches were invisible and no one would believe in the evil secret which eroded such a tranquil household. But if the cockroaches, like evil secrets, slept by day, there I was preparing their nightly poison. Meticulous, eager, I prepared the elixir of prolonged death. An angry fear and my own evil secret guided me. Now I coldly wanted one thing only: to kill every cockroach in existence. Cockroaches climb up the pipes while weary people sleep. And now the recipe was ready, looking so white. As if I were dealing with cockroaches as cunning as myself, I carefully spread the powder until it looked like part of the surface dust. From my bed, in the silence of the apartment, I imagined them climbing up one by one into the kitchen where darkness slept, a solitary towel alert on the clothes-line. I awoke hours later, startled at having overslept. It was beginning to grow light. I walked across the kitchen. There they lay on the floor of the scullery, huge and brittle. During the night I had killed them. On our behalf, it was beginning to grow light. On a nearby hill, a cockerel crowed.
‘Now the third story,’ writes Jane Alison. ‘Statures”: same start and plot, but the loupe moves farther along the storyline, focusing upon the consequences of the killing. The narrator looks down upon a scene of ruin. “dawn breaking over Pompeii,” tragic cockroach carcasses caught in final expressions of self-reproach, resignation. Nuance has arrived: tragedy!’
In this loupe, again, we see the same seven step structure of a traditional narrative. (I won’t list them.)
Jane Alison has touches on the storytelling technique of ‘playing with differential sizes‘. When a storyteller zooms in and out of a scene, from micro to macro and perhaps back again, this achieves a certain psychological effect for the narratee. In this particular story, the emphasis on differential size links human (large) to cockroach (small). The message is that very small things can have a huge impact on large things. In other examples, wildebeest can die from anaemia after being ravaged by mosquitoes. Locusts destroyed crops during the American Western expansion; human lives were lost. These cockroaches, at once tiny and large (due to number) are having a massive psychological impact on the narrator of “The Fifth Story.”
The third story which now begins is called “The Statues.” It begins by saying that I had been complaining about the cockroaches . Then the same woman appears on the scene. And so it goes on to the point where I awake as it is beginning to grow light, and I awake still feeling sleepy and I walk across the kitchen. Even more sleepy is the scullery floor with its tiled perspective. And in the shadows of dawn, there is a purplish hue which distances everything; at my feet, I perceive patches of light and shade, scores of rigid statues scattered everywhere. The cockroaches that have hardened from core to shell. Some are lying upside down. Others arrested in the midst of some movement that will never be completed. In the mouths of some of the cockroaches, there are traces of white powder. I am the first to observe the dawn breaking over Pompei. I know what this night has been, I know about the orgy in the dark. In some, the gypsum has hardened as slowly as in some organic process, and the cockroaches, with ever more tortuous movements, have greedily intensified the night’s pleasures, trying to escape from their insides. Until they turn to stone, in innocent terror and with such, but such an expression of pained reproach. Others— suddenly assailed by their own core, without even having perceived that their inner form was turning to stone!— these are suddenly crystallized, just like a word arrested on someone’s lips: I love . . . The cockroaches, invoking the name of love in vain, sang on a summer’s night. While the cockroach over there, the one with the brown antennae smeared with white, must have realized too late that it had become mummified precisely because it did not know how to use things with the gratuitous grace of the in vain: “It is just that I looked too closely inside myself! it is just that I looked too closely inside . . .”— from my frigid height as a human being, I watch the destruction of a world. Dawn breaks. Here and there, the parched antennae of dead cockroaches quiver in the breeze. The cockerel from the previous story crows.
‘The fourth turns the lens inward: the narrator’s horror of murder twists away from her desire to kill. She’s slaughtered cockroaches once; can she kill again when “this same night an infestation will reappear, swarming slowly upwards”? Ah, psychological complexity.’ — Jane Alison.
This paragraph, again a complete narrative in its own right, is all about the symbolism. This story is moving from basic and concrete to increasingly crazed and other-worldly.
Lispector uses the word ‘era’ to draw time out in each direction.
She gives us witch/pagan symbolism, taking the narrator back into a distant past, where magic exists alongside everyday life.
