Symbolism of Green

Elmer Cecil Stoner Green Mask

What does green symbolise in art and storytelling?

  • Unripe (and by extension, naïve)
  • Vital and vigorous (because Greek ‘chloros’ may have mostly meant ‘having sap’, independent of colour). By extension, green can symbolise youth. Young things tend to be moist (sorry) whereas old things tend to be dry (also sorry, blame those Ancient Greeks).
  • Latin for ‘green ‘ is viridis. This becomes verdant in English. This may have meant youthful and vigorous as well as naïve, but thanks to that age-old gender hierarchy, ‘virile’ and ‘manliness’ are overlapping ideas. ‘Virile’ and ‘virtue’ are also related.
From The Australian Women's Weekly, March 19, 1975 green glasses
From The Australian Women’s Weekly, March 19, 1975. Green-tinted glasses. I bet he tells everyone, “You look a little peaky today.”
  • It gets worse. Since green can mean virtue and naivety, it follows that green can also symbolise virginity, a bullshit concept made up to control people, mainly women.
  • Green symbolises spring, hence the adjective ‘vernal’. The common Latin idea with this family of ‘v’ words is ‘juicy’ or ‘sappy’.
  • Many landscapes remain green over summer (not here in Australia, where we should be using Aboriginal concepts of seasonality) but anyway, green can symbolise summer as well as spring.
  • There’s a famous medieval poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem may have come from a pop-culture idea of the time: belief in a Green Man who represents the seasonal cycle. (For a contemporary picture book example of personified seasons see The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg.)
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Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.

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Animals Riding Other Animals In Illustration

Early-twentieth century illustrations by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938) riding horse underwater

When I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was disturbed for an unlikely reason. It wasn’t the dystopian aspect of a world where humans were no longer top of the food chain. The resonant image for me was when the apes were riding horses.

I immediately checked myself. Why am I slightly repelled by the spectacle of apes riding horses? I mean, humans ride horses and we’re not much different from apes.

Yet humans sort of had to ride horses. If we hadn’t used horses at certain points in our history, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Jared Diamond writes about this in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, about how human evolution has favoured certain geographical groups over others.

Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 monkeys riding horse
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 monkeys riding horse


First he points out that domestic animals including horses didn’t do well in Africa because of climate and disease carried by tsetse flies. For that reason, the horse only became established as far south as the equator, and only on the Western side of the African continent until A.D. 1-200, where they transformed warfare. Yet horses had long since become established in other parts of the world. In Egypt they also transformed warfare, starting around 1800 B.C. As soon as horses make their way into an area, humans use them to fight wars with.

Every domesticated animal has a wild ancestor. The wild ancestor of the horse, the wild horse of southern Russia, is now extinct, though a different subspecies survived in the wild to modern times in Mongolia. (This Mongolian horse is now rare and protected and survives in a protected National Park. But it is no longer ‘wild’.) Sheep, goats and pigs were the first wild animals to be domesticated. The most recent example of domestication is the camel.

Diamond draws a clear distinction between animals which can be tamed (e.g. elephants) versus animals which can be domesticated. ‘Tamed’ simply means to become less dangerous to humans, whereas to be domesticated, a wild animal is ‘selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control the animal’s breeding and food supply’. Some animals can be domesticated and others cannot. For instance, no one has ever domesticated a zebra. You simply cannot put a saddle on a zebra, and you can be sure people have tried. We know that zebras tend to bite you and not loosen their bite. But horses don’t do that. I know from reading Lonesome Dove that horses can bite you badly in the shoulder and also bite off your toes, but horses don’t keep hold of your flesh like zebras do. Horses can therefore be broken in.

Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars He jumped, he reared, he kicked, he plunged, he wriggled, he whinnied
Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars. “He jumped, he reared, he kicked, he plunged, he wriggled, he whinnied.”
Marie-Madeleine FRANC-NOHAIN [1878-1942] Alphabet In Pictures 1933 zebra
Marie-Madeleine FRANC-NOHAIN [1878-1942] Alphabet In Pictures 1933
Hilary Knight’s artwork appeared on the November 1979 issue of CRICKET

Why can you put a saddle on a horse and not on a zebra (or on elk or eland)? Three factors:

  • Horses aren’t as skittish and nervous. You can keep them in captivity.
  • They are herd animals who don’t mind company
  • Horses first developed a firm social hierarchy between themselves. Humans utilised this natural hierarchy and position themselves at the top. (Normally it’d be the top ranking female horse.)

Domesticated horses have therefore been vital to humans, first in warfare, next in agricultural and in transportation across long distances.

Dragons are also fun to ride.

Fairytale book published in 1982 by Vladimir Kovarik, illustrated by Daniela Benesova (27 september 1929, Tsjechië)
Fairytale book published in 1982 by Vladimir Kovarik, illustrated by Daniela Benesova (27 september 1929, Tsjechië)
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931 USA) riding dragon
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931 USA)
Feodor Rojankovsky (Frog Went A-Courtin', written by John Langstaff, 1955)
Feodor Rojankovsky (Frog Went A-Courtin’, written by John Langstaff, 1955)
'Pinocchio in the Moon' Illustration by Corrado Sarri, 1924
‘Pinocchio in the Moon’ Illustration by Corrado Sarri, 1924
Jean-Babtiste Monge riding
Jean-Babtiste Monge


Since we are used to seeing humans riding horses, it’s no great stretch of the imagination to witness them riding flying horses (pegasuses). Though when a human rides a bird, the human has probably been through some sort of shrinking process. Flight is one of the main wish fulfilment fantasies, especially in children’s literature. The experience of riding a horse is very much like flying, and we use the word ‘fly’ to describe rapid, smooth movement, even across ground.

Charles Folkard (1878 - 1963). A 1915 illustration for Lucy M. Garnett's Ottoman Wonder Tales.
Charles Folkard (1878 – 1963). A 1915 illustration for Lucy M. Garnett’s Ottoman Wonder Tales.
An illustration by Charles Folkard from ‘Pip and Squeak Annual 1929’
from Richard Doyle's Fairyland 1870
from Richard Doyle’s Fairyland 1870
Harry Rountree,  The Doings of Furrymouse,  1919 chincilla riding crow
Harry Rountree, The Doings of Furrymouse, 1919.


The illustration below is clearly a play on the English word ‘to ride piggyback’. The phrase refers to anything riding on the back of something else, metaphorically or literally.

L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940)- “This Little Pig cried 'Wee, wee, wee! I can't find my way home!'" from “Ring O’ Roses, A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book,” Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1922
L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940)- “This Little Pig cried ‘Wee, wee, wee! I can’t find my way home!'” from “Ring O’ Roses, A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book,” Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1922

The history of this word has nothing to do with pigs:

Piggyback is a corruption of pickaback, which is likely a folk etymology alteration of pick pack (1560s), which perhaps is from pick, a dialectal variant of the verb pitch.

This slightly uncomfortable Frank Beard illustration comes out of America. “What may happen when little boys play leap frog too much.”


It is surprisingly easy to find old illustrations of humans and other animals riding fish and fish-people.

Paulina Garwatowska - The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen old woman riding a fish
Paulina Garwatowska – The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen old woman riding a fish
Chinese Firecracker box illustration. A man has gone fishing and ends up riding the fish.
Chinese Firecracker box illustration. A man has gone fishing and ends up riding the fish.
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson
Alan Aldridge illustration 1973 for The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast riding
Alan Aldridge illustration 1973 for The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast
Mermaid Riding a Sea Serpent (Hans Christiansen, 1897, a  magazine cover)
Mermaid Riding a Sea Serpent (Hans Christiansen, 1897, a magazine cover)
The Oyster Loaf menu cover, 1940s, Andrew Loomis (1892-1959) riding
The Oyster Loaf menu cover, 1940s, Andrew Loomis (1892-1959)
Marina Marcolin

The flippers on the horse in the illustration below are a particularly resonant detail.

