The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems

pigeon wants a puppy cover

The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems is one of my daughter’s favourite books. The Pigeon books are similar to the Elephant and Piggie books in graphic design and in humour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE PIGEON WANTS A PUPPY

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

When I read this quote from the author/illustrator I knew that Willems thinks of story in the same way I do:

I don’t know if I can explain him — I can describe him. Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants, he thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the injustice of it all. And the irony is that the kids who are usually suffering the injustice of it all, the kids who are being told when to go to bed, or what to do, or to eat, or how to eat, or how to dress — the second they get to stick it to the pigeon, they do.

I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental, deep questions: What is love? Why are things the way they are? Why can’t I get what I want? Why can’t I drive a bus? I mean, you know, Sophocles.

Mo Willems, NPR

DESIRE

The desire is right there in the title. Perhaps not much more needs saying.

Oh, except note how masterfully Willems has connected Desire to Weakness. This is always the best form of Desire in a story, returning the best results: Pigeon desires a puppy because he fails to do his research and understand consequences. He acts on his whims.

Note also: Willems is really ramming home the Desire line. There’s much humour in this because of pigeon’s complete lack of self-awareness. Of course he hasn’t wanted a puppy ‘for ages’. He’s decided right then and there. (If we didn’t already suspect that, we learn it by the end.)

By the way, the image on the colophon page perfectly illustrates how Willems may have brainstormed this series. We see list unwinding, headed “Things I Want”:

  1. Drive a bus!
  2. Eat a hot dog all by myself!
  3. Stay up late!
  4. Real estate!
  5. A big, red truck!
  6. Turtleneck sweaters!
  7. A driver’s license!

This list encapsulates pigeon’s whimsical  desires at the centre of other books in the series — a comedic mixture of childlike (big, red truck) and mature (real estate).

OPPONENT

The main opposition is the puppy, who stands in direct opposition to Pigeon’s desire because she doesn’t live up to Pigeon’s idealised conception of what a puppy would be.

In this way, the Opponent of The Pigeon Wants A Puppy is similar to the opponent in a crime story because the audience doesn’t see the villain until the big reveal near the end. There’s no crime here, of course. But the storytelling problem is the same: The storyteller must really build up the opposition

  1. to create payoff at the end
  2. to give the main part of the story its narrative drive

What crime writers do: Create other opponents along the way, much like mythic structure. Opponents apart from the main one, that is. (Family, colleagues, uncooperative politicians who won’t hand over the information you need etc.)

How has Willems created extra opposition, apart from the unseen ironic ‘villain’ of the puppy? Yep, he makes THE READER part of the pigeon’s web of opposition. It’s masterful. Willems achieves this by using the narrative technique of direct address.

PLAN

Pigeon has a Plan which demonstrates to the reader, in audience superior position, that Pigeon has NO idea what a puppy even is. Pigeon plans to:

  1. water it once a month
  2. go for piggyback rides on its back
  3. play tennis with it

Notice how Willems made use of the Rule of Three — three specific things Pigeon plans to do with a new puppy.

BATTLE

In picture books the Battle tends to comprise a large proportion of the total story. It tends to be a Battle Sequence.

Picture book author Katrina Moore thinks of picture book structure like this:

  • Set up (how much Pigeon wants the puppy and how he is wrong about puppies)
  • Escalation (Woof! What’s that? Woof! Woof!)
  • Climax/Low Point (Pigeon gets scared half to death by a massive puppy head coming onto the page — by the way, notice how Pigeon is now facing backwards, opposite to the turn of the page? He has had a shock — this is common picture book convention.)
  • Resolution (what I’d call the Self-revelation, though this may be a better word for it, since so often there is no Self-revelation)
  • Wink (the reader knows this exact scenario will play out twice)

(For more on the Battle sequence and the forms it tends to take in picture books, see my post on Battles in Storytelling.)

SELF-REVELATION

“Really, I had no idea!”

