Emotion in Storytelling: Unexpected responses

Storytellers can manage audience emotions by writing characters who do — and feel — the unexpected. In doing so, writers can subvert common emotional tropes to great effect.

Why is this technique necessary and so effective? A major element of good storytelling is surprise.

The writer’s characters must stand before us with a wonderful clarity, such continuous clarity that nothing they do strikes us as improbable behavior for just that character, even when the character’s action is, as sometimes happens, something that came as a surprise to the writer himself. We must understand, and the writer before us must understand, more than we know about the character; otherwise neither the writer nor the reader after him could feel confident of the character’s behavior when the character acts freely.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

And why is it so important that writers avoid the cliched and expected when writing emotional responses?

Reading about the response of people in stories, plays, poems, helps us to respond more courageously and openly at our own moments of turning.

Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Today’s first storytelling example comes from music.

Canadian singer songwriter Michelle Gurevich is expert at creating songs which function as antidotes to pop messages. Her songs have titles like Drugs Saved My Life, standing in contrast to more conservative ideologies such as The Drugs Don’t Work from The Verve.

Drugs do save lots of lives — generally they’re on prescription, though. There remains a stigma regarding certain classes of drugs: antidepressants and stimulant medications cop it pretty bad.

No surprise, then, that The Verve’s The Drugs Don’t Work is pop whereas you may never heard of Drugs Saved My Life, unless you’re reading this from Eastern Europe where Gurevich is popular — an interesting cultural difference about audience reactions to subversion, perhaps.

When drugs ruin someone’s life, the emotions around that narrative are intense; when drugs save someone’s life, bringing the character back to equilibrium, this prioritises the muted story over the sensational one. But expressing a muted response is one good way to subvert a dominant narrative: That drugs are bad.

Similarly, Michelle Gurevich’s I Saw The Spark feels like the literary counterpoint to Dolly Parton’s pop song Jolene.

In Jolene, the singer/narrator contacts the rival woman and pleads.

The lyrics of Jolene appeal to baser instincts — calling is what we might do if our frontal lobes weren’t doing their job.

MY MAN: (comes home)
ME: (nervous) how was the store
MY MAN: fine
ME: oh thank g —
MY MAN: ran into jolene
ME: oh no
MY MAN: she mentioned you left kind of an intense voicemail

— Rob Dubbin (@robdubbin) July 28, 2019 

Jolene as a song is therefore cathartic, and although I really do think the singer/narrator should ditch the man, those feelings of jealousy and inadequacy are real, relatable and… intense.

Gurevich’s song I Saw The Spark evokes a different emotion in a similar situation and therefore makes an excellent counterpoint to Jolene. The singer/narrator demonstrates unexpected emotional maturity when her partner is attracted by another woman. She acknowledges that sometimes in love you win, other times it’s your turn to lose. This is a fatalistic but realistic worldview. Finally:

And there’s nothing I can do
But to love you both the more
No there’s nothing I can do
But to love you both the more
Second best thing to a cure

These two songs feel like the difference between what a friend might tell you to do (“Call that bitch and tell her to back the hell off” — a la Jolene) and what a therapist might advise — “You can’t make someone stay with you — it takes two to be in a relationship — keep your perspective and remember this isn’t about you personally”.)

There’s room for both kinds of stories in this world. The question is, as a writer, which are you going for in any given narrative? Cathartic or nuanced? Expected or unexpected?


Now to the world of short stories.

Literary short stories are perhaps designated ‘literary’ precisely because of the nuanced, unexpected, unexplored Anagnorisiss and emotions from the main characters.

Alice Munro is a particularly nuanced writer, especially evident in the stories she wrote as an older person. Take the short story “Fiction” as a mentor text exploring the nuanced, unexpected emotions around infidelity.

One of the most confronting sentences I’ve encountered in a short story is written by Cynthia Ozick for a Holocaust narrative called “The Shawl” which includes the death of a baby from hunger. The mother feels two things at once: joy and grief.

Every day Magda [the baby] was silent, and so she did not die. Rosa [the mother] saw that today Magda was going to die, and at the same time a fearful joy ran in Rosa’s two palms, her fingers were on fire, she was astonished, febrile: Magda, in the sunlight, swaying on her pencil legs, was howling.

The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick


As children’s storytellers, be mindful of reaching for the easy, expected emotion. The ‘unexpected’ emotion in a children’s book — same as in stories for adults — is often the more muted one.

Keeper is a breathtaking, magical novel from National Book Award finalist and Newbery Honoree Kathi Appelt.

To ten-year-old Keeper the moon is her chance to fix all that has gone wrong … and so much has gone wrong.

But she knows who can make things right again: Maggie Marie, her mermaid mother, who swam away when Keeper was just three. A blue moon calls the mermaids to gather at the sandbar, and that’s exactly where Keeper is headed – in a small boat. In the middle of the night, with only her dog, BD (Best Dog), and seagull named Captain. When the riptide pulls at the boat, tugging her away from the shore and deep into the rough waters of the Gulf of mexico, panic sets in and the fairy tales that lured her out there go tumbling into the waves. Maybe the blue moon won’t sparkle with mermaids and maybe – Oh, no … “Maybe” is just too difficult to bear.