Erich Shutz, Austrian (1886-1937) 1930 riding
Erich Shutz, Austrian (1886-1937) 1930 riding
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 riding donkey
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 monkey riding bird
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 monkey riding bird
Attilio, 1978 rabbit riding dog
Attilio, 1978 rabbit riding dog
Ikke kjørende og ikke ridende, 1907 riding
Ikke kjørende og ikke ridende, 1907

Looking at art as a corpus, it seems modern audiences no longer look at a fish and imagine riding it, like, at all. Maybe sometimes, in something absurdist. But the illustrations below make me think that in pre-aeroplane times, people were just as likely to imagine fish as birds when conceiving of a flight contraption.

Albert Robida (1848-1926), Le Vingtième siècle aka The Twentieth Century, 1883
Albert Robida (1848-1926), Le Vingtième siècle aka The Twentieth Century, 1883


Sidesaddle riding is a form of equestrianism that uses a type of saddle which allows a rider (usually female) to sit aside rather than astride an equine. Sitting aside dates back to antiquity and developed in European countries in the Middle Ages as a way for women in skirts to ride a horse in a modest fashion while also wearing fine clothing. It has retained a specialty niche even in the modern world.


The sidesaddle tradition goes way back and can be seen on Greek vases. It exists because the rubbish concept of virginity exists, in which the hymen must be preserved so men can marry their daughters off well. As they clearly knew even then, a wide variety of normal activities can stretch the hymen (hymens do not break), but they did not then come to the conclusion that the hymen and penetrative sex have little to do with each other. The natural conclusion was that women’s movements must be further restricted.

None of this comes into children’s picture books, of course. Unless we do a count up of girls with their legs closed versus boys with their legs astride; girls being carried to safey, boys more active in their own travel and rescue.

The Wizard Of Oz- 1944 flying monkeys, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
The Wizard Of Oz- 1944 flying monkeys, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
One of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Fairy Tales (1916) by Hans Christen Andersen
One of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Fairy Tales (1916) by Hans Christen Andersen
Charles James Folkard (6 April 1878 – 26 February 1963) riding
Charles James Folkard (6 April 1878 – 26 February 1963)
This illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite is interesting because normally witches are depicted sitting astride their broom, and this looks mighty uncomfortable indeed. But if witches have the power to make broomsticks fly, why wouldn’t they also have the ability to stand on them like this?
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888 - 1960) 1925 illustration Witch's Sister On Her Black Bat for The Enchanted Forest written by her husband Grenbry Outhwaite
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888 – 1960) 1925. This is an illustration called Witch’s Sister On Her Black Bat for The Enchanted Forest, written by her husband Grenbry Outhwaite.
Helen Jacobs (1888-1970), The night flight riding
Helen Jacobs (1888-1970), The night flight
American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett riding tortoise
American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett died tragically young of TB at the age of 30.
The Green Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang with illustrations by H. J. Ford, 1906.
The Green Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang with illustrations by H. J. Ford, 1906.
Illustration for the French magazine ′La Vie Parisienne′ by Chéri Hérouard (1881-1961) riding a dragon
Illustration for the French magazine ′La Vie Parisienne′ by Chéri Hérouard (1881-1961) riding a dragon


This trope describes the situation in which a female character rides on a bike (motorised or otherwise) while a man steers.

Growing up in the 80s, my bike was different from my brothers’ bikes. My top bar was heavily angled. When I asked why, my father told me it was so I could get onto the bike wearing a skirt, which seems ridiculous even for the 80s, except I was required to wear full school uniform to school all through the 90s, so I mostly was trying to pull down my summer tunic as the wind caught it, and constantly trying to keep my winter kilt out from the back wheel. (I didn’t succeed.) Honestly, the nuisance of a horizontal top bar would’ve been the least of my concerns.

Inverse examples of the riding bitch in children’s stories are rare. However, you will occasionally find them, in which case the female character is coded deliberately as a ‘take charge’ sort of girl.

Are women’s bikes still built differently? Yes, but in a way that accommodates for average differences in build rather than from some outdated idea that women are still mostly riding skirts on bikes, and are incapable of mounting bicycles featuring horizontal top bars.

Honestly, if women are athletically capable enough to ride a male top bar like pig Josephine below, we have always been sufficiently capable of riding a bike as it was meant to be ridden — using an actual damn seat.

There’s a good reason why female characters rarely give male characters rides like this. If you’ve ever tried it you’ll know that it’s very difficult and requires a substantial differential in size and strength. Girls are simply smaller.

TIFF-HUTÉ (1948) Henry Le Monnier riding bitch
TIFF-HUTÉ (1948) Henry Le Monnier riding bitch

The illustration below disturbs me, as it is meant to. We see acts of violence meted out to people of all genders, of course, but there’s something utterly vulnerable about the violence meted out in this one, in which the riding bitch trope intersects with male violence against a woman. The torture (rather than the finality) of the event is given primacy. The image is even more disturbing if you’ve studied the history of the witch craze.

Images of tortured Jesus are also disturbing, though perhaps rendered less so because of the ubiquity of Jesus on the cross. We rarely see Jesus from this angle. A near ‘upskirt’ angle is specific to femme characters. Notice how even on her way to hell, this tortured witch does not ride astride a horse. She’s still some dude’s riding bitch.

DE NACHTMANNETJES (1946) Eetie van Rees riding
DE NACHTMANNETJES (1946) Eetie van Rees riding


Can a bird take you for a ride? from Bedtime Math

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Header illustration: Early-twentieth century illustrations by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938) riding horse underwater

Chinoiseries and Picture Books Analysis

Illustrators of fairy tales frequently choose styles that evoke the periods of history not particularly related to the tales but that they perceive to share the values they find in the tales.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Children’s picture books draw from a great number of traditions. One of those is ‘chinoiseries’, a European mimicry of Chinese art.

Walter Crane (1845 - 1915) 1875 "Death of the Magician" illustration for his own book "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp"
Walter Crane (1845 – 1915) 1875 “Death of the Magician” illustration for his own book “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”
William Worcester Churchill (1858 - 1926) The Chinese Vase
William Worcester Churchill (1858 – 1926) The Chinese Vase
Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament Chinese No 3
Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament Chinese No 3

Chinoiserie: a decorative style in Western art, furniture, and architecture, especially in the 18th century, characterized by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques.

The word ‘chinoiseries’ denotes a European art style dominated by pseudo-Chinese ornamental motifs evoking a romanticized or fairy-tale East. [… This] style exudes a longing for a newly romanticized medieval “Cathay”.

Objectifying China*, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America by Caroline Frank

(In earlier eras, Northern China used to be known in English speaking areas as ‘Cathay’, from ‘Catai’. The south was called ‘Mangi’.)

A standout example of chinoiseries are the popular engravings of French artist Francois Boucher (1740s onwards).

