The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker (1982)

The Do-something Day is one of those didactic stories in which the parental figures are too busy working to play with their precious little children. In such stories, the child usually goes out and has their own adventure, or an elderly neighbour/grandparent steps in to fill the psychological need, which is loneliness/boredom. And that’s what happens here.

The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker cover

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE DO-SOMETHING DAY

WEAKNESS/NEED

The Do-Something Day staircase

 

DESIRE

Bernie wants to make the most of the great weather outside.

OPPONENT

His family are too busy to spend time with him, absorbed in their own work and play.

PLAN

Bernie got mad. “No one needs me. I’ll run away!”

He left the house and went down the street.

The plot relies on mythic structure as Bernie leaves home and encounters a variety of people along the way. This is a very Sesame Street sort of neighbourhood — the old-fashioned view of a capitalist utopia in fact, with a friendly neighbourhood mechanic, a Mr Dimple who runs the delicatessen, Bertha who owns a bakery and so on. Each of these friendly adults with endless patience and time on their hands lets Bernie ‘help’ them with their work. Bertie collects talismans on the way (a map, a salami, a sour pickle, warm rye bread. This lends the story a distinctly fairy tale feel. Eventually he meets a horse and cart, which puts me in mind of a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk.

The Do Something Day horse and cart_700x595

The running away scene is already the start of other famous tales such as The Three Little Pigs (who are pushed out of home due to economic constraints rather than leaving of their own volition, but still).

BATTLE

The battle in The Do-something Day is entirely psychological. At each stop we hear Bernie’s sob story about how everyone is too busy for him. The gifts he receives culminate until eventually he is given a dog.

Don’t you love it how white boys in storybooks so easily acquire dogs… a pet which takes a lot of work, a lot of money and a suitable home with consenting adults? How many kids think they can bring home strays just because they’ve seen that so many times in picture books? And how many adults? (Quite a few, according to my mother, who worked for some years at the SPCA.)

SELF-REVELATION

The Do Something Day street scene_700x624

Bernie has his self-revelation when he sits down to rest.

They all needed me and wanted my help, thought Bernie with satisfaction. He looked at his things and had an idea. He got up and started walking home.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Obviously, the family have been worried about him, having undergone their own self-revelations about the importance of attending to the needs of the youngest member of the family:

His mother, father, and brother were on the porch waiting for him. Slowly he walked up the steps and said, “I ran away.”

Bernie gives the talismans to each member of the family. The map goes to the father, of course (since women can’t read maps). The food goes to the  mother (because women are in charge of the day-to-day feeding of the family).

His mother smiled. “We need help from one another, Bernie. But we really need you to love.” And she gave him a great big hug.

The Day Patch Stood Guard by Elizabeth Laird and Colin Reeder (1990)

The Day Patch Stood Guard is a New Zealand farming picture book from the 1980s which is, at its heart, a man and his dog story.

The Day Patch Stood Guard

Notice anything a bit different about the cover of The Day Patch Stood Guard? The usual convention is to credit the writer first and the illustrator second. Here the convention is reversed. In fact, it’s not only reversed, but depicted in such a way that the illustrations are the main story and the writing came after. I am not making any value judgment here. Instead, I’m reminded of all those times we are told who wrote the story, and then the illustrator is tacked on afterwards, perhaps with ‘illustrated by X’, to suggest that the illustrations are tacked onto the story.

In a picture book, of course, both text and pictures interact to create the story (except in wordless picture books, that is).

WHAT’S WITH THE OTTER?

This is a strange book, written by a New Zealander but once again featuring an otter.

I have since learned that there have been rumours of actual otter-like creatures spotted in the South Island of New Zealand for over 200 years. But honestly this is a big-foot sighting because you’d think scientists would’ve found the critters by now, wouldn’t you? New Zealand isn’t all that big.

As far as storytelling goes, I am a bit flummoxed about the meaning of the otter, who makes a brief and inexplicable appearance at the end.

MEN AND THEIR DOGS

The Day Patch Stood Guard is a dog and a man story at its heart, and because there are many such stories in the world it was cheering to learn that Patch is a female dog, at least. (Usually it’s a white boy with a male dog, though boy-bitch pairings aren’t completely unheard of. Sometimes the male dog dies and is replaced by a female dog.) On the downside, this an example of the female maturity principle I have a huge problem with, and the farmer does refer to his female dog in diminutive terms, “the best little guard dog” one could hope to have; would a man have referred to a male dog in this way? Would a male dog have been quite so self-sacrificing? Self-sacrificing female characters can be traced all the way back to Beauty and the Beast and beyond, and are still very much seen in children’s stories today, held up as a model of feminine virtue.