The fourth story opens a new era in the household. The story begins as usual: I was complaining about the cockroaches. It goes on up to the point when I see the statues in plaster of Paris. Inevitably dead. I look towards the pipes where this same night an infestation will reappear, swarming slowly upwards in Indian file. Should I renew the lethal sugar every night? like someone who no longer sleeps without the avidity of some rite. And should I take myself somnambulant out to the terrace early each morning ? in my craving to encounter the statues which my perspiring night has erected. I trembled with depraved pleasure at the vision of my double existence as a witch. I also trembled at the sight of that hardening gypsum, the depravity of existence which would shatter my internal form. The grim moment of choosing between two paths, which I thought would separate, convinced that any choice would mean sacrificing either myself or my soul. I chose. And today I secretly carry a plaque of virtue in my heart: “This house has been disinfected.”
‘And finally, preposterously,’ writes Jane Alison of the fifth and final loupe.
Personally? I have no idea what this ending means. Am I meant to? Fortunately, Alison gives me some clues: ‘Self-replication with a difference: from bare incidents to melodrama to tiny tragedy to psychological story of inner struggle. And then to a wild point a hundred miles away, a point that looks outlandish, but maybe with a telescope I can just make out the path there.’
Lispector possibly refers to ‘Leibniz’s law‘, aka the Identity of Indiscernibles. (Identity as in literally ‘being the same thing as’ — the identity everything has with itself. We are all identical with ourselves.) Identical things are indiscernible. Anything with different properties can’t be identical.
Like much of philosophy, it all seems very obvious, until you really think about it. What about when the concept of identity is applied differently: Are thoughts identical to brain processes? Is your present self identical to your past self, and at what point did your present self bifurcate? We don’t necessarily know the answer to those questions, right?
The fifth story is called “Leibnitz and The Transcendence of Love in Polynesia”. . . It begins like this: I was complaining about the cockroaches.
Alison writes: ‘I do know that the story could un-end, could keep making new variations of itself forever. So how to end? Here with a mad leap, something so surprising we crash.’
Where have you seen that before? Cast your mind back to your earliest childhood. Did some of your favourite picture books end in this way, too?
THE CUMULATIVE PLOT IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
“The Fifth Story” is really interesting to a children’s literature enthusiast, because a certain subcategory of children’s picture books end in similar fashion. I have long used the word ‘cumulative’ to describe these children’s tales. But I think the cumulative picture book has the same underlying structure as this strange, literary short story for adults.
To paraphrase and dig down a level, a ‘cumulative plot’ repeats the same element over and over until suddenly the story ends. Sometimes the accumulation ends halfway and the author reverses the story, taking the reader back to the beginning (See The Gruffalo or The Enormous Crocodile.)
Unless these stories are really funny, adults can find them tiresome to read over and over, but for developmental reasons, young children love them. (Contemporary cumulative picture books are overwhelmingly in the humour category.)
When the story is funny, ridiculousness is key. Now this links back to what Jane Alison said about “The Fifth Story”, though she doesn’t apply the word ‘ridiculous’, instead its close cousin, ‘melodrama‘.
In a funny, cumulative picture book, the plot generally becomes more and more ridiculous until the ridiculousness exceeds the reader’s own capacity for imagined ridiculousness.
This is difficult to pull off, because the writer must ultimately be more imaginative than the most imaginative of readers, taking the audience that one extra step into gleeful surprise.
A great example of that kind of story is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more ridiculous could possibly get stuck in a tree, Jeffers offers a surprise. The Wonky Donkey and There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly are further examples of funny cumulative plots. (Music always helps.) https://youtu.be/rxd9Fn3sDT4
Cumulative stories of the folktale variety tend to be about co-operation. The Enormous Turnip is a Russian folktale in which a grandfather plants a turnip.
Again in these children’s picture books, as we saw in “The Fifth Story” above, playing with scale and size is a common feature. Elements either increase or decrease in size as the story progresses. (Literally, though, rather than symbolically or imaginatively.) In the example above, a turnip grows so large a gardener cannot pull it up himself. He asks the grandmother for help, and together they still cannot pull it up. Successively more people are recruited to help, until they finally pull the turnip up together.
Who Sank The Boat by Pamela Allen uses the plot structure of The Enormous Turnip. The boat doesn’t sink until the smallest creature gets in. There are many examples.
The common ideology of these tales for children: Even the smallest person is valuable. Naturally, this variety of story applies especially to children, who have few opportunities to be genuinely useful to the adults in their lives. Research now tells us that for optimum self-confidence, children need to feel useful within their social groups.