Boucher borrowed details from:

  • Chinese woodblock prints
  • a Turkish designer
  • Arnold Montaneus’s 1671 Atlas Chinensis. Montaneus was a Dutch teacher and author.
In 1929, Bathrooms with an Asian Motif became the rage for "Middle" & "Upper Class" New Yorkers
In 1929, Bathrooms with an Asian Motif became the rage for “Middle” & “Upper Class” New Yorkers

Japan Work (late 17th century — 19th century)

This term referred to pseudo-lacquered furniture featuring chinoiserie decorations actually applied in Europe. It also referred to tin-glazed earthenware pottery, metalwork and textiles with the same decorations.

Furniture which has undergone this treatment is said to be ‘japanned’.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot - Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects
James Jacques Joseph Tissot – Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects
Illustration for Alexander Pushkin's 'Fairytale of the Tsar Saltan', 1905 (colour litho), Bilibin, Ivan Jakovlevich, influenced by Japanese art.
Illustration for Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Fairytale of the Tsar Saltan’, 1905 (colour litho), Bilibin, Ivan Jakovlevich, influenced by Japanese art.
Le Lotus Bleu, 'Les Aventures de Tintin reporter en Extrême-Orient ' 1936 chinoiserie, Herge
Le Lotus Bleu, ‘Les Aventures de Tintin reporter en Extrême-Orient ‘ 1936 chinoiserie, Herge. When Westerners attempt Chinese characters they usually get it very wrong. It’s unclear what this is meant to say. Perhaps an attempt at ‘fish leg rice’? Probably intended nonsense, a bit like the faux-Japanese song Yama Yama.
Ramon Casas (Spanish, 1866-1932)
Ramon Casas (Spanish, 1866-1932)

Modern Chinoiserie

Perhaps you have some examples of chinoiserie in your own environment?

Atkinson Grimshaw - Summer
Atkinson Grimshaw – Summer (1875)

Features of Chinoiseries

  • Tropical exoticism is exaggerated
  • It is based on a fanciful European interpretation of ‘Chinese’ styles which may not be Chinese at all, but from Japan, Korea or Turkey. In earlier eras (and into the present) Westerners were unable to distinguish between different parts of the East. It was simply ‘exotic’. If it’s Western art inspired by Japan, then some use the word ‘japonaiserie’.
  • Chinoiserie was most popular during the rococo period (1750-70), a movement known for its light-heartedness but also for its heavy detail.
  • It’s not really Chinese or even Asian art, because the materials required to create it weren’t available in Europe or America.
  • Dragons, exotic birds, ‘Chinamen’ and women dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, fu-manchu beards, ponytails, multi-tier structures with those pointed, sweeping up roofs (pagodas), pink and white lotus leaves, bamboo plants, weeping willows and other Chinese vegetation, blue-and-white ware, hump-backed bridges, water gardens, misty mountain-scapes
  • Chinoiserie may contain shapes such as this:


The standout example of fake Eastern stories influencing the views of Western children are Tales of the Arabian Nights.

I was given an anthology of Arabian Nights as a kid and this thick book sat on the shelf right beside the Grimm fairytales. My edition was more modern, but it was Walter Crane who came out with the first picture book on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. These were coloured lithographs. The story was ostensibly about a Chinese boy and set in China, though Crane was actually influenced by Japanese woodcuts, especially those by Hiroshige.

Other examples can be found among the illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen’s pseudo-Chinese “The Nightingale”. The art in an edition illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert is a mixture of chinoiserie and art nouveau.

Header painting by Austrian Carl Moll, artist of the Art Nouveau era (1861 – 1945).

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Castles In Art and Storytelling

Maxfield Parrish - Dream Castle in the Sky

The castle is a feature of Gothic storytelling, and commonly makes appearances in ghost stories of all kinds. Dragons and castles also go together.

As kids my friends and I played King of the Castle. There’s not much to it. We used a pile of dirt, left by some builders. One person climbs to the top and says, “I’m the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal.” That’s about all that happens. The pleasure derives from pretending you’re the boss of your friends.

I wonder if kids still do this? The children in the painting below are using the elevated platform of a cart to play the same game.

Myles Birket Foster - Who's to be King of the Castle
Myles Birket Foster – Who’s to be King of the Castle
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Unmentionable by Paul Jennings

Unmentionable Paul Jennings

Unmentionable (1991) is a collection of 9 hi-lo short stories by iconic Australian author Paul Jennings.


In “Ice Maiden”, a boy falls in love with an ice statue, but he gets over his love for the ice once he meets a real girl.

I have some sympathy for the phenomenon whereby adolescents lust after (hopefully) safe targets — celebrities, cartoon characters, teachers, coaches. These objects feel safe because they will never reciprocate our nascent lust.

“Ice Maiden” is about the humiliation sometimes felt when lusting after someone — or something — utterly unattainable.

There are strong echoes of Pygmalion in any story with a plot like this. Jennings has rewritten Pygmalion knowingly, with mention of a Greek statue. I’ve written about Pygmalion previously. The Greek myth is inherently sexist. When writing this humorous retelling for kids, Paul Jennings didn’t manage to subvert that aspect at all. I don’t believe he manages any subversion in “Ice Maiden”.

The image of the beautiful frozen girl is also inside a glass case, which has echoes of fairytales such as Snow White.


I just wouldn’t go anywhere near a redhead.

Jennings opens the story like that and I’m immediately suspicious. But Jennings reassures us:

Now don’t get me wrong and start calling me a hairist or something like that. Listen to what I have to say, then make up your mind.

The moral shortcoming of the narrator is that he doesn’t like redheads, and refuses to be friends with Mr Mantolini’s cousin.


The narrator wants to continue lusting after an ice statue in the fish shop window, but she’s about to perish under the hot sun. His object of desire will no longer exist.


Mr Mantolini, who wants to replace the statue of an ice maiden with a new one.


My plan was to take her to the butcher. I would pay him to keep the ice maiden in his freezer where I could visit her every day.

Jennings makes use of a ticking clock device:

The sun was rising in the sky. I had to hurry.


The Battle sequence begins with the narrator kissing the ice statue on the mouth. The slap stick gag is that his lips get stuck to her. We all know the gag, and accept that, in stories, ice is dangerous in this way.

The narrator takes the statue into the sea, aiming to melt her in sea water.

Paul Jennings uses the trope of ‘life flashing before eyes’ to insert back story, including the revelation that the narrator himself has red hair. At least, it’s a reveal if you aren’t reading an edition with this picture on the front:

Ice Maiden Paul Jennings

This is meant to be a subversion of redhead bigotry. I.e., You can’t possibly hate red headed people if you have red hair yourself. But this doesn’t take into account the phenomenon of internalised hatred and lateral violence. So this reveal feels like a failed ‘subversion’ to me.


The entire story feels as if it were written around a pithy closing paragraph:

I guess that’s when I discovered that an ice maiden who is dead is not sad. And a nice maiden who is red, is not bad.

A big reveal is that the narrator’s red hair probably helped save him (because it made him more visible to rescuers in the water). We are therefore meant to conclude that red hair is a good thing now.

Another big reveal is that ‘Tony’ is a girl. She is beautiful despite being a red head. This reveal is a little forced. Tony is a gender neutral name, but this is the way boys spell it. All the girl Tonis I’ve known have spell their name with an ‘i’. However, once Jennings spelt the name with a ‘y’, he had to keep spelling it like that. Or, chose to.

The reveal also relies upon a fractured, non-native rendition of English of Mr Mantolini, which doesn’t quite work.


We extrapolate that the boy is no longer sad about losing the ice version of a crush because he can now fixate upon the girl who inspired the ice creation, in the same objectifying, dehumanising way.

If the reader is familiar with the ur-Story of Pygmalion, we might imagine they will have a son and daughter together.


