This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at another Dr Seuss early reader, Green Eggs and Ham.
Green Eggs and Ham is buddy comedy from the late 1950s with aspects of the carnivalesque. It also makes use of a mythic journey to beef up the word count and ends in a clear character arc.
Hard to believe, but this book was banned in China, for promoting Marxism. (They lifted the ban after Dr Seuss died.)
This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss.
Solla Sollew is plotted using classic mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, changes a little along the way, meets a variety of friends and foes (and some who are both), ends up in a big battle and then either returns home or finds a new one. Yesterday I looked closely at The Gruffalo, which is also mythic structure but less obviously so. The day before I looked closely at The Gingerbread Man, which is pretty classic mythic structure except Gingerbread Man never meets any helpers along the way (and spoiler alert, he doesn’t live to learn anything from his journey). I figure it’s time to present a solid, classical mythic structure picture book with all of the most basic elements.
STORY STRUCTURE OF I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW
When it comes to stories for adults and stories for children, there’s not much in it. But children are faced with different moral dilemmas.
What Is A Moral Dilemma?
First, Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘MORAL dilemma’:
A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.
— Donald Maass
Using Donald’s distinction, not many children’s books of MG level and below have moral dilemmas. The vast majority feature dilemmas, relatable because they are faced by all of us over the course of growing up: Do I sit with my old friends at lunch or with these shiny new friends? Do I follow my parents’ instructions or do I try something different? A story like Wolf Hollow has a moral dilemma, to do with telling the truth or not in order to protect someone. Interestingly, Wolf Hollow was originally written for adults, and revised for children when an editor saw a position for it on the children’s book market.
Everyday Dilemma, Or Impossible Choice?
Janice Hardy calls the moral dilemma the ‘impossible choice‘. Hardy advises writers to include at least one impossible choice per story, even if the story isn’t overtly about that (e.g. Sophie’s Choice). If we think in terms of ‘impossible choice’, then choosing to sit with new friends instead of old friends then sounds impossible: If you sit with your old friends you could squander a chance to make extra friends. But if you sit with your new friends you might lose your old ones, since childhood is tribal. If you follow the rules about being nice to everyone, how do you deal with that covert bully who is never nice to you? Ignoring won’t work. Childhood is chock full of impossible choices.
Moral Dilemmas Give Stories Emotional Impact
Karl Iglesias in his book Writing For Emotional Impact has this to say about moral dilemmas:
Dilemmas create emotional anguish for characters, which in turn challenges readers to consider what they would do if the dilemma were theirs. Our anguish may not be as acute, as we’re one step removed, but we twist our hands anyway. That is, we twist them if the dilemma is truly difficult.
Dilemmas, then, work best when the stakes are both high and personal. When one choice is morally right, it will win out unless it is offset by a different choice that is equally compelling in personal terms. Law versus love. Tell the truth or protect the innocent. Be honest or be kind. When there’s no way to win in a story, the winner is us.
The more difficult the decision your character has to make, the more you’ll engage the reader in thinking about it and therefore compel them to read on to find out how the story turns out.
Parables always feature a moral dilemma. The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences
To take the schoolyard bully example, it is morally right to ignore a bully. That’s what kids are told to do. But in reality, ignoring bullies doesn’t work. It may feel personally right to quietly take revenge, or at the very least, to assert your own position in the pecking order by doing something that displays your own strength.
All complete narratives feature a battle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal battle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun battles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.
I often feel the battle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a female myth structure should more naturally be shorter.
WHAT IS THE BATTLE SEQUENCE?
Not everyone calls it the battle sequence. In fact, that is specifically John Truby’s term. More traditionally it’s known as the climax.
When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realization. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.
Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.
Throughout the middle of the story the main character and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal.
The battle is the final conflict between main character and opponent and determines which of the two characters wins the goal.
A battle can be violent or it can be of words. In an action thriller it will probably be violent. In a rom-com it will probably be verbal.
The battle is an intense and painful experience for the hero. The hero has to come close to death, even if only metaphorically.
The battle sequence looks quite different in the female myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.
Helen is ‘the woman behind the man’ in the Dr Seuss duo. It was Helen who encouraged her husband Theo to start writing picture books.
When the marriage ended and Theo embarked upon a second relationship, Helen suicided. It would be nice to think that her separation from Theo had nothing to do with it, because had been dealing with cancer for a long time. But the truth is, she left a note. So we know that had almost everything to do with the timing of it.