Clarice Lispector had similar symbolic/metaphorical reasons for structuring her story about cockroaches as a cumulative/fractal plot. Cockroaches are small but still important. Proxy children, if you like.
Though unusual in literary work for adults, te cumulative plot, for children, is standard. So we can look to children’s picture books to see how it is done. I have little to say about the beginning, except surprise and ridiculousness is key. The problem for writers of such stories: where to end that accumulation of events?
THE LAST STRAW, OR HOW TO END A CUMULATIVE STORY?
There’s often a carnivalesque vibe to cumulative plots. Very often, something suddenly gives. That’s what ends the story.
‘Cumulative’ describes the plot as a whole, but we need a concept to describe the climax, or what I’ll call the proxy Battle. I’ve heard other writers speak in terms of ‘the surprise’. When the ‘surprise’ is the result of a cascade of events bringing the action to a close, I’ll call that the Last Straw Moment. We might call is the Collapse, the Downfall, or anything similar.
What do these moments look like? They’re often ‘sobering’, yes. Even in children’s stories.
In broader terms: Due to his own stupidity and arrogance, the main character dies comically, eaten by a stock character known for their wily, scheming plans.
See what I mean by ‘sobering’? There is also death in There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. (Though no in my daughter’s pop-up version, in which she goes to hospital and gets all the animals taken out.)
Let’s Go For A Drive! by Mo Willems
In Let’s Go For A Drive, two characters cumulatively collect a variety of equipment for a drive. Elephant and Piggie realise that their plan is not going to work because after collecting a whole range of equipment, they have the anagnorisis that they have forgotten the most crucial bit of equipment for a drive — the car.
In broader terms: A naive cast of characters suddenly realise that their flawed plan is not going to work. Their desire remains unfulfilled, which might turn this story into a tragedy, but they quickly recover by changing their plans.
The Mo Willems books, unlike “The Fifth Story” short story and any number of old folktales, end on an upbeat note. Elephant and Piggie stories are affirmations of friendship.
I’ve covered many more examples of cumulative picture books on this blog.
Anyway, that’s how you do it, folks. Er, what was that again?
That’s how you, as a writer create, a sense of an ending in a fractal, branching or cumulative plot. Whether we call this proxy-big struggle ending a melodrama, surprise or ridiculousness, literary stories for adults and funny stories for children are essentially the same when you scratch the surface.
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Frog Went A-Courtin, a Scottish folk song from the 1500s, which was turned into an iconic picture book for children written by John Langstaff in 1955. There’s a brief history of the ballad included in the picture book which explains how the words of songs change and evolve over time. This case study is interesting because there is no true main character. This story is about a group of characters.
The illustrations are by Feodor Rojankovsky, who emigrated from Ukraine to America just as WW2 was cranking up. By that stage he’d already been a soldier in Ukraine and taken prisoner in Poland. If you’re familiar with Little Golden Books you’ll have seen his work elsewhere.
Frog Went A-Courtin won the 1956 Caldecott Medal.
First, a note on frogs in children’s stories.
Just so you know, in a picture book, frogs are the speedfreaks & grizzly bears are the stoners.
Frogs and Aesop
Unless you’ve got a really unusual animal like a naked mole rat, when animals appear in children’s stories, you pretty much need to go back to Aesop’s Fables and then you’ll see why these characters are the way they are. Frogs don’t feature heavily in Aesop’s tales, but there are a number of them. Unlike foxes, which are always cunning, or hens, which are always naive and vulnerable, frogs have no clear personality archetype. In Aesop’s fables featuring frogs all of the following can be said:
Frogs have no natural ruler, unlike creatures of the jungle, who are ruled by the lion.
Frogs are quite vulnerable because they are obliged to stay near water.
Frogs can do silly things that lead to their own demise, but they are not natural tricksters.
Frogs are capable of doing good deeds. They can also be stubborn, brave, timid and mendacious.
Aesop used frogs when he wanted to set a story in or near a pond or in a well.
Amphibian frogs exist in contrast to mice, who live on land and are about the same size.
On this last point, the Scottish folktale Frog Went A-Courtin is therefore a direct descendant of Aesop, setting mice up to contrast with frogs. Or perhaps humans naturally see frogs as the ‘inverse’ of mice, Aesop’s cultural influence aside. Humans think quite differently about animals when we don’t have a formal (or cultural) education.