“Birdman” plays on the wish fulfilment fantasy of flying, common in children’s literature. It also fulfils the fantasy of winning against your biggest enemy.


Sean wants to win a flying competition. We deduce he’s after prestige.


Sean is trying to fly.


Spider is ostensibly an ally, helping Sean to fly. But he’s also encouraging Sean to perform beyond his capability. The boy friendship combo in which our main character is the Every Boy and his best friend is an even lower-mimetic hero is common, even today. We see it in Wimpy Kid (Greg is the Every Boy, Rowley is his chubby, hapless best friend); we see it in Monster House (DJ and Chowder); we see it most famously in Harry Potter (Harry Potter and Ron Wesley). When we see it in Hollywood, often with grown men, these are known as Buddy Comedies.

Note that Jennings has used the trick of alliterative names to link two characters together. (Both Spider and Sean begin with ‘s’. Katherine Mansfield, who wrote a very different sort of short story, made use of this also e.g. in “The Garden Party“.)

Buggins is the kid who always wins the competition. He is also vindictive. He deliberately ruins Sean’s wings. This is the big bad opponent.

The mother is an opponent because she doesn’t want her son to participate in this competition.


Without really requiring a plan, Sean and Spider happen upon ‘treasure’ buried at the beach. They find a dead cat in the shape of a hat, which is a blend of gross-out and black humour.

Their plan is to pick up the uncle’s hang glider from the railway station. But they are dismissed by the authority figures there. The cat takes over Spider’s body and makes him boom like a man. The hat is thereby proven magic, in a way hats often are. With a hat, a character changes roles completely.


The boys know immediately that the cat opens its eyes and copies what it sees. This leads to a series of humiliation gags:

  • The father puts on the cat hat and ends up eating dog food like the dog
  • Sean follows girls into the changing room, in a gag which I doubt was ever funny to girls. It now has an extra level of ick post Trump’s boasts about hanging out in the changing rooms at Miss Teen USA competitions.


At first Sean and Spider choose not to use the cat hat, because it’s too unpredictable and risky to make use of in a high stakes flying competition.

But of course the cat hat is used. We expect this. The revelation is in how it’s going to be used.


We extrapolate that Buggins will end up with poo on his head and face. This is a highly satisfying ending for many in the child audience. As a kid I was delighted by Roald Dahl’s poem “The Cow” included in Dirty Beasts, which ends:

She dived and using all her power
She got to sixty miles an hour
‘’Bombs gone!’’ she cried. ‘’Take that’’ she said,
And dropped a cowpat on his head.

I took my copy of Dirty Beasts to school. Our teacher read it naively, but before he had read the final line, he cast the book aside in disgust. My classmates turned to me and with accusing tones said I’d personally ruined storytime (which they wanted to last longer). Obviously, I’m scarred for life. (But not by the vengeful poo conclusion.)


From the title of “Little Squirt” we can tell: A small boy underdog gets his own back after being bullied by larger boys than him.

This is so short it’s almost micro fiction. It’s a story of a literal pissing contest between boys.


The story opens with an actual pissing competition (used metaphorically mostly, to describe hierarchical struggles between boys and men). Sure enough, Weesle is little and therefore at the bottom of the hierarchy.


Weesle wants to be better than his big brother at competitions.


Sam and the other boys, who are bigger and therefore better than him at competitions.


His mother sits him down and tells him to practise. If he practises, he’ll be better than the other boys.


By talking about the running race, Jennings misdirects us. We don’t see the big finale of the running race; we see a repeat of the pissing competition in the toilets.


The gag is that when the earnest mother sat Weesle down and told him to practise, Weesle didn’t interpret that as ‘practise for the running race’. He interpreted that as ‘practise for the pissing competition’.


Weesle is now proud of himself.


“The Mouth Organ” feels like Paul Jennings making up for his hitherto use and misuse of girl characters. The main character in this story is a girl. The saviour is a woman. Right there, on the page, Jennings writes:

There’s nothing to say that the man has to be the brave one. Why shouldn’t it be a woman?

Why a girl in this story? I have a working theory that stories with heavily symbolic use of trees tend to be more feminine, especially when the trees are a flowering variety. Flowers = pretty = femininity.


The exact nature of the problem is revealed slowly.

Nicole has accidentally killed a tree. The tree must flower, because until it flowers, Mr Hardbristle has — with no real rhyme nor reason — decided that he won’t forgive himself for his wife’s death until the magnolia tree, planted upon her grave, flowers.

Nicole feels that it is her personal responsibility to mange the feelings of Mr Hardbristle, which is another reason why Jennings may have (unconsciously or consciously) chosen a girl to be the main character of this one. In stories, across the board, girls are considered givers of emotional labour. A stand-out example of this dynamic in children’s literature is a Nick Bland picture book called The Very Cranky Bear. In that story, a female sheep saves the day by donating her own fleece. The gendering of the animals in that story is no accident.


Nicole wants to replace the dead magnolia tree, which will eventually make Mr Hardbristle happy.


Nicole wants Mr Hardbristle to be happy and to forgive himself. Mr Hardbristle can’t seem to manage that, despite his extra decades of emotional maturity, so that makes Mr Hardbristle the girl’s opponent.

When the man with the mouth organ appears, we wait to see if this guy is an opponent or an ally. This is a Paul Jennings story so we know: He’ll be an opponent at first, until the child learns to use the magic he gives her. Then, when she has learned to manipulate his magic, he’ll be proven a firm ally.


Busk, earn money, buy a new magnolia tree.

This plan isn’t working at first because nobody gives Nicole much money.


There is a level 1 metadiegetic level to this story which describes the fire which killed Mrs Hardbristle. This has its own big struggle — in fact, it’s mostly big struggle sequence.

The big struggle sequence of the level 0 busking story starts with a slapstick, carnivalesque scene in which tourists rip their clothes off because the girl is playing a strip tease tune.

Paul Jennings makes use of a ticking clock (it feels a little forced) because the mouth organ wants to return to its owner. She needs to earn $1000 for a tree but she hasn’t got enough yet.

Nicole has a personal big struggle with the mouth organ itself when it lodges itself inside her mouth, like a sideways banana. This puts her classmates in a trance:

The class close around me with outstretched fingers. Their nails are like claws.

The entire class chases her through town as if they are wild animals.


When Nicole has been through the mill, accidentally turning the townsfolk to wood, she meets the Ponytail Guy again.

There’s been a misunderstanding. The Ponytail Guy reveals that the mouth organ ‘does good for those who do good. And bad for those who do bad.’

When Nicole tells him what she wants money for, the mouth organ suddenly starts to do good.


The story ends on a ‘tune of love’. The magnolia tree is in full bloom.

This is a very feminine ending and I would have liked Paul Jennings to use a boy main character for this story. Ironically, perhaps, this would have been more gender subversive.


“The Velvet Throne” is a bit of a departure for Paul Jennings. The main character is not a child. The twist is a little more difficult to piece together. It relies on a basic knowledge of divination — the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.


Mr Simpkin is a carer for his brother — Gobble — who has an insatiable appetite. Mr Simpkin is a victim of this appetite because there’s never enough food left for him, and Gobble makes insatiable demands. Gobble is verbally abusive.

Mr Simpkin is spineless, which is his main problem. This character flaw allows him to be mistreated.


This is the story of a downtrodden man’s awakening. He starts off wanting to keep his brother happy and go to work, but he will develop a real Desire in the Anagnorisis.