The comedic thing about this particular Self-revelation: Pigeon is unable to generalise learning to new situations. He (or she) learns that PUPPIES are not as expected but fails to learn that maybe WALRUSES won’t be, either.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

I recently read We Learn Nothing — essays by Tim Kreider and I believe it’s more common we learn nothing than learn something, in fact. No life lesson is learned. Just a very specific one. In this respect, Pigeon is identical to Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug, who learns a very specific aspect of Not Being An Asshole in every book, but there are so many different ways of being an asshole an entire series has been generated from Pig’s assholery.

At the end — ‘the wink’ —  Pigeon wants another wholly unsuitable pet. This makes the story a circular plot, ending where it began with slightly different variables, w swapped out for p.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

The front cover says ‘pictures’. Is this simply because toddlers will understand ‘pictures’ but may not understand ‘illustrations’? I suspect there’s more to it than that — these are perhaps better described as pictures.

Every single thing in these minimalist picture books is there because it carries meaning. There is no background detail. These are stories about plot (centred on character) — they are not the sort of books in which the reader is invited to linger, enjoying the environment e.g. Blackdog by Levi Pinfold or anything by Shaun Tan.

It’s ultimately reductive, but my sort of cheat sheet is: If you were to look at all of my drawings [for a book] without any words and understand it, then there are too many drawings. The drawings are too detailed. And if you were to read the entire manuscript and it made sense, then there are too many words.

So it’s that marriage, that very delicate marriage between words and pictures, and then that marriage between author and audience where the audience is creating so much of the meaning. So my job is to create incomprehensible books for illiterates.

Mo Willems, NPR

How do picture book illustrators handle the delicate issue of swearing in children’s literature? Well, Pigeon clearly utters expletives here.

Other techniques derive from comic book convention, for instance the love hearts all around the speech bubble.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH BABYMOUSE: PUPPY LOVE

The Puppy Love book of the Babymouse series by Jennier and Matthew Holm has a similar plot structure but expanded into a middle grade graphic novel length. Babymouse goes through a series of pets but proves an unreliable owner. Each of her pets escapes. Eventually a stray dog turns up. Owning a dog is not what she hoped it would be. The dog gets up to mischief, first chewing her shoes and clothes, then chewing her entire room.

The story ends when the dog’s owner comes to get it. (Behind the scenes the mother must have put out the word about finding a lost dog.) The plot reveal is that the dog is a girl, not a boy as Babymouse had assumed.

In an ideal world this would not be a reveal, but studies have shown that animal characters are automatically coded male unless given an obvious feminine marker, such as the bow Babymouse herself wears on her forehead. So this ending asks readers to perhaps not assume, next time, that an animal who gets up to mischief MUST be male.

The other interesting thing about Babymouse is how every character in the story is an animal. Babymouse, her family and classmates are all animals, but in shape only. They are otherwise completely human. But animals who behave like regular animals also exist in the story. Of course, no explanation is given for this, and I doubt the typical reader would even think about it.

Negatives by Annie Proulx Short Story

abandoned house

“Negatives” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1994 in Esquire, later included in the Heart Songs collection. You can read it online, with limited unpaid access. “Negatives” is the most brutal of the stories in this collection. Content note for rape.

Reasons to read this story:

  • If you’re writing a short story and think it may benefit from a ‘separatised’ introduction which forewarns the reader basically how it’s going to unfold. I do wonder at what part of Annie Proulx’s writing process she wrote that introduction. Did she write the rest of the story then realise it needed a little something at the beginning? That’s be interesting to know.
  • In any case, the way Proulx unfolds the story, mentioning the bath scene in the men’s dialogue, then later showing us the scene where Albina asks to have the bath that first time, is an interesting, spirally way to tell a story, and structuring a plot like this leaves the reader with the feeling of a vast unfolding, and even a short story feels like it has many layers.
  • Pathetic fallacy written beautifully: ‘The mountain pressed into the room with an insinuation of augury. Flashing particles of ice dust stippled the air around the house. The wind shook the walls and liquid shuddered in the glass.
  • A character dehumanised, in this case by turning Albina into a dog, in Walter’s eyes. Annie Proulx achieves this partly by telling us about Walter’s fantasises, as relayed at dinner parties, but eventually by stripping her naked. Her physical description also aligns somewhat with that of a dog, as well as the smell she leaves behind in a car (as dogs are inclined to do). Her children have ‘sown the back seat of his car with nits’, and she spends a lot of time sleeping in there. Dogs also sleep a lot. She hangs around like a stray, asking for an increasing amount of scraps. Nor does she retaliate, biting her owner’s hand, when abused like a dog. Her hair is short, ‘like fur’. Everything about Albina is dog-like.
  • A story with no clear ‘main character’: The character who changes (is traumatised) the most is a head we’re not allowed into.
  • This is because “Negatives” is basically what I call a ‘travelling devil’ story, which upends the ‘travelling angel’ trope.
  • The way Proulx writes about the changing of a season, mirroring the change in character emotion, ending the paragraph by honing back in on the characters of this particular story:

THE DEEP AUTUMN CAME QUICKLY. Abandoned cats and dogs skulked along the roads. The flare of leaves died, the mountain molted into gray-brown like a dull bird. A mood of destruction erupted when a bull got loose at the cattle auction house and trampled an elderly farmer, when a car was forced off the road by pimpled troublemakers throwing pumpkins. Hunters came for the deer and blood trickled along their truck fenders. Walter took pictures of them leaning against their pickups. Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.

Continue reading “Negatives by Annie Proulx Short Story”

The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown

The Sailor Dog cover

The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown is a Little Golden Book classic, first published 1953. After the success of Mister Dog, Wise Brown and Garth Williams were paired by the publisher the following year.

The Sailor Dog is basically a Robinsonnade for the preschool set. The Robinsonnade is an adventure story which takes place in a static place, like an island. For more on that, see this post. And for more about the role of islands in storytelling see this one.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE SAILOR DOG

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Joy Story Short Film Storytelling Technique

Joy Story movie poster

Joy Story is the perfect short film to teach kids story structure, focusing on character empathy and self-revelation. This story is also interesting in the way it handles gender.

Story Structure Of Joy Story

WEAKNESS/NEED

This story has a clear main character — the dog. I guess the dog’s name is Joy. Which in the West, at least, codes her as feminine. Interestingly, Joy doesn’t have any clear feminine markers. (I suspect Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks would have given her thick eyelashes and ‘feminine’ shaped eyes.)

As Joy steps onto the fishing boat, she shows caution. Her psychological weakness is that she’s a little scared of being on boats. While this doesn’t directly relate to her character development (the weakness usually does), this makes Joy relatable to viewers.

DESIRE IN JOY STORY

Joy — like most dogs — wants to please her owner. This means guarding the fishing bait worms from the heron.

OPPONENT

An audience is like ducklings — we tend to fall in love with the first character we see. With Joy set up so swiftly and clearly as the main character, the appearance of the heron marks Heron out as opponent. Joy wants to protect the worms. Heron wants to take the worms. Their desires are in direct opposition, making them ‘opponents’.

We do see the heron very early, but it’s easy to miss. The birds fly past in the distance. We’re not supposed to focus on the birds at this point — nor are we supposed to be surprised when a heron turns up. Casual mention of an opponent before the opponent is properly introduced is a good technique, and one much used in murder mysteries.

The camera work helps the audience to regard Heron as the baddie. The camera pans from the feet, sliding up, gradually revealing more as if in a horror film. The low-angle shot of Heron, seen from Joy’s point of view, makes the bird seem powerful and scary. The character design, too, encourages empathy with Joy — while the heron is more naturalistic in proportion, Joy’s head is literally more massive than her entire body. The heron’s eyes look scary. Both characters have ‘humanised eyes’, but the heron’s pupils are very small and instead of white around the pupil, she has yellow. Less human means more scary, to human viewers. Joy has large pupils, with white around the iris so we can tell where she is looking.  In lots of character designs with dogs, dogs are given eyebrows. Joy has an expressive brow, but without actual brow hairs. She does have an unusually human mouth, however, with a full set of human teeth and lips which smile and frown.

On the topic of character design, notice the owner has no eyes at all, hidden beneath his bushy brows and a cap. This is a clear signal that the fisherman owner does not play a big role in the story.

PLAN IN JOY STORY

Joy’s plan is to protect the worms from the heron.

The heron has a counter-plan which is in direct opposition — heron plans to steal the worms from Joy.