Below, Betsy Bird makes special note of a children’s book which makes an excellent job of portraying the complex emotion of guilt. It it’s a lot easier to write about tantrums (or ‘snits’), and let’s face it, more fun. I have covered numerous examples of picture books featuring snits/tantrums on this blog, but middle grade novel Keeper by Kathi Appelt knows that middle grade readers are ready for something a little more complex:

There is a note at the back of this book in the Acknowledgment section that strikes me as just as important as any word in the text itself. Writes Ms. Appelt of one Diane Linn, “She lovingly cast her knowledge of tides and currents and stingrays my way, and she asked me to consider heartbreak over anger.” Heartbreak over anger. The very root of why Keeper goes traipsing out into the sea in a boat with only a dog by her side. Any book, heck most books, would have sent Keeper into that boat in the midst of a snit. Kids understand snits. They’re experts in `em. But while a snit may help your plot along, it isn’t as emotionally rewarding as good old-fashioned guilt. Keeper goes into that boat not because she’s mad or even because she feels much affection for her absent mother, but because she’s wholly convinced that she’s ruined the lives of everyone she loves and this is the only way to rectify the situation. That packs the necessary emotional wallop the book requires, while also making Keeper a sympathetic character. Well played, Diane Linn.

review of Keeper by Diane Linn, reviewed by Betsy Bird

Photo in header is by Allef Vinicius.

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I’m A Fool by Sherwood Anderson

“I’m A Fool”(1922) is a short story written by American Sherwood Anderson, who was born around the time Lonesome Dove is set, and who died at the beginning of the second world war. So, he came along at the end of the cowboy days, lived through one world war and was heading into another.

Anderson had four wives during his relatively short life. I’m immediately suspicious of a man who has had four marriages. “I’m A Fool” demonstrates a possessive, objectifying attitude towards a woman character which isnt challenged. This doesn’t improve my impression of the writer. To understand this story the reader must also understand that being attracted to a woman and not acting on those strong feelings is about one of the worst things that can happen to a man. If this story were a contemporary song, it’d be “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt (2004). A young man catches sight of a pretty woman on a train, can’t be with her and is sad forever that he can’t have her. All because she smiled at her.

James Blunt swears he’s got ‘a plan’ but never tells us what that plan is, making the narrative arc incomplete. Like the narrator of “I’m A Fool”, Blunt spends the entire music video punishing himself physically, in this case by taking off all his clothes in the snow, laying out all his pocket possessions and jumping (probably to his death) into the sea below.

Sherwood Anderson’s own young life working various jobs will have influenced this story, about a young man who also feels he has little in common with more sheltered boys of his own age. I recently rewatched Terminator 2, and the very annoying kid in that movie has the same superiority complex of a boy who has been let loose on the ‘real’ world and immediately starts dividing between men and boys, putting himself in the category of man, prematurely.

Sometimes now I think that boys who are raised regular in houses, and never have a fine nigger like Burt for best friend, and go to high schools and college, and never steal anything, or get drunk a little, or learn to swear from fellows who know how, or come walking up in front of a grandstand in their shirt sleeves and with dirty horsey pants on when the races are going on and the grandstand is full of people all dressed up—what’s the use of talking about it? Such fellows don’t know nothing at all. They’ve never had no opportunity.

Some think Sherwood Anderson is a genius. Others think he’s mediocre. Mark Twain did the first person vernacular style first. Every English speaking country has their own iconic male writer of the early 20th century who got famous for daring to write in the regional working man’s vernacular. There’s Frank Sargeson of my own home country (New Zealand). In 1935, Sargeson wrote a piece in a New Zealand liberal newspaper in praise of Anderson’s literary devices. I had to study Sargeson at high school, so it’s interesting to see his main influence. I don’t remember Sherwood Anderson ever mentioned. New Zealand likes to think Sargeson was wholly original in coming up with the idea of eschewing that fancy book learnin language for normal everyday speech.

Anderson also influenced Hemingway and Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth.

I don’t get a ‘genius’ vibe from this snippet of Anderson’s oeuvre. But I sure am sick of stories about the regrets of men who don’t get to do exactly what they want to with their dicks. Especially when it’s for being dicks.

Apparently, Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick. This mode of death is trumped only by Margaret Wise Brown, who died after kicking up her leg to show doctors how well she (ostensibly) was. In any case, I’ll be very careful with toothpicks from now on. And I won’t be kicking any legs up in hospital, either.

Robert Meldrum 1933 Something Different at Every Turn horse race
Robert Meldrum 1933 Something Different at Every Turn


The time and place are very specific. Authors do this to create a strong sense of verisimilitude.

It began at three o’clock one October afternoon as I sat in the grandstand at the fall trotting and pacing meet at Sandusky, Ohio.

Sandusky is right at the top of Ohio.

I checked to see if horse racing is big in Sandusky. It’s not anymore, but used to be, notably between the 1860s and 1920s.

Gee whizz, gosh amighty, the nice hickorynut and beechnut and oaks and other kinds of trees along the roads, all brown and red, and the good smells, and Burt singing a song that was called “Deep River,” and the country girls at the windows of houses and everything. You can stick your colleges up your nose for all me. I guess I know where I got my education.

Black people and women were not respected. People were afraid of Black men and didn’t trust women could understand stuff.

There’s a lot of things you’ve got to promise a mother because she don’t know any better.

Young women (Janes) are peachy, or they are mutts.

that girl wasn’t any mutt of a girl.

Young women are classy or they are trash.

when you’re out with girls like that, you can’t get careless and miss any trains and stay out all night, like you can with some kinds of Janes.

This is the character speaking, of course. But these were the times.

The narrator uses the word ‘dude‘ in a slightly different way we’d use it today. I think he means poser types who dress well and parade around for the ladies. (More like a modern hipster.)



Sherwood is lauded for creating characters trapped by their own eccentric natures in a hostile world.

“I’m A Fool” opens with the narrator telling us that he’s been stupid, and he gives us a reason for writing. This technique is often used in diary format novels as well. Many middle grade diaries open with the main character telling us why they would bother writing something down. Here, the narrator hopes to take ‘a kind of satisfaction in making [himself] look cheap by telling it’.