Bear that in mind as we get to the ‘opponent’ part of the story.
STORY STRUCTURE OF FROG WENT A-COURTIN
Story in a nutshell: Frog courts a mouse. No one says that anymore. Frog woos a mouse? No one says that either.
Mouse must ask male relative for permission to wed frog, as she is considered chattel. That’s how women were treated in the 1500s and in many parts of the modern world.
Mouse seems happy about it anyway. Mouse recounts her wedding plans to Uncle. Uncle Rat gives consent. The wedding itself doesn’t go exactly to plan, as a variety of creatures turn up. This creates a carnivalesque and cumulative story within the wrapper story of the courting. Finally the baddie turns up — the cat.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
Is Mr Frog the main character? The title suggests so. Mr Frog is a male bachelor amphibian whose life will not be complete until he has found a wife. So at first glance this looks like a romance, but in fact frog’s shortcoming (he needs to find a wife) only starts the story. He’s like a McGuffin character. (I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a McGuffin character, but we’ll go with it.)
In a true romance/love story, the finding of the bride/groom lasts the entire length of the story and the story stops at (or just before) the wedding. The MAIN part of Frog Went A-Courtin is the wedding itself, which makes this story a madcap farce. There is no true main character. This is an ensemble cast.
What is wrong with the ensemble? (What is their biggest shortcoming?)
I have to get something out of the way. I’m not sure if we’re meant to think this as we’re reading, though it’s inevitable to an adult, modern reader: This is a cross-species relationship. Also, how is a mouse related to a rat? They can’t breed with each other. Okay. Let’s ignore that for the sake of the story. We’re not supposed to consider these characters animals. They are humans in animal form, to lend the story a bit of madcap comedy. (Turning people into animals always lends a bit of madcap, though we’re so used to this now it’s no longer really funny in and of itself.) As for the frog in this particular frog story, he is heavily anthropomorphised. In other words, he’s basically a human. Man as frog simply gives a story a touch of madcap humour. This frog is the Every Man.
However! When we get to the big struggle scene (see below) we can no longer ignore the animal-ness of the animals, because that is integral to the plot. The cat would not be dangerous to those smaller creatures if it were not a cat.
To cut a long story short, in stories starring animals, sometimes the animals are people, sometimes the animals act as animals. Authors and illustrators use animals how they wish at any given time in order to suit the plot. That can happen. I do think it happened more in earlier eras of children’s literature. Olivia the Pig is always a little girl, for instance. She never goes rolling about in mud. Then again, Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a contemporary story, and he is both humanlike (as a highway robber) and ratlike (as his punishment, cleaning crumbs from the bakery floor).
Here’s another point about animal characters: When animals act like human and are then required to act like their animal selves, that means everything’s gone to pot. Something’s gone wrong. Someone’s being punished. When humanlike animals behave like animals suddenly, this will only happen from the Big Battle onwards, not before. This is a different take of Masks in Storytelling. All along, the animals were only sort of pretending to be genteel like humans. Then something bad happens and their untamed, wild side emerges.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER ENSEMBLE WANT?
They want to have a fun time at the wedding party.
No one, until the cat turns up! A cat is the natural enemy because it is a much larger hunting animal.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
There is a sequence where Miss Mouse tells her Uncle Rat how she would like the party to go. This makes it funny when the wedding party does not go like that. Planning a wedding is a bit like planning a birth — it’s impossible to plan everything to the last detail because events will take their course!
Obviously this is the part where the cat turns up. With no words, the pictures show us the cat creates havoc. The small animals scatter.
WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS LEARN?
Frog Went A-Courtin is not a complete narrative because the ending is left up to the reader. Or rather, the reader is invited to participate in the story to create a full narrative of our own. I believe the ending is left off because it would not be interesting.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
Either that, or Miss Mouse got killed and eaten by the cat. Maybe that’s why the ending was left out. Jon Klassen did a similar thing in This Is Not My Hat. We surmise the little thieving scoundrel fish was eaten up by the big fish.
Let’s not dwell on this sad ending. Let’s say Mr Frog and Mrs Frog-Mouse lived happily ever after? And had beautiful frog-mice babies between them?