BATTLE IN JOY STORY

After a rule of threes battle, with the final ending in a tug of war, the heron departs, having lost. It seems Joy has ‘won’ and the story could be over. Of course, if the story ended there, it would feel incomplete and unsatisfying. That’s because stories aren’t about winning or losing a battle — they’re really about the self-revelation, and that comes next.

SELF-REVELATION IN JOY STORY

First there is a simple revelation (not the self-revelation). The revelation is shown to Joy and to the audience at the same time — another trick writers use to keep empathy with the main character. Revelation: The heron doesn’t just want the worms. She needs the worms, and they’re not for herself. She is not being selfish after all. She’s not simply stealing worms in order to have fun. This is a life and death situation for her chicks, who can’t swallow big fish. They need smaller food or they’ll go hungry (and die).

At this point, the audience sympathy expands to the bird. Heron and Joy remain in opposition, but the heron is no longer the baddie/villain. Another interesting story technique: Because most baddies are male, and most characters without distinct female markers are considered ‘neutral’ (ie. still male), when we see the heron with babies it functions as a reveal. “Oh, it’s a mother!” we think. Suddenly her badness is downgraded.

(Perhaps people who really know birds may tell the difference immediately, but it’s not easy to sex a heron. The only real difference is in size, and when there’s only one heron, it’s even harder.)

This is an interesting subversion of typical gender roles in story, and only works because audiences have been so thoroughly conditioned to consider any character male, unless specifically told otherwise.

Now for the SELF-revelation. This doesn’t happen until the heron delivers the fish in exchange for Joy’s gift of worms. This is the part where the audience also has a self-revelation, which links beautifully back to the moral argument: Small acts of generosity will be returned to you ten-fold. So be generous, and you’ll get what you desire in the end.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN JOY STORY

Joy only ever wanted to please her owner. When the owner turns round and sees she’s somehow managed to ‘catch’ all those fish, he pats her on the head and she has achieved her original goal. Joy and Heron and owner are happy.

 

Piper by Emma Chichester Clark

Piper Emma Chichester Clark

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 a picture book called Piper by Emma Chichester Clark. Piper is a bit of a maudlin tale, and Piper the dog is similar to characters like Oliver (by Charles Dickens). He really doesn’t have great luck in life. But then he does! My daughter called this a ‘happy-sad’ story, which is her word for ‘bittersweet’. This is an entirely unironic take on the ‘unlucky character finds a new home’ tale, which I plan to contrast with a similar but ironic picture book tomorrow.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PIPER

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

This is Piper’s journey and Piper is clearly the main character. We can happily describe Piper as the hero, because he performs an heroic act and also because this is a mythic story. Main characters in mythic stories tend to be called heroes.

What is wrong with Piper?

Sometimes in children’s stories, the only thing wrong with a character is that they are vulnerable. Orphans are especially vulnerable. Piper is not exactly an orphan, but he is taken away from his mother and is therefore part of the orphan tradition of storytelling. Orphans are popular in children’s stories for a number of reasons, but mainly because it gets the protective parent out of the way. (All orphan stories owe something to Cinderella.)

Since he’s a dog, lack of ability to speak to humans is also a huge disadvantage.

WHAT DOES PIPER WANT?

Piper wants to find a new family and be happy with them.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The opponent is clearly the man who buys him, and expects him to chase/eat rabbits to protect the man’s garden. Later, even when Piper manages to run away, the man remains a constant threat, as he may at any time come to collect Piper, having paid for him.

WHAT’S PIPER’S PLAN?

Piper’s initial plan is to try and impress his new owner, but when that doesn’t work he’s at a loss. He has no substitute plan. From that point on, things happen to him.

Note that in stories, initial plans rarely work.

When things go belly-up, your main character doesn’t necessarily find a new plan right away, or at all. Alternatively, they might start with no plan because they like the status quo, but then they find one. In that case, they usually double down on that plan about halfway through the story.

Whether your main character has a plan right from the start or finds one partway through, characters do need plans. Otherwise they are not proactive, and readers don’t want to read stories about characters who just wait around. Characters with plans are also more likeable, so if you want to write a likeable main character, give them a desire and a plan early on. (Not all main characters need to be likeable, but it’s harder to write a good unlikeable one. You need to use lots of extra tricks.)