I had got too big to mow people’s lawns and sell newspapers. Little chaps who could get next to people’s sympathies by their sizes were always getting jobs away from me.

Although taking the job as swipe is justified, Anderson is sure to show us his moral shortcoming. This is what our narrator imagines in his darker moments:

There was one fellow who kept saying to everyone who wanted a lawn mowed or a cistern cleaned, that he was saving money to work his way through college, and I used to lay awake nights thinking up ways to injure him without being found out. I kept thinking of wagons running over him and bricks falling on his head as he walked along the street.

The narrator’s shortcoming is most evident via his mode of narration, in which he digresses often, trying to impress us, his narratee.

I’m reminded of these graphs you see sometimes on social media. Unfortunately I don’t have an attribution:

The ‘nigger named Burt’ exists functionally in this story about a white boy, but is not fleshed out in his own right. The narrator can see that this black man is just as good as a white man, and this has two functions for the white narrator’s character development:

  1. It’s got a Save The Cat vibe about it. This guy is empathetic to those below him and sees the guy’s skills.
  2. Shows how close to the bottom of the social hierarchy the narrator is himself.

Burt taught me how to rub down a horse and put the bandages on after a race and steam a horse out and a lot of valuable things for any man to know. He could wrap a bandage on a horse’s leg so smooth that if it had been the same color you would think it was his skin, and I guess he’d have been a big driver, too, and got to the top like Murphy and Walter Cox and the others if he hadn’t been black.


First, he wants to earn his own living, but jobs are scarce and he has to take what he can get. What does a horse swipe do?

You got to a county seat town, maybe say on a Saturday or Sunday, and the fair began the next Tuesday and lasted until Friday afternoon. Doctor Fritz would be, say, in the 2. 25 trot on Tuesday afternoon and on Thursday afternoon Bucephalus would knock ’em cold in the “free-for-all” pace. […] And then at the end of the week when the race meet was over, and Harry had run home to tend up to his livery-stable business, you and Burt hitched the two horses to carts and drove slow and steady across country to the place for the next meeting, so as to not overheat the horses, etc. […] looking down on the swipes coming out with their horses, and with their dirty horsy pants on and the horse blankets swung over their shoulders

Next this guy wants to impress a girl with a view to having her for his own. But he also wants to do his job, and these two things conflict.


His romantic opponent is the girl he meets at the races.


He plans to get these kids to spend a lot on horse racing and he’s going to take the opportunity to big himself up. He’ll enjoy being another person for a little while — a middle upper class person, worthy of a middle upper class girl.


The Battle he has is with himself, and the reader experiences this most at the train station. The train takes his never-was, might-have-been lover away forever.


The Anagnorisis phase has been brought to the front as an opener (in much the same way as action scenes are often brought to the front in TV and film, to hook the viewer in).

He realises he has been a fool, as it says in the title. He realises not that he should have acted differently — he’s robotic in that regard — but that he just brushed up against a relationship which was never meant to be.

The twist in this tale is that the horse doesn’t lose any of them their money. It’s not that. It’s the narrator’s own lying about all the other stuff — about his social standing. In a different kind of story, the mask would come off the narrator because the horse he recommended would have won.

The fact that he wasn’t lying about the abilities of the horse but was lying about all the rest makes everything feel so much worse for our narrator. If only he could switch them round — if only he could know nothing about harness racing but belong to the same class as this girl he’s so keen on. This idea of switching is seen throughout the story, but there’s no regret until this point — he is happy being a swipe and happy being a yap, wherever he happens to be. But now he’s not happy.

How much does the narrator really know about his own situation? Well, I don’t trust he’s able to tell what the girl is thinking.

And I was with that girl and she wasn’t saying much, and I wasn’t saying much either. One thing I know. She wasn’t stuck on me because of the lie about my father being rich and all that. There’s a way you know … Craps amighty. There’s a kind of girl you see just once in your life, and if you don’t get busy and make hay, then you’re gone for good and all, and might as well go jump off a bridge.

He thinks she wants him because he wants her. End of. They’re not saying much so how else could he know? More recently than this story was written, numerous studies have shown that men tend to overestimate romantic interest shown to them by women (Levesque et al., 2006; Perrilloux et al., 2012; Treat et al., 2015).

Where there is no clear Anagnorisis in this story, it can be interesting to look at The Range Of Character Change. The difference here is between the narrator as he tells his story (the extradiegetic, autodiegetic narrator) and the person he was when this story was happening in real time. There’s not a great difference between the guy he was then and the guy he is now. This all could’ve happened last week. When he describes his strong feelings after the train leaves it feels very raw and unprocessed. He wants to punish himself physically (e.g. by having a train run over his foot) to take his mind off the mental anguish.


He is romantically alone and he will return to his underbelly life, but with a newfound dissatisfaction. He probably won’t be quite as happy to be an underdog from now on. He’ll always look back to this night and wish things were different.

The story ends with pathetic fallacy — it is raining and the character is sad.

Outrage News Is Powerful Storytelling

outrage cat

Recently I played a form of mixed doubles tennis in which the final point is served from female to female, or male to male. At our small club, when it comes to tennis skills there’s no clear division along gender lines. A number of the women can outplay the men.

So I mentioned maybe we could ignore that rule, depending on who’s playing. I’m also mindful of being gender inclusive. The distinction between male and female has been shown — across different disciplines — to be nowhere near as binary as previously decided by culture. Our club may, in the distant future, seem sufficiently liberal that a gender non-conforming player joins in for the occasional hit. That’s my goal.

But my politically conservative tennis partner, who vociferously voted against marriage equality in Australia last year, chortled at my suggestion and said, “Don’t you know there’s 33 different genders now?” (Subtext reading: Once we get started down that line, where do we stop? How are we meant to play a fun game of mixed doubles with 33 different genders!)