I recently looked into The Magic Porridge Pot (a.k.a. Sweet Porridge), part of a whole category of folk tales about pots of overflowing food. Related, there is another category of folk tales about food that runs away. In the West, the most famous of those would have to be The Gingerbread Man, but have you also heard of The Fleeing Pancake? Best name for a folk tale ever.
Also in this category we have:
The Bear Ate Them Up
The Fate of Mr. Jack Sparrow
The Gingerbread Boy
The Johnny Cake Boy
The Little Cake
The Runaway Pancake
The Thick, Fat Pancake
The Wee Bannock
As you can see, bread-like products are more likely to run off than, say, meat. I find this comforting. That said, the Hungarian version stars ‘head cheese’. I’m not sure what to think of that. Sometimes the gingerbread isn’t actually fashioned into the form of a toilet symbol, either — sometimes it’s just a ball of dough.
For comparison you might take Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man, which I have already analysed in detail. Donaldson is a master at remixing old stories into rhyming texts for a contemporary audience. Stick Man is a remix of The Gingerbread Man.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GINGERBREAD MAN
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
In stories this isn’t always obvious, but it is in this one. The main character is The Gingerbread Man! We see him the most, we want him to succeed in getting away and he is in every single scene.
Next question before moving on: What is The Gingerbread Man’s shortcoming?
Well, he’s a bit of a show off, isn’t he. He’s also a bit naive. Fresh out of the oven, he doesn’t realise that fairytale foxes are wily. If only he’d read a few fairytales he’d know what we already know about foxes in picture books!
WHAT DOES THE GINGERBREAD MAN WANT?
Or does he?
What he really wants is to prove how fast he is at running. Over and over again he says, “You can’t catch me!” His haughtiness eventually catches up with him. It’s like he’s taunting everyone to catch him. If he’d just run without all that singing, he wouldn’t have drawn attention to himself and he would’ve probably got away.
The Gingerbread Man is a classic example of mythical structure. This has nothing to do with being an actual myth. A myth is a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. The Gingerbread Man is a pretty old tale, but it’s not a myth. I’m talking about how many more modern stories borrow the plot from those old myths.
I’ve written about mythic structure here. Basically, your main character goes on a journey, meets a bunch of characters — some helpful, some mean — ends up fighting a big big struggle then returns home again a changed character. Or if he can’t make it home, he finds a new home. That’s mythic structure. It’s still very popular. The Lion King, Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul and Beauty and the Beast all have mythic structure. Or you might have seen The Incredible Journey, or Where The Red Fern Grows. In all of these stories the main character goes on a journey.
In fact, any boardgame where you need to go from square to square to reach a goal is making use of mythic structure. Along your ‘route’ you’ll slide down snakes (opponents), be helped by ladders (mentors), go back three squares, go forward two squares and so on.
The Gingerbread Man also goes on a journey, though he has no idea where he’s going. He’s just running. Everyone he meets wants to eat him (we assume), so everyone is his enemy. (It’s partly his own fault for being so delicious!) Usually in a mythic structure our main character encounters ‘helpers’ or ‘mentors’, but The Gingerbread is such an annoying character he doesn’t meet any of those.
Sometimes other characters have more plans than the main character. In this story, the old lady had a reasonably complicated plan to bake and decorate a gingerbread man, then to eat him.
But this is not about her.
The Gingerbread Man demonstrates that plans don’t have to be complicated. It’s true that in most stories plans are a BIT more complicated than JUST RUN REALLY FAST. It is also true that in most stories original plans don’t work and they need to be modified. This is a simple tale, known as a ‘cumulative’ story. Another example is There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. Young kids love these stories and they are great for language development. The adult co-reader is left reading the same sentences over and over. That’s what happens here, too. Fortunately, it’s pretty fun to say, “Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m The Gingerbread Man!” If that wasn’t catchy this story wouldn’t have entered mainstream culture. So if you’re going to write a cumulative story like this one, make sure you’ve written something run to read aloud.
tl;dr: The Gingerbread Man plans to run. Until he is free, I suppose.
BUT! If he had lived another day, he would have learned not to hitch rides from foxes, and if he did hitch a ride from a fox, he’d know not to sit on the fox’s SNOUT.
Except that’s not really what the story’s about, right? That’s the most surface level of the messages.
Don’t be cocky. That’s what The Gingerbread Man would’ve learnt. And that is hopefully what we learn, as readers. We might think we’re the fastest runners in the whole world, but there’s always someone who can outwit us.