BIG BATTLE

I haven’t gone out of my way to collect mythic stories for this month’s exercise, which should give you some idea about the popularity of the ‘journey’ story.

In a plot with mythic structure, the main character will undergo a series of battles. Sure enough, Piper is hit by his new owner. Importantly, heroes on mythic journeys also meet characters who help them. These characters are often ‘mentors’. In this case, the rabbits repay Piper in kindness by bringing him lettuce, but note they can’t be of much use. That’s an important point about helper characters. They can offer emotional assistance and advice and sometimes they can provide objects which come in useful, but helpers can never solve the hero’s problems. It has to be the hero who gets him/herself out of bother, even if it’s entirely accidental. (As it is in this case!)

The Big Battle in an unironic mythic story is a near death experience. (Contrast Diary of a Wombat for an ironic take, in which Wombat is never in true danger.) The city setting provides lots of near death opportunities for dogs, who don’t know how to stay away from traffic. Therefore, Piper has a brush with death as he rescues an old lady from being hit badly by a car.

WHAT DOES PIPER LEARN?

When Piper is found injured under a bush he learns that humans can be kind as well as awful.

Kindness triumphs over evil. This is a simplistic message when you put it like this, but surprisingly popular in stories. I suppose we find it comforting. When you write out your own theme in a sentence like that, it’ll probably sound just as simple. That’s okay. It’s meant to. Just make sure you don’t say that sentence anywhere in the text. The theme has to be something readers discover for themselves.

HOW WILL PIPER’S LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Piper has found a new home with a kind old lady. Their similar injuries (both have a broken ‘arm’) symbolise how well matched they are.

But the story doesn’t end with Piper and the old lady relaxing on the couch in the old lady’s home. That would have been enough to complete a narrative, but Emma Chichester Clark has written a fairly run-of-the-mill mythic plot until this moment, and whenever you do that you’re best to add a little extra. In this case, the Villain isn’t dead. He’s been off-stage and is therefore still useful.

The final section of this story focuses on Piper’s enduring anxiety about whether the abusive owner will turn up to collect him. Eventually we learn that he won’t. This is a very happy ending for Piper, and instead of a home-away-home story, we have a very similar home-away-NEW home structure.

Some people call these ‘found family’ stories. They tend to be heartwarming.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker Novel Study

Pax Sara Pennypacker quote

Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in battle after swashbuckling battle.

MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX

Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.

— publisher’s advertising copy

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Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death

In Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death, Wallace and his dog, Gromit, open a bakery and get tied up with a murder mystery. But, when Wallace falls in love Gromit is left to solve the case.

The Japanese title is “The Bad Dream Of Bakery Street’.

GENRE BLEND OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

comedy, horror, romance >> cosy mystery

STORY WORLD OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

The town’s milieu was inspired by thoughts of 1950s Wigan. It’s sort of like 1950s steampunk. Similar towns are seen in the live action Midsomer Murders series. It’s very English. As a consequence, Wallace comes out with very British idiomatic expressions pretty much every time he speaks. His life revolves around very English foods, especially cheese.

The films appeal to a dual audience partly by including a frequent scattering of allusions to pop culture. There are plenty of puns and nods of recognition in the intratext — Meat-a-bix written on Fluffles’ bed box instead of Weet-a-bix, for instance. Continue reading “Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death”

The Amazing Bone by William Steig

The Amazing Bone cover

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE AMAZING BONE

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The Great Fusilli Courage The Cowardly Dog:

The title card artwork is done by Margaret Frey. Main title by John R. Dilworth, the art director.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GREAT FUSILLI

This is the last Courage story of season one and it is fitting that the creators have made a work of metafiction — in other words, the audience is reminded that they are watching a TV show.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage: That it’s up to him to save the day despite being an ordinary dog

Muriel: That she is oblivious and trusting and just a little prone to fancy

Eustace: That he is easily persuaded by the promise of riches (among many other faults, this one is often his downfall, as it is here.) Continue reading “The Great Fusilli Courage The Cowardly Dog:”