In the meantime, he needs a proxy desire, to get him to that point. He wants to get away from his opponent…


Gobble, Mr Simpkin’s brother, who is enormously fat. emotionally abusive and demanding. Gobble is a human dragon character, sitting on a hoard of money which belongs to Mr Simpkin in the first place.

The man who locks Mr Simpkin in the toilet block.


He’s doing a bit of a Marion Crane, though with his own money, by running away and booking into a hotel.

That’s the plan, but he gets locked in the public toilet.


The night in the toilet block is pure psychological horror. And it plays on a fear we’ve probably all had at some point — getting locked inside a building because we haven’t managed to find our way out before closing time. Some of these fantasies are utopian — getting locked in a supermarket and eating all the marshmallows. But this one is dystopian. It’s cold, it rains, and toilet wall graffiti functions as divination.


The revelation is that whatever’s written on the toilet wall as graffiti comes true. So Mr Simpkin realises he can get rid of his abusive brother in one fell swoop.


He writes damning graffiti on the wall, gets home and finds he no longer has a brother.


“Cry Baby” is more like “The Mouth Organ” than any other of his stories, both in structure and in tone. This one stars a boy who cries, which is gender transgressive for Paul Jennings. Unfortunately the entire story is called “Cry Baby”, which shames a boy for his tears, undoing what might otherwise be a nice message — that a boy crying actually saved the day.

There is the weirdness of the bum on photocopier, which today doesn’t have quite the same air of jocularity to it. We’re a lot more careful about images of naked children these days, even ones taken by the children themselves, because we have to be.


Gavin, a.k.a. Cry Baby’s shortcoming is that he cries more than is socially acceptable for a boy. He is also a non-judicious prankster. (An odd combination, now I think about it.)

His problem is that he’s been suspended from school for photocopying his butt and putting it on the pinboard. Another sulky mother — the mother won’t talk to him.

The school incident is a bit of a MacGuffin. His next problem is that he cries on his mother’s precious writing pad and ruins it.


Gavin wants to get himself out of trouble.


Teacher followed by mother.

Then the road rage men, covered in tattoos, back when only rough characters got tatts. (Now pretty much every second Australian seems to have tatts.) Tellingly, they’re driving a Ford.


Outside, looking for his mother, Gavin just happens to spy his grandfather, who is off on a trip to find the water-holding frog. These are frogs who live in Western Australia. They have adapted to a climate with a rainy season followed by lengthy drought.

Gavin decides to escape his mother’s anger by taking off on a frog-scouting jaunt with his grandfather.

It doesn’t take much to endanger your own life in the Australian outback. Leaving the tap of water on will do it.


The Battle sequence is Gavin looking for the frog while his grandfather naps, almost dead of thirst, according to Gavin.


He finds the frog by crying on the ground. His anagnorisis is that something shameful can save the day.


I’m wondering if they’re going to have to suck the frog dry in order to survive. People do gross things for water. But by complete coincidence, at that exact moment, there’s a rain storm. So I extrapolate that they don’t need to kill the frog they’ve come in search of.


“Ex Poser” is another very short story based around humiliating someone — a girl, this time — for adolescent nascent love. This set up feels borderline abusive. My problem with this story is that the narrator’s actions and intentions are rewarded with the love of a popular, rich girl. His humiliation tactics are never questioned, because the reader will side with him, the underdog. Also, girls aren’t stupid. Girls don’t typically like boys who humiliate them, and I hate to see it modelled.


A boy has pimples and he is not rich. He feels he has bad luck because of this.


When a boy called Boffin makes an accurate lie detector, the boy would like to humiliate the snobbiest girl in the class by asking her questions about her love life. He does this in front of an audience for maximum impact.


The narrator’s love opponent is the girl he humiliates.


He plans to ask Sandra Morris embarrassing questions for the sheer joy of humiliation.


The Battle scene is where the narrator asks Sandra who she likes.


The big twist is that she doesn’t like the equally rich and popular boy in the class — she likes him.


I’d like to think Sandra realises she doesn’t want to be with a boy who humiliates her and reveals that she only said that to get him back for the stunt, but this is a happy ever after ending. Boy gets girl.


“Sloppy Jalopy” is another revenge story, this time against a teacher who confiscates jewellery. Before he is able to exact revenge, the young narrator must endure quite a lot of humiliating hijinks himself.


A boy isn’t allowed to wear an earring to school. His father is also a character who does wacky things like cut the top off a standard Holden to turn it into a (non) convertible in the name of uniqueness. This means they can’t go out in the rain.


He wants his earring replaced.


The teacher who confiscates his earring, along with the chorus of his sister, who seems to agree with the teacher about no jewellery at school.

Next the father is an opponent for being wacky.

Inside the earring shop, the opponents sell the boy an earring which attracts rubbish.

The main opponent is the filthy tanker truck who covers them in muck. This reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s early film Duel (basically Jaws but set on a highway).


The narrator will escape the rubbish by getting into a taxi. This doesn’t work. The taxi becomes dangerously covered in rubbish.


This story is somewhat divided in two — the first Battle is the near death experience after the narrator is covered in gunk.

The second half of the story is the big struggle against every bit of rubbish which wants to stick to him. This is the Muck Monster trope. Except there’s no environmental message. This is pure gross-out slapstick comedy.


After the taxi big struggle, the revelation is that the earring is what’s attracting rubbish. He gets the earring back from the taxi driver.


The new plan, which belongs to the bookended story set at school, is to take the earring to school in a jar (apparently if it’s inside a glass jar it doesn’t attract rubbish), and hope to get it confiscated so that the mean teacher will become covered in rubbish.

We extrapolate that this is what happens next, creating a circular story structure.


“Eyes Knows” is a cautionary tale against doing things just because someone else says so. The wrapper story is the more serious narrative of a child who is forced to choose between his separating parents.


The main character has been sabotaged by a ‘little robot man’ who tells him what to do. The problem is that he’s now stuck high up a ladder, scared that he will fall.

In the backstory we learn that Harry is in a vulnerable position because his parents are separating. They are forcing him to make a decision about who he wants to live with. This is an impossible choice. In this vulnerable position, he accepted the appearance of a decision-maker.

Jennings uses a save the cat moment near the beginning of the story (save the caterpillar).


Harry wants to be able to make a decision. Since he can’t, he is going to outsource it. Once he decides to put his trust in the robot man, he no longer has to make any moral decisions.


Since Jennings opened with Harry in peril we know from the start that the robot man is his opponent. (A fake ally opponent, to be specific.)


Now Harry has been established as a do-gooder (with the caterpillars), he continues on his do-gooder mission when he tries to save the old people from the nurse, who treats them like children.


Harry and the old people embark upon a carnivalesque escape. In a trope utilised later by Speed, one of the characters on that bus has a history of fast driving (because he used to be a racing car driver, not because he got lots of speeding tickets).


When Harry entrusts the robot to make the divorce decision for him (in the wrapper story of separating parents), he realises this shouldn’t be his decision to make. He confronts his parents, who come to their own realisation.


Harry discards the little robot and other kids find it. This creates another circular story, in which we imagine a similar caper happening all over again.

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The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler Analysis

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 The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.

Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.

In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)

[The Gruffalo] was in her head for a year before she sat down to write. “Normally there’s a long time between germination and the writing.”

The Guardian


For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.


The mouse.

What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.

But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.

What is she wrong about?

She thinks monsters aren’t real.


Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.


Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a natural stand-in for the child.

Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.

Gruffalo and Mouse


The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.

In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by having Gruffalo walk behind.

Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.


In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one big struggle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo right behind them, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.

So what’s the Big Struggle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.

Mouse has won.