Well, he’s dead. The Gingerbread Man is sort of like a work of cosmic horror in that regard. (The main characters of cosmic horror also often end up dead.)
BUT NORMALLY characters aren’t dead at the end of the story. So we get to see our heroes sitting around the fire enjoying wolf stew (like in The Three Little Pigs) or reunited with their father (in Hansel and Gretel).
I haven’t yet seen a picture book version of The Gingerbread Man who has been pooped out. There he is, sitting like a Hersheys chocolate, propped up on a clump of grass.
I haven’t seen that, but I’d like to.
Around the world there are many variations on the baked goods running away story, chased by a cumulative array of animals. The example below happens to be French.
The image of the Gingerbread Man is so well-known, you’ll see intratextual references to it elsewhere, for example in this British poster from World War Two.
A Performance Tale
What makes ‘The Gingerbread Man’ such an enduring classic? This is a great example of a tale that’s satisfying to read aloud, or rather, to perform. First we have the arc phrase, repeated and easily remembered: Run, run, as fast as you can! This is even a phrase that can be used in other circumstances, like in a game of chase.
Then the teller has the chance to snap their arms like a crocodile at the climax. This is very similar to the way Little Red Riding Hood was originally designed to be performed, when the wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood. Listeners enjoy the frisson of excitement, knowing that the death is imminent, able to enjoy the same tale over and over again. Another tale that works like this is The Little Red Hen, with much repetition and a climax that can be performed.
The Gingerbread Man is meant for performance but first made it into print in 1875, in a magazine.
As a testament to just how far modern adults will go in protecting our children from bad endings, many versions of this tale avoid the original ending, the one in which the gingerbread is dismembered — first a quarter, then a half of him, then only his head is left… This despite him being… a food product. I suspect the amelioration of the ending happened once the gingerbread started looking more and more humanlike, aided by print, due to accompanying illustrations.
Gingerbread People In Modern Stories
Jon Sciezka wrote The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Taleswhich was published in 1992 and is now a picturebook well-known for its postmodernism. The Stinky Cheese Man is a retelling of The Gingerbread Man but with a gross out factor. (The cheese man runs away from everyone fearing they will eat him, when really everyone just wants to get away from his smell.)
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is the ultimate exercise in metafiction to the point where it parodies metafiction itself.
Playing with Picturebooks: Postmodernism and the Postmodernesque by Cherie Allan
You may have also heard of an American author called Stephen King. King also wrote a riff on the Gingerbread tale called The Gingerbread Girl. It’s long enough to be considered a novella and was included in the short story collection Just After Sunset (2008).
Gingerbread Men and Feminism
As you can see from this cover, another faceless woman whose body is the main grab, both for the baddie in the story but also for the reader.
In my middle age I have grown somewhat weary of stories with:
Women who have child loss as a reason for psychological trauma (see also Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character)
Exercise induced anorexia nervosa re-visioned as kickass strength.
Experienced readers know, surely, that this particular woman in this particular story is going to overpower the bad man. We forget about all the fictional, faceless, female victims who have come before and are encouraged to rejoice that evil has been overcome… until we read the exact same kind of story again, with a different baddie man and a different but equally good-looking young white woman. This tale has been done too many times to be making any sort of statement, but I predict a defence of this particular version would be that, in using ‘The Gingerbread Man’ folktale as an allusion, King is making deliberate use of the female as a food. But because faceless female victims are consumed so very regularly in fiction, I don’t buy any feminist ‘strong female character’ arguments.
In many versions of the original tale, the little old woman has actually created a live action version of a gingerbread boy to stand in as a surrogate child, as she cannot have her own. Because of course if a woman cannot have her own children she cannot possibly have a fulfilled existence in her own right.
The Gingerbread Man As A Crime Story
The Gingerbread Man has been a popular allusion in modern crime shows. (The folk tale is basically a crime story after all — it should not be legal for properly purchased food products to run off.) Gingerbread is a comfort food associated strongly with the home and hearth, and with family get-togethers. So by pairing these images with crime writers can create ironic juxtaposition. We may eventually get to the point, though, where gingerbread functions much like playgrounds, ice cream vans and clowns for most viewers.
Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).
I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie log line sounds okay on paper:
“After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”
But tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.
Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?