Helen was a much better editor than she was a writer, which I’d like to emphasise is no small skill in itself. (Roald Dahl’s editors, for example, had a MUCH bigger hand in making him look great than most people realise.)
The book A Fish Out Of Water is a story that Theo cast aside. He didn’t think it worked. Helen disagreed and made sure it was seen by the world. It’s still reasonably easy to get a hold of. I somehow ended up with two secondhand copies on my bookshelf, for instance. This is possibly a sign that it’s a picture book people decide not to keep.
If this had Dr Seuss’s name on the cover I would certainly agree that this is not him at his finest. I agree with him that it doesn’t work. Let’s take a closer look to try and find out precisely why it doesn’t work, and why Helen thought it still had merit.
The illustrations, by P.D. Eastman are as attractive as those done by Theo himself, if without the distinctive colour palette, so it must have something to do with the text or the plot. First, the plot:
A boy needs something to nurture and he is the sort of kid who does what he’s told not to do.
He needs to learn to be obedient.
A boy wants a goldfish. Not only that, he wants to nurture the fish.
So far so good. This is all established on the first couple of pages.
This is a carnivalesque story, so the opponents are the circumstances themselves. The fish getting huge.
Again, so far, so good. It’s common and usually very successful to write a children’s book about something either very big or very small. The young reader enjoys seeing this fish getting bigger and bigger, and can probably predict that it will end up in the swimming pool, or perhaps the ocean.
Unfortunately this is where the plot starts to unravel. The boy can’t solve this on his own — first he calls the police. This is kind of comical in itself because the police are depicted as being right on the end of the phone waiting for his call, and it is clear that they deal with the overfeeding of giant fish on a regular basis.
The problem with putting the fish into the pool is that the swimmers don’t like it, so the boy’s plan changes and he is forced to call the man who sold him the fish.
It’s never ideal to have adults step in and save the day. Not in a children’s book. Even if an adult technically saves the day, the child hero must show more initiative.
The ‘battle’ in a carnivalesque book is a sequence of increasingly dire situations, and these keep going until the writer’s imagination is at a limit. Preferably, in the most successful stories of this type, the writer is able to go one or two steps further than the reader’s imagination. A great example of this is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more could happen, it does. This is where the surprise comes in, and carnivalesque stories in particular are all about fun and surprise.
There is no surprise here. All of us could imagine a giant fish being taken to the town swimming pool, and in fact I expected the fish to end up in the ocean.
The battle sequence does not surprise us enough.
This is where the book really fails.
The writer cheats. We see the fish seller dive into the pool and do something to the fish. The fish becomes small again. The boy (and reader) is told to not ask what was done.
This is the wrong way of using magic in stories. The audience must know the basic rules of the magic even though magic, by its very nature, is mysterious.
The boy takes the fish back home and will never feed it too much again.
In the end, this is a moralistic tale about the common childhood tendency to overfeed fish in bowls.
The scansion and rhyme of this story is not up to the same standard as Theo’s other books. This is clear from the very first page:
“This little fish,”
I said to Mr Carp,
“I want him.
I like him.
And he likes me.
I will call him Otto.”
Reading that, you get the feeling it should rhyme but doesn’t quite. Overleaf, we do have some rhyme:
“When you feed a fish,
never feed him a lot.
So much and no more!
Never more than a spot!
This is why, when writing a picture book, decide whether you want it to rhyme or not and then stick with your decision.
In conclusion, Theodor Geisel put this book aside for good reason. But I’m glad it exists, as a lesson in what doesn’t work, and also to know that even the masters like Dr Seuss didn’t write a winner every single time.
Where there is a river there is symbolism. At least, in stories.
Water is central to children’s and young adult literature as motif and metaphor: In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, two characters are in a relationship described as being separated by a wide, difficult-to-cross river; in The LoraxDr. Seuss warns us to protect our environment by planting a truffula tree seed and enjoins us to “Give it clean water. And feed it clean air”; and the poetry of Langston Hughes uses water in its various forms to compare the complexities of race to a deep river, to characterize a lost dream as a “barren field frozen with snow,” and to call on us all to re-imagine and reclaim the American dream, saying that “We, the people, must redeem/ The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.”