BORDER COLLIE CHARACTERS

This is ultimately a story for lovers of Border collies, and I definitely fall into that category. Border collie characters in books tend to be even more intelligent and intuitive than real-life Border collies and Patch is no exception. She understands the command to ‘guard’, considers the tractor a live-being and also understands when the tractor is fixed. Uncharacteristically for a socialised Border collie, though, she growls at Walter the mechanic.

Let’s take a closer look at the storyworld and the structure of the plot.

STORYWORLD OF THE DAY PATCH STOOD GUARD

I don’t know where the illustrator comes from — is this an American/British illustrator or is he from New Zealand? The truth is, it’s impossible to tell definitively from the illustrations, as this is a fairly generic ‘storybook’ farm. The names of the places on the aerial map make me think this is an English countryside. Also, the geese. Geese seem to be more populous in English farmyard storybooks.

The Day Patch Stood Guard opening

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE DAY PATCH STOOD GUARD

WEAKNESS/NEED

As in many animal + human stories for children, it’s not all that easy to separate the human character from the animal one, and in the end it’s easiest to consider them one and the same. Or more typically, the human character is the one who undergoes the character change by having the self-revelation, but the bulk of the story is told from the point of view of the animal.

Stan’s weakness: He is a bit of a loose cannon. He gets up late and has neglected his morning jobs. We’ll soon find out that his muddle-headedness makes him leave his handbrake off.

DESIRE

Stan wants to get his farming jobs done: milking, feeding pigs, collecting eggs and all those other storybook farm activities which probably have little to do with actual farming these days (and have more in common with hobby farming).

OPPONENT

The tractor is given a name: Duncan. There’s a good reason for this. Although Stan doesn’t mean to, he stupidly rolls down an incline and crashes into a tree. The personification of the tractor absolves Stan a bit.

PLAN

Stan plans to mend the bridge. He loads the tractor trailer up with planks of wood and sets off with Patch.

This plan goes awry when the tractor crashes into the tree.

BATTLE

The battle takes place overnight, when poor, loyal Patch is left to stand guard over the trailer and is locked inside the work shed.

SELF-REVELATION

But the self-revelation is had by Stan, who realises what a good little guard dog he’s got, after getting so immersed in the problem of the tractor that he forgot to tell her she didn’t need to guard the tractor overnight.

The self-revelation seems to be symbolised by the otter swimming past. Stan is reconnected to the animal world after a day of being immersed in his mechanical, human one.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The point of view then expands to include all of the farmyard animals who are ‘glad to see the little red tractor safe home again’.

Where’s Spot? concept picture book by Eric Hill

Concept books exist partly to teach young children basic concepts: ABCs, numbers, colours, opposites, time, size, and in this book, prepositions.

Concept books are most often unmemorable. I can tell you at various times our bookshelf has housed cardboard books with the name of a colour on each page, but I got rid of those. Where’s Spot on the other hand is memorable, and one of my 9-year-old daughter’s favourites. That’s not just because she loves dogs — Where’s Spot is a concept book with a complete narrative.

Where's Spot cover

G.K. Chesterton pointed out that where a six-year-old is excited if someone opens a door in a story and finds a dragon on the other side, a two-year-old is excited enough if someone opens a door.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys [children] like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic.

G.K. Chesterton

LIFT-THE-FLAP CHARM

If you’re thinking of buying one of the Spot books for a young person in your life, make sure you pick one of the editions which actually has lift-the-flaps in it. There are more cheaply produced versions that don’t have this rather more expensive feature, and I don’t think that’s how these books were meant to be experienced. It makes me sad to think someone thought it was a good idea to produce non-flappy editions. (Likewise, stay away from the bound anthology of Beatrix Potter stories — those stories were designed to be read in miniature, and part of their charm is lost if the child can’t hold the book themselves.)

A no-flaps edition

lion under the stairs

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHERE’S SPOT

 

WEAKNESS/NEED

Spot, who is not at all like a real dog, hasn’t eaten his dinner. The mother Sally has eaten her dinner, but Spot has left his and walked off. “Naughty Spot.”

DESIRE

The sentence, “Where can he be?” elicits desire in the reader, to look for Spot.

OPPONENT

Sally goes on a mythical journey and on the way comes across all sorts of creatures: a bear with a jar of honey, a snake, a hippo, a lion, a monkey, a croc. Three birds.