I had no words. Words were useless anyhow, as our opponents on the other side of the net agreed that all of this leftie gender talk is nonsense. We continued to play. We served the decider woman to woman, man to man.

I had no words at the time, but have since encountered the phrase to describe the so-called 33 genders article as recalled by my tennis partner:  ‘outrage news’.

Outrage news describes media specifically designed to undermine a movement by making it out to sound ridiculous. Readers are thereby encouraged to focus on ridiculous non-facts of the movement, and feel justified in dismissing everything said by the movement’s informed activists after that point. It is remarkably effective as a tool of propaganda.

Sure enough, 33-genders-guy has referred to that ridiculous ‘fact’ about gender more than once since then. Whenever anyone says anything about gender, he comes out with that.

As is the case with most outrage news, the outrage article he read was based on a kernel of fact.

Here’s the fact: As part of a new anti-discrimination policy, it was reported that Australia is preparing to introduce at least 33 different gender OPTIONS on birth certificates and passports.

To those who know nothing about gender, ‘gender option’ (the box one ticks on a government form) becomes conflated with ‘gender’, which actually lies on a spectrum.

Pick your number, because the number doesn’t matter. Other articles will declare 63 genders. Some say 37, because apparently it’s newsworthy that Tinder offers 37 gender identity options in its efforts to not be assholes.

To conservatives who insist on the importance of a clearly delineated gender binary, the higher that ‘ridiculous’ number, the more they like it. I won’t link to the outrage articles themselves, but what these articles are describing is ‘language’. The English language is a constantly evolving beast, used across many, many different cultures and subcultures. Of course English contains at least 63 different ways to talk about various gender identities. Next year we’ll be up to 150, I guess. And then, next time anyone tries to bring up a real issue regarding gender, conservatives can bring that up, too.

Or maybe they’ll bring up the following 2018 pre-Christmas outrage article courtesy of Fox News:

Some say it’s time for gender neutral Santa.

A classic outrage news template: [X] group petition against [much beloved pop-culture/tradition] because [discrimination].

Here’s a classic template from Fox 13 News Utah:

Petition against ‘Deadpool’ promotional poster says its [sic] religious discrimination against LDS Church

Super popular fictional stories, such as say, an X-Men comic, are vulnerable to the outrage news treatment, especially when paired with major religions:

Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men Wipes Out Centres of Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism

No. No one is saying that, apart from the people who wrote that article.

This is why the following Onion parody works as parody:

Radio Station Playing Controversial ‘Little Drummer Boy’ On Repeat In Defiance Of Those Who Claim It Contains Sexually Predatory Themes

Oftentimes, the title is an outrage title but the few people who read the article within learn that the title doesn’t match the contents:

This Australian University Is Under Fire For Offering A Controversial Western Civilisation Degree

Read the article and we learn the main concerns are not about the degree itself, but the fact that it’s sponsored and run by the Ramsay centre and not the university. The course was rejected by other universities because it takes away their autonomy and allows a third party to control their courses. But the outrage title encourages the casual scroller to assume a different article: That it’s not okay to offer a course Western civilisation these days, because it might offend the non-Westerners (or the ‘PC’ crowd). However, a title about internal university politics isn’t near as interesting, let alone outrageous.

When we feel outraged, we hit share. And we remember the basic message. Outrage is a strong emotion; any strong emotion makes memories stick. Worse, in this case, the disseminators of outrage news believe they themselves are the lone skeptics, living in a world gone PC mad.

Such is the power of story.

We love stories for many different reasons:

  • To see ourselves reflected in others
  • To question and to think
  • To feel a strong emotion, perhaps as catharsis
  • To feel thrilled, excited, turned on, horripilated, depending on the genre

But sometimes, unfortunately, we also have the capacity to hold on to any story which makes us feel something, especially if it confirms our existing beliefs about how the world should work.

We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen

We Found A Hat cover

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Yesterday I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. Today’s picture book is We Found A Hat, which is similar to Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. In both stories, a dream sequence flings the two characters into space, bringing the story to an end.

We Found A Hat is the third of Jon Klassen’s Hat Trilogy of picture books — each has a different cast of characters, but all feature a hat in some way. In all of these books, the hat is a highly desirable object. The desirability of the hat is taken to an absurd degree, and I wonder if it’s because owning a hat makes these talking animals feel more sophisticated (more human).

In We Found A Hat, Klassen makes full use of classic ‘Three Act Structure’, dividing his very short book into three parts. Dividing a picture book into parts is funny in itself, because the partitions originally existed so the audience could take a break. These days, writers often make use of three act structure when plotting a story. (I prefer the 7-part structure, as you’ll see below.)

The others in the hat series are This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back. All are equally great, though We Found A Hat is more about friendship and less violent.

In each book, the picture-text dynamic implies that the hat’s rightful owner does violence to the thief at the end. This tale is both more ambiguous and less action-oriented.

Kirkus review



Like Sam and Dave, the two tortoises* in We Found A Hat are pretty much the same. Klassen goes further: they are in fact identical, which is part of the gag. (If the hat looks good on one of them, it’ll look good on the other.)

*I have no idea if they’re turtles or tortoises. But they live in the desert. I’m calling them tortoises.

What is wrong with the tortoises?

In this minimalist, unchanging environment, the appearance of a dropped cowboy hat is a big deal. A bigger deal than it should be. They’ve both going to have to get over this hat. Klassen withholds this information until later, but it will be revealed that one tortoise has more trouble than the other suppressing his desires.

This Rogue Tortoise becomes The Main Character.


We Found A Hat is a great example of a story in which two opponents want the same thing, when only one of them can have it. (Because there is only one to be had.)