The flow of a river is a force outside human control (at least, before the days of civil engineering). Crossing a river is unexpectedly treacherous. It’s a common way for trampers (hikers) to die in my home country of New Zealand. Rivers rise suddenly and without warning. In early modern England, it was more common than you might imagine to die while collecting water. After childbirth, alongside burning to death in a fire, falling into a body of water (including wells) was a peril for women in particular. When I researched my own family tree, I discovered a great, great uncle had died young while trying to cross a river with horses. Perhaps you’d find similar. Sure as eggs, at least someone adjacent to your ancestry line has come to grief in a river.
Roald Dahl created Wonka’s factory as a symbolic forest. Sitting mysteriously just outside Charlie’s town, nobody is able to enter this forest and get past the mighty beast. This metaphorical forest, we discover, is full of all the perils of a fairytale forest — poisonous berries, tests to see if you’re good or bad, dangerous creatures and a treacherous (chocolate) river. Note the juxtaposition: Something so sweet but so dangerous.
Willy Wonka’s river reminds me of the famous river of flowers in the Netherlands.
More happily, perhaps, an opponent can be defeated by throwing him/her into the river.
In a comedic journey, the danger of a river can be inverted. In The Big Honey Hunt a father and son hide in safety from a swarm of angry bees whose honey they are trying to plunder. In this case, the loveable main characters are saved by the river.
River As Symbol Of Fertility
In ‘hygge‘ picture books there will probably be a gentle river nearby.
Below we have an Australian picnic scene. Even in the dry landscape of Australia, a river is necessary for a truly cosy outdoors experience.
The river is an essential element in what humans consider beautiful. As art philosopher Denis Dutton once wrote, ‘beauty is in the culturally conditioned eye of the beholder’. Beauty comes in many forms, depending on your cultural conditioning. But there is another, deeper, widely shared part of humanity in which we widely agree — at a very deep level — on what makes a beautiful environment. No surprise: it includes a body of water. Water is so important to life that the nearby presence of water is soothing and reassuring — and indeed necessary — to us. You’ll find discussion of this at the 7:10 mark in the TED talk below.
(If you were wondering what else makes for a beautiful landscape: a tree on a savannah that forks near the ground — so that we can easily scramble up it — and a path that meanders into the distance towards some kind of shoreline.)
River As Metaphor For Time
Time is nothing like a river. No one fully understands how time works, but astrophysicists tell us it is nothing like a ladder, road, tide or thread. All of these things and more have been used in stories as a metaphor for time, because that is how we perceive it. We humble, Earth-bound humans can manage a few different but related metaphors: Are we bystanders on the edge of the river, watching time go past, or are we bobbing in the water? That’s another question, dealt with differently by different authors.
Back to the example above. There comes a moment in every comedic adventure when the picture book writer must indicate that a whole heap of other things happened/a whole heap of time passed and EVENTUALLY… Here we have another scene from The Big Honey Huntby Stanley and Janice Berenstain in which father and son have embarked on their fruitless honey-collecting mission. The river symbolises time, as reinforced by the text.
River As Symbol Of Inevitability
Related to the concept of time is ‘inevitability’. Annie Proulx opens her short story “On The Antler” by describing an old man nearing the end of his life. As a young man he never liked to read:
But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river coursing over polished stones: books on wild geese…
— “On The Antler” by Annie Proulx
A river picks its path and there’s nothing individuals can do to stop it from running its course. This theme is expanded upon over the rest of the story. A few years ago my hometown of Christchurch suffered a series of hugely damaging earthquakes. Two houses, side-by-side: One totally ruined, the other with barely any damage at all. My cousin used that phrase to describe the phenomenon: ‘It picks its path’. Earthquakes, like rivers, lend themselves to personification.
River As Life Itself
In literature as in life, cities and towns often spring up on riverbanks, seemingly brought to life by the river’s movement. The source of the river, typically small mountain streams, depicts the beginnings of life and its meeting with the ocean symbolises the end of life.
The river is one of my favourite metaphors, the symbol of the great flow of Life itself. The river begins at Source, and returns to Source, unerringly. This happens every single time, without exception. We are no different.
– Jeffrey R. Anderson, from The Nature of Things: Navigating Everyday Life with Grace (Balboa Press, 2012)
In The Story About Ping the river has various meanings but most of all this is the story of one duck’s mythic journey towards death and back again. The river as character arc.
(Roads snaking through a landscape work in the same way.)