PLAN

Sally looks everywhere Spot could be hiding.

BATTLE

The animals Sally encounters are all pretty fearsome, though not ordered in order of ascending scariness. However, when we get to the birds there are three of them, whereas there was only one bear.

A no-flaps edition of where's spot

When the narrator says, “There’s Spot! He’s under the rug” we find out he is not, and the stakes are raised; will we ever find Spot?

We see Sally running to the basket, rather than standing at the possible hiding place. This is Sally at the climax, in crisis, fretting.

SELF-REVELATION

Spot is hiding in the basket. (The narrator tells us that’s where he is.)

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Spot eats his dinner.

Black Dog by Pamela Allen Analysis

Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991) is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picture book with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.

Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.

For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF BLACK DOG

If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?

After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.

WEAKNESS/NEED

The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.

Christina black dog happy_600x509

Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons01Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons02_600x620

Then we have a switch to the singulative: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.

The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.

Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.

One cold day_600x553

DESIRE

It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.

So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.

See: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Food In Children’s Literature

Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.

Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of three: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.

OPPONENT

Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.

You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).

Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.

Christina is her own worst enemy.

Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.

Blue bird dream_600x1062

PLAN

After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.

He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.

As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches (heh) the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.

BATTLE

The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.

Black Dog flying_600x421

For more: The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

SELF-REVELATION

But it is Christina who has the revelation. We see her pick him up carefully, gently, and carry him inside and lay him on her bed. She cuddles him and tells him she loves him.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

We don’t see Christina’s emergence from depression, but we do see that she has now realised she must pay attention to her dog.

In other words, she must take care of herself during this dark time.

 

Diversity And Dogs In Children’s Literature

A lot of books start something like this:

Ben had a dog called Scrumpy_600x714Ben and Scrumpy did everything together_600x693

image above from Scrumpy, by Elizabeth Dale and Frederic Joos

11-year-old Marley Dias, a black girl from New Jersey recently made headlines for saying that she is sick of reading about white boys and dogs.

I have seen quite a bit of backlash about that comment.

Top voted comments on NBC News' Facebook page
Top voted comments on NBC News’ Facebook page

Apparently, some people (almost always white), think that because there exist some number of books about black kids, black kids shouldn’t be complaining about the ratio, and just go read those instead. Which completely misses the point. Continue reading “Diversity And Dogs In Children’s Literature”

Walter The Farting Dog Picture Book

Walter the Farting Dog

Walter The Farting Dog is an example of a book that took a long time to find a publisher.

Kotzwinkle and Murray conceived the idea for the first book in 1990, inspired by a real-life dog named Walter, whose owner fed him doughnuts and beer and who was prone to foul-smelling flatulence. With assistance from Kotzwinkle’s wife, Elizabeth Gundy, they devised a story about a dog who overcomes two burglars with his smelly farts. Eleven years passed before they found a willing publisher, North Atlantic Books, and the right illustrator, Audrey Colman.

— Wikipedia

My theory on what happened there: The culture needed time to catch up. This is a book given to my daughter by my parents, who would never have stocked their own children’s bookshelves with this kind of material, but who have given their granddaughter a range of poo and fart themed stories, including this one and I Need A New Bum, and Christmas decorations which are a model of Santa’s bare backside farting ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ etc etc. Unbelievably, as kids of the 80s we weren’t allowed to say ‘fart’ — we had to say ‘blow off’, which is actually more hilarious, if only for its much wider application as a verb. No one can use that perfectly fine compound verb now without me associating it with farts. We weren’t allowed to say ‘bum’, either, by the way. We were required to say ‘bottom’, which is far more wide-reaching in its impact upon perfectly non-scatological conversations.

They say the great thing about being a grandparent is you can give the child back. Addendum: You can also give your grandchildren slightly annoying toys… and books, and you, yourself, won’t have to read said book more than once or twice. As for me, the mother, I’ve read this book quite a number of times because, let’s face it, it’s a hit. Though the other night when it was requested I did turn it down, because actually… I confess… it’s not the farting plot line that gets to me. It’s the super creepy artwork. For some reason I don’t find the artwork of Wolves In The Walls creepy, but I do find these ones to be so. Yet they are both of a similar style — a mixture of collage and photorealistic faces, morphed slightly, as if looking into a distortion mirror at a travelling circus. The colour palette of Walter The Farting Dog is a grimy rainbow in which every scene looks like a fart. It’s really quite an achievement on the part of the illustrator that when I look at these pictures I have an almost synesthesic olfactory reaction. *looks around for the dog*

walter uncle
It doesn’t help that the cat has evil human eyes.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WALTER THE FARTING DOG

Weakness/Need

Walter is smelly. He needs to stop assaulting other people’s noses with his farts.