Klassen puts an ironic distance between the pictures and the text. To us, the tortoises do not look good in the hat.

Klassen’s artwork, spare and sly, tells a different story. The hat does not look good. It looks silly, as if the turtle’s head were stuck in a plastic bucket.

Publishers Weekly review

This endears me to the tortoises. It’s super cute that they think they look good in the hat.


Since both tortoises want the one hat, they are each other’s enemy.


At first the tortoises do the right thing. They leave the hat where they found it, because if one of them takes it, the other will be jealous. This will lead to a breakdown of their relationship.

Next, they try to not to think about the hat. They admire the sunset. (They presumably do this every evening, because there’s not much in the landscape. They probably have the same conversation, too.)

we are watching the sunset

Eventually, in Part Two, one tortoise Breaks Bad and we see him making plans to retrieve the hat while the other is asleep. In true comedic style, although the other tortoise is ‘asleep’, s/he is still able to talk coherently, about being asleep. This is an example of irony.


what are you dreaming about

The Rogue Tortoise’s big big struggle is an entirely psychological one. In Jon Klassen picture books it’s vital to read the eyes. The eyes carry most of the information about character. When Rogue Tortoise reaches the hat, s/he feels guilty. The other tortoise has said that in her dream they are both wearing the hat. This makes Rogue Tortoise feel super guilty and he changes his mind about taking it for himself.

Many of the readers of We Found A Hat will have already read the earlier hat books. I feel like Jon Klassen deliberately subverts expectations by providing us with a gentle ending. (You expected violence, didn’t you?)

Readers who think they know what’s coming will be wrong: the conclusion doesn’t involve sharing, peacemaking, or violence. Instead, Klassen considers the instant at which a decision to act can break either way, depending on who’s tempted and whether anyone else is watching. In contrast to the first two books, which relied on a certain conspiratorial menace, this one ends with a moment of grace and a sky full of stars.

Publishers weekly review


Rogue Tortoise learns that he can overcome strong desires if he really wants to.

This change of heart is symbolised by the dream he has, which matches his friend’s dream — they are both dreaming of a scenario in which they each have their own identical hat. They fly into the starry, desert sky, newly free of pesky desires.

All three stories are about justice. It’s just that justice doesn’t always mean the same thing.

Publishers weekly review


It won’t.

Which is the point.

At least, the circumstances are the same as ever. No one has a fancy new hat.

BUT! Rogue Tortoise has wrestled internally with a strong desire and overcome that desire in favour of maintaining a good relationship. So I guess that relationship is slightly stronger than before.

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Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Alexander No Good Very Bad cover

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is an American picture book written by Judith Viorst, published 1972.

This was the first in the Alexander series, followed by:

  • Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday
  • Alexander, Who Is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move
  • Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever

Writer, journalist and psychoanalyst Judith Vorst wrote her Alexander books modelled on her own three sons, who were about that age when she wrote them. She decided to write the book about Alex because he seemed to have more than his fair share of bad days at the time. At first he wasn’t happy about this and asked if someone else could have the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, but when his mother reminded him that he’d get his name in big letters on the cover, he agreed to be the star. These days he is apparently quite happy about the whole thing.

“Practically every everything that I’ve written that is funny or joyful, I’ve probably lived through first with tears — and crying and bitching and moaning and carrying on,” she says. “I mean, I am not your merry little lady bouncing chucklingly through life. But eventually I pull myself together.

Judith Viorst, at the age of 88

Much more recently, Viorst has created a girl version of Alexander. Her name is Lulu.

  • Lulu and the Brontosaurus
  • Lulu Walks the Dogs
  • Lulu’s Mysterious Mission

Like Alexander, Lulu is what Viorst describes as ‘a hard like’. These are the Max’s from Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, or some of Shel Silverstein’s characters. Viorst names The Secret Garden as an influence from her own childhood. The children in that classic are also hard to like. Viorst writes these characters because she knows children take comfort in learning that others have the same bad feelings as they do.

(Separately, I believe girl characters are judged more harshly than boy characters for the exact same behaviours, which mirrors a real world phenomenon in which girls are expected to be more polite/giving/deferential than boys, who are expected to be strong, confident leaders.)

Before writing Alexander, Viorst had worked as a children’s book editor. This partly explains how she was able to create such an iconic book that the title became part of the English language lexicon. (She says she is very proud of this fact.) Like all the best picture books, Alexander feels simple. For this reason, it’s worth breaking down.


Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day feels like a picturebook ahead of its time. Aside from the details, which are from early 1970s America, this story could easily have been published last year. What makes it feel so modern?

First, the reader is launched straight into the story with zero preamble. What exactly does that mean, though? More traditional picture books start out with what some have called the ‘iterative’ and then switch at some point to the ‘singulative’. You’ll know a story like this because it goes something like:

[ITERATIVE] Once there was a little boy called Alexander who lived with his two older brothers in his house. Alexander loved desserts and new shoes and visiting his father at work. [SINGULATIVE] One day, Alexander got up and…

Second, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is written in first person. First person point-of-view is still an unusual choice for picture books, and marks it out as different. More lately we have authors like Jon Klassen writing in a sort of confessional tone, in first person. See: This Is Not My Hat.

Mo Willems writes mini plays which are entirely dialogue, which aren’t exactly first person, but his book titles are: e.g. I Am A Frog.

Third, it took a while for the gatekeepers of children’s literature to come around to the idea that picture books don’t have to model good behaviour. Even now, you can look up customer reviews on award winning stories such as This Is Not My Hat and see people who refuse to let their children read the book because they don’t want fictional bad behaviour to go unpunished, on the assumption that all characters who appear in books are role modelling directly. Alexander is not a role model character, and therefore feels part of the modern corpus.