As a boundary, the river is sometimes used to show the difference between civilisation and those outside it. In fairy tales, the forest is used in a similar way. In medieval Europe, outlaws really were banished to the parts where ‘civil’ people did not venture. There needed to be some sort of geographical marker to delineate law from outlaw — rivers and edges of forests were good for that.
The river has also been used as a symbolic passageway into the heart of the jungle and as a descent into the primitive nature of humanity. (Especially The Amazon and The Congo.)
As an example of a Fractal Plot, Alison offers Crossing The River by Caryl Phillips (1993). Significantly, the shape of the plot itself is like a river with many tributaries. The story is ‘four discrete narratives, but with no one narrator binding them. Instead, the book is polyphonic, taking the points of view of four characters and delivering them in different styles: letters, diary entries, mixtures of third person and first. Yet the stories all grow from a single seed: an original form of “intercourse” between white and black.’ The story begins with an original sin (the “shameful exchange” between white and black). Each part of the book juxtapose against each other, ‘in concept rather than causality’. This is all spurred by what happens in the prologue (so don’t anyone be making any blanket rules about how prologues are useless).
This story is framed at the other end by an epilogue. The father speaks to his lost children in the language of fractals’ by talking about how they’re broken off limbs of a tree. Then he continues the fractal theme by talking about selling his children “where the tributary stumbles and swims out in all its directions to meet the sea”.
Main point being, in a fractal story (also known as branching, among other names), you may well find the river used symbolically, to underpin the narrative structure as well as the themes.
And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was Ted Geisel’s first book. Well, he’d written an abecedary but failed to interest publishers in it. It took a while to find a publisher for this one, too, but compared to what author/illustrators are up against today, I’m guessing 20 rejections is actually pretty good.
Dr Seuss may never have moved into picture book world if Geisel had not ran into an old college classmate, who had just become juvenile editor at Vanguard Press. When I hear stories like this I wonder how many other wonderful writers and illustrators never see widespread success due to plain old lack of luck, and I feel the self-publishing movement is therefore a great thing.
RHYTHM AND PICTURES IN “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”
Legend has it that Geisel came up with this story on a ship. To ward off sea sickness he concocted a story. The rhythm is inspired by the ship’s engine. Of course, Geisel continued to write his picture books in that signature rhythm — a rhythm many writers have subsequently tried to pull off — perhaps more young rhymsters should take a cruise on a clunky old-timey steam ship??
(Why did we not see a movement of poetry inspired by a dial-up modem in the late 90s? Haha.)
Perry Nodelman has this to say about the rhythm and ‘curious reversal’ of Mulberry Street:
The regular rhythms […] have the strong beats and obvious patterns we usually expect of pictures in sequence; and as usual in a Dr. Seuss book, the action-filled cartooning does much to break up the regular rhythms inevitable in a pictorial sequence. But as the boy, Marco, adds details to his complex story of what he saw on Mulberry Street, the pictures become more and more complex, more and more filled with detail — but always in terms of the same basic compositional patterns: the elephant is always in the same place on each spread, and so on. So the pictures both build in intensity and maintain their narrative connection with each other, as the words in a story usually do; in each picture we look for new information to add to old, rather than having to start from scratch about what we are seeing each time, as usually happens in picture books. At the same time, the segments of text get shorter and tend to be interrupted by more periods. The result is a curious reversal, in which the text adds the strong regular beat and the pictures provide a surprisingly inter-connected narrative intensity. Indeed, many fine picture books create the rich tensions of successful narrative in pictures that strain toward the narrative qualities of text and in texts that strain toward the narrative qualities of pictures: they have repetitive rhythmic texts, and pictures with accelerating intensity.
Modern stories of the imagination don’t tend to include Rajahs riding elephants and ‘Chinamen’.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”
A boy imagines a series of incredible sights on his way home from school so that he will have an interesting report to give his father.
Marco is fanciful. He’ll lie about something in order to make his life more interesting. Some may see this as a weakness; the weaknesses of picturebook characters often have very benign psychological weaknesses — a big imagination is more properly considered a strength.
He wants to impress his father.
Throughout his work, Geisel seemed more at home writing about the typically male experience and it’s true here, too, with an understanding of how sons naturally want to impress their dads.
This book, of the Tall Tale type, is an historically masculine form.
The father is a kind of opponent in that he has no time for Marco’s fanciful stories.
He plans to make up a story that’s far more interesting than reality.