At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.

At a deeper level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any big struggle. Pessimistically, the reader is reminded that size really does equal scary, and if you’re not big enough yourself, you can use your wits to rope in someone bigger.

At an even deeper level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, pretence will become your reality. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…


The final page shows Mouse eating nuts and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before.


I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now, and even when hearing scary stories, will know that scary situations can be turned to her benefit.


Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.

Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.


A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.


The Gruffalo was released in 1999, and met with immediate success. The book won the prestigious Smarties prize, which Donaldson accepted wearing a Gruffalo hand puppet. At the time she was working as a writer in residence at a school in Easterhouse, a deprived area of Glasgow. When Donaldson returned from the ceremony, the children gave her a gold star.

The Gruffalo sparked a surge of creativity and a run of bestsellers. But away from books, Donaldson’s home life was fraught with difficulty. Hamish, the eldest of her three sons, suffered from depression and psychosis, and was hospitalised. He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. In 2003, Donaldson’s nephew Gaius, who also suffered from depression, died by suicide. A month later, Hamish killed himself. He was 25.

The Guardian
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Birds In Children’s Literature

Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.

evil fairytale bird
The hooked beak of Bauer’s bird is clearly evil. John Albert Bauer (4 June 1882 – 20 November 1918) was a Swedish painter and illustrator. His work is concerned with landscape and mythology, but he also composed portraits.

Birds have always been a favourite device for prophecy and warning from the bird with bright feathers carrying the millstone in “The Juniper Tree” to Poe’s Raven. Birds have less obvious physical presence than animals — they may fly away or disappear, and seem naturally proud and arbitrary. In reality they often look arrogant, gay, heartless or beautiful — they seldom look humble unless there is something wrong with them; and there seems to be an unwritten law that magic animals are ancient, powerful, experienced, educated and erudite. Birds have this look, whether heraldic or real, from the Gryphon to Dudu the raven in Mrs Molesworth’s The Tapestry Room (1879).

Mrs Molesworth was, indeed, the first writer to take such a bird out of a fairy tale and place it in what one feels to be the right setting — a contemporary one. The Cuckoo Clock, written in 1877, has in it a bird character who besides being very moral is there in the clock. The arbiter of time, punctuality, rules and rightness, he is also there in a different kind of reality, always heralded by ‘the faint coming sound’ and able to take the lonely child Griselda on magic adventures. The old moral tales took a long time to fade; the Cuckoo from the clock insists on Griselda’s doing as she is old, attending to her lessons and being patient. But he provides the companionship she needs until she is lonely no longer and he can turn once more to wood.  He is stern, logical and philosophical.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Whereas dogs as companions in children’s literature tend to be true companions, when birds fill this role they tend to be more than friends — they’re more like ‘engineers of children’s fates’.

For another example of a bird in a short story from around this period, see The Griffin and the Minor Canon. In this story the Griffin is powerful and frightening enough to be almost a winged dragon. But it’s a humorous treatment compared to The Tapestry Room. This bird is as conceited as every fabulous bird ever conceived.


Once upon a time people believed that secret messages are contained in birdsong. Certain people declared that they could understand what birds were saying. (Manifestations of mental illness?) A bird whose song contains meaning can be seen, for instance, in “The Juniper Tree”.

bird swan fairytale
The Green Forest Fairy Book by Loretta Ellen Brady Illustrated by Alice B. Preston.1920.
Wonder Tales from Many Lands written and illustrated by Katharine Pyle. 1920


The Phoenix and the Carpet

The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) is the second in a trilogy of novels that begins with Five Children and It (1902).

[The] oddly moral nature of talking birds seems self-perpetuating. Bird omens and oracles are more familiar than bird friends; perhaps we love birds less than we think. Their formality and frequency in heraldic design, as crests or emblems may have something to do with it — their decorative properties give them a didactic coldness. E. Nesbit’s Phoenix, of The Phoenix and the Carpet, 1904, is hardly a cold bird, but it is, like the others, proud, vain, beautiful, condescending and extraordinarily well educated. It is in full command of every situation, and far more than a device for granting wishes, as was the Psammead who preceded him — indeed, the Carpet does this.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
What if birds aren't singing


The Ladybird Book Of Bedtime Stories Geoffrey Lapage, Illustrations George Brook (Wills & Hepworth Ltd., Loughborough UK, 9th edition 1950)  fake crying
The Ladybird Book Of Bedtime Stories Geoffrey Lapage, Illustrations George Brook (Wills & Hepworth Ltd., Loughborough UK, 9th edition 1950) (Pretty sure that’s fake crying.)

In illustrated books featuring personified animals, even when all of the other animals are wearing clothes, birds tend to be ‘naked’, wearing only their feathers. Few illustrators manage to draw clothes on birds realistically. The main reason may be that birds, with their brightly coloured plumage, already look as if they are wearing clothes. The most obvious example of this is the penguin, who looks as if he is wearing a ‘penguin suit’. Robins also tend to look dressed in formal attire.

Here are the birds from Peter Rabbit: Although Peter is wearing the blue coat, the birds are stark naked.

lost shoe
lying down ate too much

But here’s a modern solution: This birdy is wearing glasses!

Nerdy Birdy cover
nerdy birdy wearing glasses

Just because a group accepts you, it doesn’t mean the group will accept your friends.

In my first read-through of Nerdy Birdy, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Matt Davies, I thought the story would be over when Nerdy Birdy befriends Vulture. Surprise! Nerdy Birdy accepts Vulture, but all of the seemingly inclusive nerd-birds won’t allow a non-conformer. Nerdy Birdy realizes has to leave his newly found tribe in order to keep his new friend.

Nerdy Book Club

The bird is in direct opposition to the mouse when it comes to clothes; it is rare to find mice without clothes, and equally rare to find birds wearing them. Except for the robin, who looks as if he (always he) is wearing a suit.


[Lauren] Child asks why [birds] are a recurring theme in [Quentin Blake’s] work. ‘They are full of possibility,’ he explains, ‘and a useful thing to put in when you need a little dot of colour for the composition.’ She wants to know why he never did a book about ‘one of my favourite pictures ever’, the ‘owl fancier’ in Blake’s Words and Pictures – a drawing of a rather scruffy man with owls at his feet. Answer: he couldn’t think of a story.

Quentin Blake and Lauren Child interview

For an example of a Quentin Blake story starring a bird, see my analysis of Loveykins, both written and illustrated by Blake.


Sometimes birds hang out with each other, cross ‘breed’.  Below, only birds sit at the table. A squirrel and a cat sit in the background.

Yuri Vasnetsov, The Magpie, 1938

Here we have a table full of birds plus a squirrel and a hedgehog. But mostly birds.

Zdzisław Witwicki, O Wróbelku Elemelku, 1982
Zdzisław Witwicki, O Wróbelku Elemelku, 1982

Perhaps the most famous tale about a group of different kinds of birds is Chicken Licken.


Thanks to Aesop (and partly thanks to roosters themselves), the rooster as character comes pre-loaded with characteristics of vanity, bossiness, vanity and volume.

Rock-A-Bye Baby. The Saalfield Publishing Co. U.S.A. .1916.


Chickens, on the other hand, are vulnerable and mostly stupid, although The Little Red Hen is a sensible, industrious type. When chickens are described as ‘hens‘ they are motherly.


Whereas ducks are ho-hum and tend to leave the most disgusting droppings on your patio, no one can tell me ducklings aren’t cute. My husband was in a near car accident when the woman in front of him on the highway braked suddenly for ducklings. I bet she had read Make Way For Ducklings, the Robert McCloskey children’s classic.