Also, the text is written in free indirect style, without heed to traditionally correct grammar. This is conversational grammar, with plenty of conjunctions, without thought to the listener. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is masterfully composed and great fun to read.


Alexander’s shortcoming is that he is prone to bad moods. Some of these moods are completely self-generated. It was Alexander who left the skateboard beside the bed, and Alexander who fell asleep with chewing gum in his mouth. (Is it just my modern sensibilities or does every parent think, He might have choked!)

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth


In all works of fiction—and probably nonfiction, too—there are essentially two plots, Plot A and Plot B.

With Plot A, a character’s status-quo condition of discontent is challenged when opportunity presents itself .

With Plot B, a character’s status-quo condition of contentment meets with an obstacle or irritant.

Peter Selgin

What would you call Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? This story fits never Plot A nor Plot B. Alexander’s status-quo condition is of discontent but opportunity does not present itself.

What does Alexander want? My first thought is, “Well, obviously he wants to have a good day. Or, a better day than he’s having.” But does he really? Is he not revelling in his bad day, especially by the end of it?

We can certainly say that in any given scenario Alexander wants a certain thing from that scenario:

  • He wants a toy out of his cereal
  • He wants a prime spot in the car ride to school
  • He wants his teacher to be impressed at his attempt at a joke showing her a blank piece of paper intended to be an invisible castle
  • He wants to impress her with loud singing
  • He wants to be included in his best friend’s games. (This is a rare example of relational aggression involving boys in children’s literature.)
  • He wants to execute revenge on his best friend
  • He wants dessert
  • and so on

This story is also about what he does NOT want:

  • Does not want to go back to the dentist for a filling
  • Does not want to get in trouble for fighting
  • Does not want beans for dinner or TV shows with kissing
  • and so on

The splintered desires with no overriding ‘desire line‘ make this book function as a series of funny vignettes. But this story does achieve strong narrative drive because we want to see what terrible thing will happen to Alexander next. We want to see how he’ll react when he doesn’t (or does) get what he wants.


Masterfully, Viorst uses external irritations as well as self-generated irritations. By the end of the day, Alexander has slipped so far into his bad-day mindset that he even hates the pattern on his pyjamas, for no good reason that we can see.

Since Alexander’s day takes place in a number of different settings, starting and ending in his bedroom, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is written with a mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, meets various opponents along the way and returns home a changed person.


Here’s the masterful part of the story, which shows how well Viorst understands story structure: “I think I’ll move to Timbuktu.” (I have seen this story read online with “I think I’ll move to Australia. This wouldn’t work for those of us here in Australia. Did we get Timbuktu instead, for Australian editions?)

I can imagine coming up with an idea for a story very similar to this one, even finding the voice. But if something were missing it might be this part. I find picture books are like that. Most often I write first drafts and something is missing. The refrain about moving to Timbuktu is an ‘eye of the duck’ part of this story.

(Eye of the duck is a David Lynch term which basically means ‘the part of the story which really sets it off’.)

Timbuktu is one of those details which dates the book charmingly. This used to be the place which is nowhere from my own childhood. I believe I got it from a Mr Men book, but I may have false memory there. I didn’t think it was a real place. I thought it was entirely fictional. (It’s an ancient city situated smack bang in the middle of Mali, a country in Northern Africa.) Unfortunately, the Google street car has not yet made it to Timbuktu, and you can’t take a virtual walk around the streets.


Each scenario in Alexander’s day has its own minor big struggle, but these small big struggles increase in intensity as the day wears on, culminating in a physical on-the-ground incident in which Alexander ends up sitting in a muddy puddle. That’s not the last big struggle, but it is the most visual one. After that, the big struggles are directed inward.


The satirical nature of this mythic journey rests on the fact that Alexander is just as cranky at the end of the day as he was at the beginning. Some days are just like that, his mother reassures him. This is a consolation rather than a revelation.

How else could this have ended? Some authors would not have trusted the negative emotionality of this story and something nice would have happened to Alexander right before bedtime to reassure him that good things happen, too. Perhaps his mother sat down with him, just him, to read a bedtime story, or perhaps those railroad pyjamas were actually his favourite, and this cheered him up. But Judith Viorst who has a background in psychoanalysis understood that this emotion needed to continue without a token offset.


It’s likely Alexander will wake up in a better mood tomorrow, but there will also be more days similar to this one.


Fuse8 (Betsy Bird) n’Kate talk about this picture book on their podcast in episode 40.

The Terrible Suitcase by Emma Allen is similar to Viorst’s book in many ways but stars a girl and is a little more dreamy in tone.

Another is My No No No Day! by Rebecca Patterson, also starring a girl.

Using Alexander to teach philosophy in the classroom (aesthetics and metaphysics)

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Character Empathy In The Sopranos Pilot

The Sopranos Character Empathy

It is more difficult to write an antihero than to write a hero. Before creating Tony Soprano, David Chase served his apprenticeship writing a large number of likeable characters, such as amicably divorced Norman Foley from Almost Grown and 1950s Southern lawyer Forrest Bedford in I’ll Fly Away. He graduated to the antihero from there.

If there was a single moment that signalled the new TV reality, it came only a handful of weeks after The Sopranos debuted. By that time, audiences had already begun to feel affection for this new, unusual hero. True, they had seen him involved in beating a man up; plotting insurance fraud, extortion, and arson; and committing adultery. On the other hand, he seemed to come by such behaviour honestly, what with the crazy mother.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

If you’re writing an antihero you must use every trick in the book to get your audience to empathise with them early on.