In a cumulative, imaginative, carnivalesque story such as this, there may not be any big battle between the child and the other characters. Instead, the ‘battle scene’ will be ‘the moment of extreme chaos’.
This is the illustration with everything in it.
In a chaotic, carnivalesque plot, ideally there will be a ‘breather’. Here, the self-revelation comes with the image of the crossroad.
Note all the white space — the picturebook equivalent of a musical sequence with no dialogue in film.
Humans have been fascinated by crossroads since crossroads existed. In each case there is a spiritual significance. Something about crossroads has made earlier cultures superstitious:
Ghosts/apparitions appear at crossroads
Crossroads mark hallowed ground
Witches secretly meet at crossroads to conduct their nasty witchy stuff
Zeus hung out at crossroads
None of this is going on here, exactly. In modern stories (like this) crossroads have lost their spiritual meaning but remain a psychological metaphor. Marco must make a decision very soon: Will he lie to his father or tell him the truth? In other words, crossroads in modern stories mean choice.
The self-revelation is that Marco has the power to make his own choice.
In order to keep his father happy, the boy makes the decision to keep these fanciful imaginings to himself. He tells his father what he really saw.
Extrapolating somewhat, this boy seems embarrassed about his imagination running away on him, so I expect he’ll hit adolescence soon and leave his imagination behind.
STORY SPECS OF “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”
Between 30 and 40 pages long, depending on the edition
It’s interesting to see that the front cover has been published in varying shades of blue:
And then it came out in yellow, and the recognisable red and white spine, along with the rest of the Dr Seuss collection:
The Dr Seuss collection is available as a series of apps on the App Store. These are sold as early literacy apps, with the interactivity limited mainly to words popping out above the objects shown in the illustrations.
COMPARE “AND TO THINK I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET” WITH
Marco appears again, ten years later, in McElligot’s Pool.
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.
“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.
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.
All the little creatures who decide to move in and make his antlers their home.
Another more deadly form of opponents appear with the start of hunting season, and the men with their guns.
Finally, looking down the barrel of a shotgun, Thidwick makes a plan.
He’ll ditch his antlers.
If you’d like to see footage of a bull moose losing an antler, see here.
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 battle 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 self-revelation 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.
Some of my favourite picturebooks perform this trick of ‘a story within a story’. It’s a narrative technique. In novels for adults we often have an unseen narrator and we never really wonder who that narrator is, but in a picturebook you can give that narrator a personality, and you can even bring that personality into the story if it suits the plot.
We see it in Z Is For Moose, in which the animals are performing a stage play (for the reader).
It’s a postmodern technique, and postmodern picturebooks are famous for being metafictive. (In which the reader is constantly reminded that this is a story.)
Another book which knocks down ‘the fourth wall’ between reader and story is David Wiesner’s revisioning of The Three Little Pigs.
Many parent reviewers point out that the silent film technique in this Mo Willems picturebook goes over the heads of children and exists for adult co-readers. I think this is only half true. Child readers will still pick up that this is a story within a story even if they don’t recognise the exact medium of silent film. The drawings of the narrator (the bird’s babies) are not really difficult for kids to understand.
SILENT FILM TECHNIQUES
On the colophon page we have a ‘List of Players’. These days we might see ‘Cast’ or ‘Starring’. This terminology (as well as the font) is from the silent film era.
The silent film era lasted from 1894 to 1929. The buildings, fashion and interior decoration is also from that period, with the Fox dressed up as a Victorian gentleman and the goose wearing a headscarf. (Not only is there a gender and species difference here, but also a class one.)
White words on black background, like tech websites from the early 2000s, unrelatedly.
Exaggerated gestures — the fox lifts his hat very high while the duck shows very obvious signs of coyness. This feature is common between silent film and picturebooks, so doesn’t really stand out.
But Willems also borrows a Looney Tunes-esque technique: The dashed line to indicate line of vision:
THE INFLUENCE OF AESOP ON POSTMODERN PICTURE BOOKS
Modern animal stories like these owe so much to Aesop. The narrative wouldn’t work if our culture hadn’t already taught us that foxes are cunning and ducks are vulnerable. (As my husband says of our chooks, “It’s their own damn fault for being so delicious.”)