Desire

He wants to stay with this new family because otherwise he goes back to the pound.

Opponent

At first glance the opponents are the burglars who break in, but no — the opponent who makes this story work is the father. It’s the father who threatens to send Walter back to the pound unless he can stop farting.

walter dad

back to the pound

Plan

The children take Walter to the vet, but that doesn’t help. They try all sorts of different diets, but still nothing works.

walter vet

Battle

The battle comes one night when two burglars break in. Walter has just eaten a big bag of food and is able to release a poisonous gas which renders the burglars weak and drives them out of the house with nothing. Outside, the burglars just happen to be apprehended by a police officer.

Self-revelation

The whole family, plus Walter, learn that his farts come in useful after all. His annoying difference is accepted. We’re given big clues about the message of this book right at the beginning when we see this dedication:

beginning of walter

New Equilibrium

Walter stays with the family. We see them all sitting on the couch in a Simpsons shot. Walter is a permanent part of this picture now.

walter family

THE BURGLARS

burglars

These are not your typical picture book burglars. Usually, children get two men dressed as if they’ve just escaped from prison, in unambiguous black and white jumpsuits, wearing eye masks and perhaps carrying a torch and a sack. Here we have some of those aspects of the archetype: Two men, one short and stocky, the other taller and thinner, and they are indeed carrying a sack and they are indeed stealing the very things that fetch nothing on eBay — lamps and whatnot — they’re not taking things of true value, like favourite teddy bears. But they also look like real individuals. One of them is definitely a junkie.

We’re yet to see female burglars in picture books, unless someone can show me that it’s already been done. Two women breaking into a house would be the story in its own right. The archetypal burglar is still very much the male duo. They are older than the typical house thief, too, who in real life tend to be in their teens.

THE WALTER SERIES

Walter the Farting Dog has been a huge commercial success and more have been produced. What next for Walter? It is a requirement of storytelling that Walter leaves the house to go on a home-away-home adventure.

Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale came next in 2004. I prefer the UK title: Walter the Farting Dog Farts Again. Interestingly, it was published as Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Garage Sale here in Australia. It’s true, we don’t have ‘yard sales’ here.

I’m reminded of listening to You’re So Vain by Carly Simon as a preschooler (the first song I remember listening to) thinking (for many years) that she was singing, “You walked into the party like you were walking into a yard.” That was just a pronunciation difference. Obviously I knew already what a ‘yard’ was.

I don’t believe the sequels have been as successful as the original, which tells me I’m not the only parent who will put up with a bit of farting in picture books, but how many versions do you really need, when kids are perfectly happy to read the same story over and over… and over.

Walter The Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise cover

As in every children’s book series, you know at one point Walter will take to the air.

-FloatIntoTownSpread

Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t by Lauren Child

Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t is my favourite Lauren Child picture book. I can see it being used in the classroom to teach the concept of the leitmotif, among other things.

Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don't cover
If you run your finger over the dog’s body you’ll find it’s printed in some kind of textured paste. There is also a diamante used for the dog’s collar, but make no mistake — this isn’t a crappy mass-market story made with no love under the assumption that girls have been conditioned to read anything pink and sparkly.

This is a picture book written and illustrated by British kid-lit master, Lauren Child of Charlie and Lola fame.

The story might be used in the older classroom or with a child reader to discuss sound devices and alliteration, for starters.

P alliteration

In particular, Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t is a wonderful example of the leitmotif, in which sound devices are used to tell us more about a character.

This story — like many picture books — is a wonderful example of how character names can say a lot in fiction. Why is Mademoiselle Verity Brulée named as such? In the Anglo world, what connotations are associated with the French? Since crème brûlée is a kind of sweet dessert, what might we surmise about this character?

Crème brûlée…is a dessert consisting of a rich custard base topped with a contrasting layer of hard caramel.

— Wikipedia

Perhaps Verity has both soft and hard edges to her personality. Perhaps the contrast of textures in this particular dish is symbolic of how two characters living together as one family can have such different temperaments that they are like chalk and cheese. However, it is precisely the contrast in textures of the crème brûlée that make it work so well as a dessert. If only Trixie and Verity can learn to live with each other they’ll make a great team.

Ideology Of Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t

“Dogs should be left to be dogs, not treated as toys to be groomed and molly-coddled.”