It’s funny — we all grow up on a diet of stories about the lone voice of reason trying to warn everyone about some imminent calamity, from Noah to Jor-El, and instinctively side with this hero and despite the ignorant ovine masses who jeer him or try to silence him. And yet whenever such a person appears in real life, our reflex is to join in with the mobs of scoffers and call them alarmists, hysterics, conspiracy freaks, and doomsayers.
In the mid-nineteen thirties, Theodor Geisel was a fledgling author and artist, operating as an illustrator for New York advertisement agencies. His father, superintendent of parks in Springfield, Mass., from time to time sent him antlers, expenditures and horns from deceased zoo animals. Geisel stored them in a box below his bed and used them to generate whimsical sculptures. Above, areplica of Flaming Herring.
— Union Beatz
“Extra moose moss” for Helen, the dedication page reads, because Theodor and Helen were still married in 1948 when this was published.
I always like (dislike) to remember that Helen Palmer Geisel ended her own life in 1967 after some serious illnesses and also because her marriage with Ted (Dr Seuss) was falling apart. He had moved on to another woman.
I also like to remember the fact that Helen was a great first editor for Seuss, and encouraged him in his art.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THIDWICK THE BIG-HEARTED MOOSE
As is common in many picturebooks, the author starts in the iterative, telling us how life is. Then one day… (switches to the singular).
These moose are more personified than the moose in, say, This Moose Belongs To Me, which is about a very human boy and a very moose-like moose.
The story structure is partly of the There Was An Old Lady type, in which a small thing happens then the situation gets worse and worse. These are known as ‘cumulative tales’. This tale isn’t as repetitive as There Was An Old Lady, which is actually a song.
Cumulative tales are simple stories with repetitive phrases. There is not much plot involved, but the repetition and rhythmic structure of these tales is very appealing to children. Events follow each other logically in a pattern of cadence and repetition, sequentially repeating actions, characters, or speeches until a climax is reached. Examples of cumulative tales are “The House That Jack Built” and “There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” Picture book examples are The Napping House (1984), illustrated by Don Wood; Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain (1980) illustrated by Beatriz Vidal; The House That Jack Built (2000), illustrated by Jeanette Winter; The Gigantic Turnip (1999), illustrated by Niamh Sharkey; and There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (1997), illustrated by Simms Taback.
from A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka
Thidwick the bull moose is a pushover, which is antithetical to our idea of a bull moose — huge, dangerous creatures who fight each other for their place in the moose hierarchy.
Even the name Thidwick sounds like the name of a loser — perhaps because characters with low social capital are quite often depicted with a lisp in pop culture. Actors with lisps will never be the leading man, though as Sean Connery proved, other kinds of speech differences can work to your advantage.
He needs to figure out a way to deal with others taking advantage of him.
He wants to go on doing moose things, which means leaving with the other moose when the moose moss runs out. The part of the story where the moose friends dump him is important to the desire line of the story.
Although the animals in his antlers are annoying and not good for his social life, they are too comical to make a worthy opponent in and of themselves. It was a great choice to bring in the human hunters. In this picturebook we get a classic big struggle scene (with guns).
I’m not sure Thidwick really learned anything. If he had it wouldn’t have been pretty: “Your friends are quick to ditch you.”
In picture books the anagnorisis is often had on the part of the young reader, who realises what the moral is. Here we are invited to judge Thidwick for being a pushover. Perhaps the young reader takes the side of the friends, who walk off when Thidwick puts up with an infestation on his antlers.
The lesson is that there are limits to your kindness. This makes a nice change from all the picturebooks out there teaching children to be kind.
There hasn’t necessarily been any revelation or learning taking place in this carnivalesque story; it in fact seems that Mr Gumpy knew exactly what would happen from the start, since each creature on the boat behaved exactly as he’d warned them not to!
Picture books are particularly well-suited to this kind of story, since they are read over and over again. The young reader can imagine that each reading is another separate incident which happens time and time again. This is partly what makes it funny.
Pamela Allen’s tale has a definite Aesop quality to it, which tends to happen when you combine an idiomatic expression such as ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back‘ with the characterisation from tales of old, in which the mouse is a tiny but noble creature who has more influence upon outcome than initially expected. As in Mr Gumpy’s outing, we have a group of animals who all get into a boat, and they all end up in the water (but from overloading rather than from misbehaviour).