Interestingly, the Sopranos writers weren’t initially brave enough to attempt an empathetic antihero and a murdering one at that, all in the pilot episode. But the show failed to garner interest with show runners. It was only when the writers had someone murdered that The Sopranos was picked up. The subsequent popularity of this show taught writers something — it’s possible to write an empathetic antihero from the very start, even when we show that character at their very worst.

The key is ’empathetic’, not ‘sympathetic’. We have to understand why a character does what they do, but in the case of criminals, gangsters and murderers, we won’t agree with their goals. The best place to find empathetic antiheroes is TV. For the length of a movie we might stick by a  less empathetic antihero because we don’t have to be in their company for so long. It’s said that the age of the TV antihero began with Tony Soprano, who has been strongly influential in many dramas that have emerged since then, paving the way for characters such as Walter White. The writers of the Breaking Bad pilot used all the tricks listed here.

What tricks are those? How did The Sopranos writers ensure audiences would want to stick around Tony for six seasons? Here they are. And for an ordered list, see How To Write An Unlikeable Main Character.

Let The Audience See The Character’s Vulnerabilities

Structurally it’s a great idea to weave psychiatrist office scenes throughout The Sopranos. We get to see into the mind of a character who is naturally closed and reticent. Dream sequences also achieve this goal, but the scenes with Dr Melfi are the most important — dreams can be trippy and visually interesting but don’t really let us into a character’s mind in the same way. We are introduced to Tony when he is at the vulnerable he’s ever been in his life, probably. He’s just had his first panic attacks.

Tony is having an existential crisis. He tells us in a voiceover (ostensibly talking to his psychiatrist) that his father came in at the beginning of something big, whereas Tony feels he’s come in at the end. Death is all around him.

Worse for Tony, he’s been sent to psychiatrist by the family physician. He doesn’t want to be in Dr Melfi’s office — he’s not in control of his body, nor is he in control of his healthcare. He soon learns to manipulate Dr Melfi to his advantage and it takes a few seasons for her to catch on, but in this pilot episode, he doesn’t want to be there. This is shown with him storming out of his first session.

Tony is vulnerable with Carmela, even though it is clearly hard to be. “Here he goes now with the nostalgia,” Carmela replies after Tony tells her they’ve had a great life together. Followed by, “What’s different about you an die is you’re going to hell when you die.”

Tony makes an inappropriate but almost adorable move on Melfi — “My mother would’ve loved it if you and I got together.”

“It was just a trip having those wild creatures come into my pool and have their little babies. Oh Jesus Fuck, now he’s going to cry. Shit. Fuck me.”

Carmela is ready to throw wine in Tony’s face when he confesses to something, but it’s only that he’s on Prozac. He then offers words of comfort to Carmel about her relationship with her daughter. “She’ll come back to you.”

Tony puts his problems down to the leaving of the ducks. The audience knows this is displacement. For a while, we are in audience superior position — we know what Tony’s issue is before he does. When the audience is at least occasionally in superior position in terms of knowledge, that puts the character in a vulnerable position in relation to us. We’re watching a coming-of-age story.

His ultimate anagnorisis: He admits he’s afraid he’s going to lose his family. “That’s what I’m full of dread about. It’s always with me.” Tony Soprano, for all his evil, is a Family Man. This applies to a lot of people. We respect that in someone — caring for family.

Don’t Cast Beautiful People

How attached can you really get to someone whose screen-perfect body is wholly alien to your life? The professionally beautiful carry a sense of unreality with them wherever they go. The Sopranos invites a deeper sense of intimacy, its cast made up of people most of whom wouldn’t look out of place at any given family reunion or suburban barbecue.

I Look Like The Shah Of Iran

Tony’s Save The Cat Moment

This is Blake Snyder’s terminology. It’s a super simple trick, now overused in Hollywood. Show a (possibly horrible) person doing something good for a more vulnerable person or creature.

Not cats in Tony’s case, but birds. He’s wading into his pool for some reason. We watch him as Carmela does, judging him through the kitchen window. What on earth is he doing? Whatever it is, he’s probably meaning to help the ducks out. Despite the ability to turn off empathy for humans, Tony Soprano has an affinity for wildlife.

Tony Soprano in the pool with ducks

We’re actually given two save the cat moments. The next is when he visits his mother.  He takes his mother the gift of a twin CD. (We can assume ‘someone lost their kneecaps’ because of it, but that’s off-screen.)

Surround The Antihero With Ungrateful Characters

The mother is not grateful to get the CD player. “What’s that? For who? For me? I don’t want it.”

Livia Soprano

Tony describes his father as ‘a squeaking little gerbil’ when he died. The mother is overbearing and now the father is dead he’s a saint. Tony is the same way — he’ll only be accepted by his own mother if he dies before her.

The Antihero Is Alone With His Pain

We’re introduced to Tony’s family. Tony Soprano is on a different wavelength from the rest of his family, who are talking about petty things. Tony’s wife doesn’t understand him, looking disdainfully at him in the pool with the ducks.

Teenage girls are often depicted as wholly unlikeable characters to contrast with their put-upon fathers. “See what this guy has to put up with?” the plot asks of us. “See how horrible my daughter is? Yet I put my life on the line for that girl every single day!” This is never said. The audience sees Meadow at her most unpleasant. That’s all we see of her. Even Meadow’s desire line is obnoxious — she’s upset because her mother won’t let her go on a skiing trip to Aspen — the most privileged bullshit whinging we expect to come out of a spoilt brat.

Meadow Soprano unlikeable teenage daughter

In fact, later, Tony is shown to be mellow and kind to his daughter in the face of her heavy criticism and teenage cynicism. In this first scene Meadow is your archetypal vain and shallow teenage girl, who won’t eat something her mother made because of the fat. Her annoyingness is doubled because of the friend she has over. (Note that Anthony Junior is a mild-mannered and reasonable kid, who doesn’t mind at all that his birthday has to be postponed. The reasonable younger brother always makes the unreasonable teenage daughter seem even worse.)