As Perry Nodelman explains:
There are historical reasons for this concentration of animals who act like humans, among them the fact that some of the first stories considered suitable for children were the fables of Aesop, in which supposedly characteristic animal attributes are identified with human behaviour. These identifications still operate in picture books today. The image of a fox in The Amazing Bone immediately evokes the idea of craftiness, and in picture book after picture book, we are meant to understand immediately that the lions depicted are arrogant, the peacocks proud, the pigs gluttonous, the mice timid, the rats nasty. As Leonard Marcus says in “Picture Book Animals,” “animals as images in our everyday thought and expression are among the most association-rich classes of symbols. Just under the surface of picture book fantasies, cultural meanings may well be at work.”
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Nodelman also points out that traditional (Aesopian) ideas about which personalities belong to which animals can be turned upside down, used ironically. He gives the example of Pearl the pig in William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.
Here, too, Aesop’s animal personalities are turned upside down. Although foxes often meet a sticky end due to their overconfidence even in Aesop’s fables, the goose turns out to be the wiliest of all.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA BY MO WILLEMS
A story with a twist in the end makes you revise the entire thing. (For this reason we shouldn’t go about recommending books and films by saying ‘There’s a great twist!’) Hopefully anyone on this blog has already read the story, though.
The fox thinks he’s smart but he’s not.
He wants to eat a goose for dinner.
He plans to invite her home for dinner, pretending that she will be sharing the meal.
Standing around the big pot, who will push who into the stew?
The revelation happens for the audience, since the fox isn’t around to feel it. We see that the goose is not a weak little creature but is more wily than the fox.
The fox is dead. The goose and her chicks are well fed.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
A reviewer on Goodreads compares this Mo Willems picturebook to a novel for adults: Under The Skin by Michel Faber. (It’s also a film starring Scarlett Johansson.)
A case could be made that there are already plenty of flawed parents in young adult literature. Richie, from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park immediately comes to mind. Is there a more despised character in YA? For me, no.
– Bryan Bliss
Fathers In Picturebooks
It’s common for a young boy in a picturebook to want to impress his father. This can even drive the plot, forming the ‘Desire’ part of the story structure (Desires to prove himself to his father).
Examples are the Spot books by Eric Hill and some of the Dr Seuss books — notably his first, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, in which a boy tries to impress his father by concocting an interesting story about what he saw on the way to school:
When I leave home to walk to school,
Dad always says to me,
“Marco, keep your eyelids up
And see what you can see.”
This desire line feels to me like a specifically masculine one; I can’t easily think of picture books (or even stories for older children) in which a boy or a girl must prove themselves to their mother. In storybook world, a mother’s unconditional love is taken for granted whereas that of a father must be hard won.
Fathers In Fairytales
‘There is hardly a tale in the Grimms’ collection‘ — argued the Grimm scholar and fairy0tale activist Jack Zipes, in 1995 — ‘that does not raise the issue of parental oppression.‘ And yet, ‘we rarely talk about how the miller’s daughter is forced by her father into a terrible situation of spinning straw into gold, or how Rapunzel is locked up by her foster mother and maltreated just as children are often locked up in closets and abused today.’
— Frances Spufford, The Child That Books Built
Fathers and Disney Fairytale Adaptations
“My Heart Belongs To Daddy”: Fathers, Bad Boys, and Disney Princesses
Fatherhood is a powerful force in Disney Princess films. Fathers bequeath nobility and exert influence over their daughters, whose marriages often effect the reproduction of economic capital. Even when the fathers of Princesses are absent, as in Snow White, Cinderella, and The Princess and the Frog, they instigate storylines: Snow White’s and Cinderella’s fathers marry cruel stepmothers, setting in train narratives in which the monstrous feminine is central. Angela Carter describes this scheme in her story “Ashputtle or The Mother’s Ghost,” where she reflects that in “Aschenputtel,” the Grimms’ version of the Cinderella story, the father is “the unmoved mover, the unseen organizing principle, like God.” In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s father has died by the time the story begins, but not before impressing upon Tiana the imperative of hard work, which, he promises, will enable her to “do anything you set your mind to.” Disney’s Sleeping Beauty features two fathers: Aurora’s father King Stegan and his friend King Hubert, who arrange the betrothal of Aurora to Prince Phillip, Hubert’s son. While the Sleeping Beauty scenario comprises the most explicit reference to practices of dynastic marriage in aristocratic families, all the Princess films strenuously advocate heterosexual romance and (with the exception of Pocahontas) marriage, so arguing for the maintenance of “traditional” social and economic orders.
from The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past by Tison Pugh, Susan Aronstein