Since, in children’s stories, animals are stand-ins for children, the ideology is therefore also that children should be allowed to be children, free to run around parks and get themselves dirty.

Notes On The Illustration Of Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t

This book is illustrated in a similar style to the Charlie and Lola series, though Charlie and Lola books make quite heavy use of collage, in which photographs appear to have been cut out and stuck on. This book retains the feel of collage but doesn’t employ that exact technique. Instead, I’m reminded more of the Japanese kimono, with its distinctive admixture of highly detailed patterns. I’m sure this is intended, since Verity is seen at one point wearing a kimono inspired dressing gown. (I believe they’re just called ‘kimonos’ in the West.)

Japanese fashion

The setting might be in Paris or in England or America — the era feels a bit 1920s, but we do see a retro style TV, which places it more squarely in the 1950s — before the Aristocracy had died, in any case.

The scribbly/collage illustration style of Lauren Child, in which the rules of perspective are thrown out the window, lends a childlike, playful feel to everything she writes, and encourages us to poke fun at the characters and to look for humour which we may have to dig just a little deeper for. These characters are ‘off-kilter’ and ‘quirky’, like the illustration itself. The childlike nature of the story is evident even in the punctuation (or lack thereof) on the cover: The title is a run on sentence and lauren child does not capitalise her name on book covers.

The text in this book requires advanced decoding skills, which is an interesting development in picturebooks since ‘type text to path’ became so easy in Photoshop. Illustrators and book designers can now design pages with any sort of shape to their words. In this book we have the text fully integrated with the pictures, and the reader is challenged at times to find the book text among the intratext, to slide down the page then defy the rules of reading and read up the page and even to read in circles. Coupled with the advanced language in this book, I’d say it’s a picture book designed to be read to children by an experienced older reader (rather than as an independent scaffolded exercise).

Plot Structure

Who is the main character in this story — Verity Brulée or her miniature poodle Trixie Twinkle Toes Trot-a-lot Delight? The answer to that question is always: Which character changes the most? In which case, the dog and the woman are one and the same character. Trixie Twinkle Toes is a canine manifestation of the part of Verity who feels the social pressure to be ‘perfect’: ladylike and manicured and everything ‘just so’.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Verity Brulée is inflexible and has perfectionist tendencies, preferencing image over practicality. Her dog Twinkle Toes is a dog, and therefore needs to do doglike things in order to be happy. These two characters are trapped together in the same place, which is a requirement for any kind of significant narrative conflict.

Verity introduction

Trixie Twinkle Toes does not like her name or any of the rituals that go with being an upper-class dog.

Trixie introduction

DESIRE

Verity wants to own a dog who is pretty and well-behaved while looking rich and well-groomed. She wants to perfume, powder and pom-pom her poodle and dress her in pink ribbons. She wants to keep her little dog happy and healthy — constantly wrapping Trixie up at the first sign of a cold — but she misunderstands her pet due to communication difficulties. (The dog can’t speak English.)

Trixie wants to  step in puddles. She wants a different name. She wants to brave and adventurous. She wants to do something rather than seem something.

Trixie’s dissatisfaction comes to a head at the point in the story which switches from ‘iterative’ to ‘singulative‘. The first part of the book is about how things always are, and describes how they (often) go to the park and how Verity (often) dresses Trixie up. Now:

One night Trixie Twinkle Toes was lying in her room listening to the real dogs howling at the moon.

This is the event that instigates Trixie’s self-revelation: “I hate being a poooooodle”.

OPPONENT

Verity and Trixie are each others’ opponents, symbolising the internal conflict between being free and being self-restrained. So when Trixie complains that she hates being a poodle, Verity completely misunderstands why she is crying and takes her to the vet, where very cleverly, the vet finds nothing but a sore throat. This is masterful because the young reader is left to fill in a gap: That Trixie’s sore throat is due not to having a cold but to howling.

Opponent

This story is a good example of a pair of fictional opponents who have each other’s best interests in mind but end up standing in each other’s way due to communication difficulties, separate agendas and poor empathy. We often see this dynamic in husband/wife stories, or between parent and child in young adult fiction. Opponents are often members of one’s own family.

PLAN

 

At the dog salon Trixie sees a before and after picture of a scruffy to well-groomed dog and realises that it can work both ways. Her plan is to become a scruffy dog. She plans to (and does) catch some fleas after chasing a cat and chew Mr Chomley’s newspaper.