Ducklings are also loyal, in a very naive sense: They are known to fall in love with whomever they first clap eyes on. The adorability of ducklings can be exploited for ironic purposes, for instance in an episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog, in which a cute duckling turns out to be evil.

Camilla Engman, Reisen
Camilla Engman, Reisen


Il giornalino della Domenica cover by Baby (Roberto Bracco) 1906


Parrots are useful in mystery plots because they talk… or rather, they repeat secrets and half-truths.


Mr. Robin (1920’s) ~ Margaret Tarrant~ English~ Children’s Book Illustrator/Artist
From-* Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady* (1989) *originally written and illustrated as *Nature Notes* (1906) ~Edith Holden~ English~ Children’s Book Illustrator/Artist


Swans are about transformation. They are associated with rags to riches stories, the most notable being, of course, “The Ugly Duckling.

Il giornalino della Domenica cover by Ottorino Adreneini, 1909
Il giornalino della Domenica cover by Ottorino Adreneini, 1909

Jungle Birds

From The Animal Kingdom, 1968. Illustrations by the brilliant Charles Harper
From The Animal Kingdom, 1968. Illustrations by the brilliant Charles Harper


Karoly Reich
Carlos Merida, The Bird, 1947
Carlos Merida, The Bird, 1947

Nine-year-old Betita knows she is a crane. Papi has told her the story, even before her family fled to Los Angeles to seek refuge from cartel wars in Mexico. The Aztecs came from a place called Aztlan, what is now the Southwest US, called the land of the cranes. They left Aztlan to establish their great city in the center of the universe-Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. It was prophesized that their people would one day return to live among the cranes in their promised land. Papi tells Betita that they are cranes that have come home.

Then one day, Betita’s beloved father is arrested by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico. Betita and her pregnant mother are left behind on their own, but soon they too are detained and must learn to survive in a family detention camp outside of Los Angeles. Even in cruel and inhumane conditions, Betita finds heart in her own poetry and in the community she and her mother find in the camp. The voices of her fellow asylum seekers fly above the hatred keeping them caged, but each day threatens to tear them down lower than they ever thought they could be. Will Betita and her family ever be whole again?

Flying Lessons by Gilbert Ford

A flock of birds and an airplane that looks like a bird become friends. The birds decide the plane is not the right fit for them. That is, until they are too cold to fly south for the winter. With the help of the plane, the birds are able to go south and they all become friends once again.

Header painting: Henry Stacey Marks – A Select Committee 1891

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The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko Analysis

The Paper Bag Princess

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is another feminist picturebook from the 1980s in which a scruffy princess does not end up marrying the prince. In fact, it must be one of the earliest of its kind. It’s published in 1980 and remains one of Munsch’s most popular books.

Like others of its kind:

  • the prince is an unlikeable fellow
  • the princess does not look like a princess (beautiful and coiffed)
  • the princess is a trickster rather than compliant
  • it’s still set in a fairytale world but with modern additions here and there — this setting has a medieval backdrop such as castles and dragons with modern details such as tennis rackets and sweaters.


Robert Munsch writes odd stories but they still follow classic story structure. Bear in mind that they’re meant to be told aloud. He plonks scenes together without  much in the way of transition as a part of the humour itself. This borrows from the tradition of the Shaggy Dog story. (And is probably more of a Shaggy Frog story.)

This story is classic mythic structure with a protagonist who goes out of the house, along a road and meets various characters along the way (here just one character: the dragon). At the end of the mythic journey she is back home, but she is a changed person and now knows her own true desires.

The reason this is a ‘feminist’ story is because for the past 3000 years or so until quite recently, the heroes of mythic stories have all been male. The Paper Bag Princess is a classic feminine re-visioning of mythic structure: our girl hero doesn’t rely on weaponry but rather on her wits. We’re seeing more big struggle-free myth stories now, with Pixar’s Inside Out being the most recent high-profile example.

For more on the big struggle-free myth see this post.


The princess is set on a path to get married to a horrible prince. She needs to go outside the castle to learn more about herself and the wider world.


“She was going to marry a prince called Ronald.”


The dragon is a false opponent who saves the princess from herself. by smashing her castle and burning all of her clothes with his fiery breath.


Related: Dragons In Children’s Literature

The real opponent is the prince, and the society that requires her to marry him. The dragon carries him off.


“Elizabeth decided to chase the dragon and get Ronald back.” She is forced to wear a paper bag — a symbol of her ordinariness. She no longer has her royal powers to help her.

A mythic journey requires a road. Here it is, winding out of sight, far into the distance, littered with perils.


We see Elizabeth trick the dragon into tiring itself out, showing off in a stereotypically masculine way girls in fiction seem immune to.



Although Elizabeth manages to save Ronald, he is not grateful. Instead he criticises her for looking like a mess. She realises that even though he looks the part of a prince, he is really just a ‘bum’.



“They don’t get married after all.”

The final image shows Elizabeth running for joy towards a sunset. The sunset is basically “And she lived happily ever after” in image form.



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Dragons In Children’s Literature

Odilon Redon (France, 1840 -1916), Roger and Angelique (Saint George and the Dragon or Andromeda saved), after 1908, oil on canvas

Dragons In Folklore

Dragons have always evoked a mixture of fear and attraction.

They’re everywhere in The Bestiaries.

Folkloric dragons always talk. They are semi-human and have wily intelligence. Sometimes they’re regal, sometimes cowardly.

 In Chinese/Taiwanese culture, the dragon is the best animal: wise, benevolent, powerful, but peaceful. Any story in which a dragon is killed is automatically a tragedy.

Henry Lien
from the graphic novel version of The Hobbit
from the graphic novel version of The Hobbit

Dragons Around The World

Alexandra the Rock-eater: An Old Rumanian Tale retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom (1978)

Alexandra The Rock Eater cover

An underdog main character convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)

The same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are is used by Julia Donaldson in The Gruffalo.

Eastern dragons are magical, influence the weather, are godlike and maternal. Sometimes they’re wizards in disguise.

Northern dragons love jewels. They have fiery or poisonous breath. They’re often curiously merry or sardonic because they consider themselves invincible. But they can be beaten or more often outwitted via some weak spot. They’re long-lived, unhappy and their hoarded wealth brings them no joy.

Beowulf and Sigurd The Dragonslayer gain nothing except fame from their dragon conquests. Eustace Scrubb (Chronicles of Narnia) and Bilbo Baggins (Lord of the Rings) also found out that it’s best to keep one’s mitts off a dragon’s things. It’s easier for a modern audience to identify with the likes of Scrubb and Bilbo rather than Bewulf; Bilbo is just like us, only a little more determined, which is a great recipe for a popular hero.

In Britain, dragons are associated with Cornwall. See King Arthur.

Dorothy P. Lathrop- 1934 Boy Riding a Dragon

Dragons And The Quest Story

Stories about dragons are traditionally about the men who defeat the dragons, in your archetypal Quest Story. (The hero is always a man.)

There are a few ways of inverting that trope.

1. You can make the hero a girl. (Preferably very small and cute — the human equivalent of a mouse.)

Trouble With Dragons by Oliver G. Selfridge and Shirley Hughes (1978)

Trouble With Dragons

Here’s an old routine in storytelling:

  • A prince comes
  • Prince falls in love with princess
  • Prince goes off to earn her hand in marriage
  • Prince is eaten by dragon.