Verity foils this plan to become scruffy by telephoning her pet psychic. When the psychic sees nothing in Verity’s cup but ‘two lonely tea leaves’ this provides for obvious and humorous symbolism, showing the young reader that although Verity and Trixie live together, they are each lonely.

BATTLE

The battle between Verity and Trixie is a constant swing between Trixie getting herself messed up and Verity putting it ‘right’ with visits to the pet salon and extra grooming sessions and eventually a pooch psychologist. This part of the battle conforms to the law of threes in storytelling:

  1. The poodle parlour
  2. The psychic
  3. The pooch psychiatrist

Notice, too, all of that wonderful alliteration with the plosive ‘p’ — basically a ‘b’ sound which is bursting to escape. (Psychiatrist is technically a sibilant, but we’ll go with what’s on the page.)

All this to-ing and fro-ing aside, in a memorable story we need some sort of climactic battle. In a novel we might get a lot of time spent on the psychological turmoil of the main character and not need a set piece, but picturebooks are more like films in this regard. The set piece (big budget scene arranged to maximum effect) in this story is the part where Trixie gets the chance to save another little dog by diving into a puddle. Again with the ‘p’ (puddle).

battle scene

SELF-REVELATION

Even more masterfully, the alliteration during the puddle scene changes to ‘d’: ‘dazzling’, ‘daring’ and ‘dangerous’. The careful reader will notice (or at least sense) that Trixie is less ‘poodle’, more ‘d’ for ‘dog’! The transformation in the puddle has happened. In case we missed the way the alliteration is related to the story we have it reinforced on the following spread:

Verity Brulée looked at Trixie Twinkle Toes and saw not a little pompommed toy poodle but instead a DAZZLINGLY DANGEROUS DARING dog.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The thing about picturebooks is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and authors are free to signpost their plot points with phrases such as ‘From that day on…’ which is where we find the bit with the mandatory new equilibrium. (All stories require a new-equilibrium — it’s just usually more subtle in stories for adults.)

From that day on, Mademoiselle Verity Brulée and Trixie Twinkle Toes eagerly read the weather pages — and if it was raining … they went out … with all the other dogs.

In an earlier age, children’s stories were often tied up a bit too nicely, resulting in a twee conclusion. Modern readers have less tolerance for this, perhaps because we can no longer buy anyone’s version of a ‘perfect world’, so we are told on the final page that Twinkle Toes and Verity are still not fully eye-to-eye — after all, Verity still calls Trixie’s very embarrassing full name at the public park.

Harry and Hopper by Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood

Harry and Hopper Cover

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

A boy’s best dog friend dies while he is at school. Harry comes to terms with Hopper’s absence gradually, first by trying to distract himself and not think about Hopper at all, then by imagining his reappearance, and finally by imagining saying goodbye in person.

Dogs commonly feature in pet-death stories. Probably because goldfish are bastards.

Continue reading “Harry and Hopper by Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood”

Literary Dogs

I almost always hate when pets are described in books. Unless they’re like Vincent from Lost & integral to plot, I prefer to ignore them. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up w/ pets, but I mean – everyone likes their pet & they’re all the same, so why bother pointing them out? It’s like “flowers are pretty” or “babies love their mother.” It can go w/out saying. Pets are either annoying or cute. Not a lot going on. People who had pets: I know you disagree w/ me. Stop yelling 🙂 Like I said, I didn’t have them. Pets = background furniture to me. Whatevs!

– @sarahlapolla

I look into the dog’s eyes. She is as stupid as a barrel of toes. Galaxies of nothing are going on in her eyes. I get up. ‘I’m going to talk to Mum,’ I explain. The dog remains under my bed, as always, deeply nervous about being a dog.

– Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman

Hey, dog people, of all the possible verbs you could have chosen, why do you “express” anal glands?

– @studiesincrap

Do you have a favourite literary dog?

Lady: My Life as a Bitch (2001)

Melvin Burgess, Puffin, 208pp, 978-0141310282, O/P

A funny, poignant tale about a 17-year-old girl and her relationship with sexual desire. When Sandra turns into a dog, a world of extremes opens to her. The excited fascination with sex that had led her into conflict with adults when she was a human (although it was legal) is now expected behaviour. The message is that sex can be fun but that compulsive promiscuity is not a wise lifestyle choice and even dogs might not be allowed to enjoy it for long. Thoughtful readers will enjoy the canine debate on what it means to be human, and note that Sandra is becoming “sensible” without adults’ intervention before her dog life even starts.

Ten Top Reads For Young Feminists

Other Dog Links