But in Selfridge and Hughes’s retelling the gender is inverted. This book is now hard to find, but Babette Cole has done a very similar thing in Princess Smartypants, though it’s not so morbid. In Selfridge’s story two of the sisters die. The picturebook buying public don’t tend to go for that.

2. Either that, or the dragon is not actually scary at all, perhaps denatured in some way: weak, small, friendly.

We see these kinds of dragons in modern children’s literature. Kenneth Grahame was the inventor of this kind of benign dragon in The Reluctant Dragon (1899). His was the first dragon humans could live alongside. Grahame’s dragon is the trope of an Edwardian dilettante who likes company and composing verse. He leaves fighting to all the other dragons.

The Reluctant Dragon Hague

Dragons and Castles


There are certain things one expects to find when we encounter castles in stories:

  • Heroes
  • Fair ladies
  • Bats in belfries
  • Four-poster beds
  • Servants and attendants
  • Moats
  • Drawbridges
  • Frogs on lily pads
  • Bows and arrows
  • Dragons

Books for children such as Creepy Castle by John S. Goodall make use of all of these things, often to comic effect. Experienced readers know that a comedy set in a gothic setting is ironic, and it therefore holds more interest.

from Creepy Castle
from Creepy Castle

Dragons In Human Form

When describing humans, dragon is a gendered term. Human dragons are often aunts, in children’s literature. Why? The aunt is often a maiden as well. In traditional society this means that she cannot have children, and the societal pressure on women to have children is so strong that it is assumed when a woman does not have children than she must therefore not like them. Hence, she is a dragon.

In The Aunt and Annabel, a short story from E. Nesbit’s collection The Magic World, a child is isolated in a room as punishment for having tried — and failed — to do an adult a good turn. The aunt is a grim, misunderstanding tyrant and the child is an innocent little saint.

The Magic World e nesbit

A canine version of this dragon aunt trope is also used in Wolves of the Beyond: Lone Wolf, in which the story opens with a slightly deformed pup being born into a clan who takes such pups away and abandons them, to die alone. The job of dispatching is left to an infertile female wolf. It’s impossible to consider this fictional wolf clan in isolation, without considering how child free women are treated in human societies:

The Obea was the female wolf in each clan designated to carry deformed pups out of the whelping den to a place of abandonment. Only barren she-wolves were eligible, since such wolves were assumed not to have developed maternal instincts. With no blood offspring, Obeas were devoted entirely to the well-being of the clan, which could not be healthy and strong if defective wolves were born into it. The rules were precise. The deformed or sick pup was to be removed by the Obea and carried to a remote spot where it would be left to die of starvation or be eaten by another animal.

Wolves of the Beyond: Lone Wolf by Kathryn Lasky

By the end of Lord of the Flies, Roger becomes the dragon to Jack, with shades of Dragon-in-Chief and Dragon with an Agenda.

The Hunger Games: Clove to Cato

Luke Castellan to Kronos in Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

In Eclipse (Twilight series) Victoria uses Riley as her dragon and also has him making all of the moves for her.

Dragons And Weather

In Colie Thiele’s book February Dragon (1976), the threat of an Australian bush fire is the “dragon” of February. In this story, the Pine family and neighbours lose their farm, crops, home and most of their pets.

February Dragon cover

But in this book, too, the human dragon is the Aunt, who indeed is the one to accidentally start the fire while on a picnic. Like the mythical Northern dragon, it is Aunt Hester’s arrogance that is the cause of the downfall.

Dragons As General Villain

Henry Allen’s dog is missing – and he thinks it’s been eaten by a dragon! On the night the dog disappeared, Mr. Allen swears he saw a huge dragon slither into the sea caves beneath his cliff-top house.  Could Mr. Allen really have seen a dragon? The Three Investigators doubt it, but they’re determined to find the missing dog. That means exploring those dark, dangerous caves. 

And whether or not Mr. Allen’s dragon is real, something terrifying and deadly is lurking there!

Dragons In Other Form

In Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of Nimh, the Fitzgibbon’s cat acts as the dragon to the various animals on the farm, terrorizing and killing many of them including Jonathan, Mrs. Frisby’s husband. The cat is quite appropriately named Dragon.

Mrs Frisby dragon cat

The only dragon in Narnia is actually a boy who has been turned into a dragon. But he has a human soul.


Denatured Dragons

Dragons became much more tame with the advent of Christianity, and they’ve been getting tamer and tamer since, with a few exceptions.

There's No Such Thing As A Dragon cover

In picture books, which are most often read right before bed, dragons tend to be benign inversions of the mythical, fearsome monster.  For example, in There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon by Jack Kent (1975), the dragon beams and wags its tail and loves to cuddle.

cute dragon

These cutesy dragons have been around for a while. They seem to be variations on the boy/dog buddy story, in which the dragon is a companion much like a beloved pet dog would be.

In 1937 there was My Friend Mr Leakey in which the dragon was a dangerous but comical dog.

Looks like Sir Quentin did the cover art of this later edition
Looks like Sir Quentin did the cover art of this later edition

Poo Poo And The Dragons by C.S. Forester was published in 1942, illustrated by Robert Lawson. Interestingly, there weren’t many of these types of stories published between the wars, but they came back afterwards. In this story, Harold Heaviside Brown meets his dragons by the simple but perfect method of ‘wandering up’ inside one of the fuchsia flowers on a bush in the garden. Inside he finds a dragon on a vacant piece of land. Doglike, it follows him home, wagging its tail, squirming and wriggling. Later, it brings a friend and they both make themselves useful, mowing the lawn, polishing the floor, and laughing at jokes.


They sleep in the garden with their heads in Harold’s bedroom.


Another, modern, story featuring a creature that can’t fit into a boy’s bedroom is the whale in Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex.

The story structure of Poo Poo reminds me a lot of Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair books, in which a pixie called Chinky (like Poo-Poo, another cutesy name) lives in the playroom at the bottom of the garden (where adults won’t notice him). In both stories the child and mythical creature companions go off on various adventures together. In both stories, the garden features heavily. Harold Heaviside gets into the magic world via that fuchsia. The dragons go to school with him during the day, however, and comedy comes out of the dragons needing to learn to read and write. Like pet dogs, they have recognisable but simplified emotions: joy, disappointment, laughter, tears. They are accepted by the neighbours but are a bit of a nuisance.

Rosemary Weir’s Albert The Dragon (1973) lives in Cornwall, but apart from that he’s nothing like a traditional dragon. He’s even vegetarian and likes seaweed. He’s also helpful around the house. His psychological shortcoming is that he is lonely. Taking in an ungrateful baby centaur is meant to help with that, and leads to many adventures. It’s not an especially successful plot, and is now out of print.

The French translation of Albert The Dragon
The French translation of Albert The Dragon

Dragons In Modern Children’s Literature

My Father's Dragon

This fantastical, whimsical series about the very resourceful Elmer Elevator, who sets off to rescue a baby dragon after a stray cat suggests it, was one of our favourites as children. Plus, it has the reboot built right in — all the stories are about the narrator’s father’s dragon, but maybe it’s time for him to find one for himself. On to Blueland!


Some of the best selling kid lit over the past few decades has featured dragons.

  • We have Lord Voldemort’s dragons in the Harry Potter series, among others.
  • There’s the humanised dragon relationship in Twilight, mentioned above.
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles has its own Bestiary.
  • How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell is very popular. 

It’s safe to say, dragons are here to stay.

Header painting: Odilon Redon (France, 1840 -1916), Roger and Angelique (Saint George and the Dragon or Andromeda saved), after 1908, oil on canvas

Lemon girl young adult novella


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