Show The Antihero Being Disrespected

Tony’s mother undermines his ability to do his job. She thinks the older men of the family know what they’re doing. She still sees Tony as a boy.

Put The Antihero In A Specific Situation We All Dislike

The physician who refers Tony to the psychiatrist also happens to be his next door neighbour. Tony is a guy who can’t enjoy a private life. We can identify with that ‘separate worlds colliding’ feeling. Most of us compartmentalise to some extent and when ‘medical world’ coincides with ‘professional world’ or whatever, we understand the feeling of being surrounded on all sides, lacking privacy, feeling exposed. We don’t have to be gangsters to understand that, though being a gangster is an extreme example of that — which is part of what makes this show so masterful.

The pilot of The Sopranos plays with really common emotions — feeling unappreciated, feeling disrespected, feeling alone with our pain — but this one is specific to The Sopranos story. We need to find a situational emotion specific to our own antiheroes’ stories, but also universal.

“Could I feel happier? Yeah. Yeah. Who couldn’t?” Tony has an old school idea of manhood and strength and pharmaceuticals. While I don’t feel this is a universal feeling — it’s more specific to men, and more applicable to men of Tony’s generation — this feeling that we could be happier but hey, this is life — is a universal one. Basically, not many of us like being asked to consider whether we’re happy or not. The asking itself means that we’re not happy in that moment. It must be one of the world’s most irritating questions.

I’m sure when scenes of important man’s work — life and death — are juxtaposed against domestic scenes full of domestic conflict (a daughter who no longer wants to have tea at the Plaza with her mother) a lot of men can identify with the feeling that everything that’s not their own work is petty bullshit. Because even if you’re not a gangster, the breadwinner of the house is indeed dealing with life and death — he’s bringing home the bacon.

Surround A Bad Character With Worse Ones

The chase through the park in which Tony is behind the wheel has an upbeat soundtrack, making it comical more than evil. But Tony does run the guy over.

But because a typical audience has a whacked relationship to violence, in which violence is acceptable under certain, specific circumstances, we accept that when Tony kicks the guy when he’s down, he’s at least looking him in the face while he does it.

Christopher is the younger generation, tells the Czech guy he kills that he’s ‘the younger generation’, putting Tony right in the middle, struggling to hold onto his position of power. According to our perceptions of fair violence, it’s more honourable that Tony kicked the gambling businessman whereas Christopher shot a guy in the head from behind after promising something else (cocaine). This makes Tony honourable by comparison.

Give An Antihero A Sense Of Humour

Tony Soprano is in the throes of depression, which means he’s going to have an ironic, wry and at times self-deprecating sense of humour, much like Daria. He’s got a lot in common with his teenage daughter, in fact. That comes out in later episodes.

Dr Melfi interrupts Tony to tell him her legal obligations. She doesn’t know where a story is going, but she has to report murders to police. The audience is shown an ironic distance between what he tells Dr Melfi and what actually happens on screen — the grown up version of Rosie’s Walk. Two completely different narratives are taking place before us. After violently kicking the shit out of a guy he tells the Doc he ‘had coffee’, which is not only ironic, but comical in its understatement. Understatement is one of the eleven types of humour listed by the creator of The Onion.

Tony’s mother is depicted as demented, being too scared to go out in the dark. Tony points out the illogical reasoning behind refusing to answer the phone when it’s dark.

A bird flies off with his penis when he recounts his dream to Melfi. The way he tells it is darkly comic. Melfi asks what kind of bird, which sounds like a non-sequitur, and like she hasn’t been listening. (Turns out a moment later she has.) Melfi is the straight-woman to Tony’s comedy.

Make The Antihero Competent

If he’s horrible, Tony Soprano needs to at least be very good at what he does. When people gather to watch Tony and his sidekick beat the crap out of the guy in the business suit, there’s a superhero quality to him. I’m put in mind of the high school scene in one of the Spider-man movies, in which a teenage crowd gathers to watch Peter Parker beat up the bully. As soon as a bit of a crowd gathers, the prestige of a character goes up. This technique is particularly common in American dramas. This must say something about the American psyche. Everything’s more important when someone’s watching you.

Be Very Clear About Why The Antihero Does What They Do

When Tony calls the victim of his beating a ‘degenerate fucking gambler’ we’re given a reason — violence is justified, at least in the world of the story. It’s really important that we got this line. In that moment, at least, we know that Tony is owed money — maybe a lot of money — and Tony is justified in his retaliation. Maybe we wouldn’t have done that exact thing, but we empathise with his reasoning.

Tony’s discussion in the strip club shows how he feels about insurance companies and how most people feel about the American medical system — it’s set up to benefit a few while scamming the vulnerable. This is a guy who is scamming those scammers. He mentions it costs $2000 for an MRI.

Give The Antihero A Bloodline

A conservative audience has a strange, and perhaps soon to be outdated, attitude towards the importance of bloodlines. We think that ‘going back five generations’ in the one place means something. Should it? That’s a question for another time. For storytelling purposes, audiences have more positive feelings towards a character whose place in their family is firm and traceable.

Tony’s place in his family is clear after this pilot episode. Going into his mother’s house, he talks about when he was a kid — Uncle Junior used to take him to ball games. There’s a bit of a self-deprecating sob story about how Uncle Junior told him he’d never be a Boston athlete. Tony tells us that ‘it was a tremendous blow to my self-esteem’. His language of psychiatry shows us that he’s seeing himself as an extradiegetic narrator on his own youth, removed from it, understanding it. (Though he is far from understanding his present self.)

When Tony tells Meadow about the two Italian ancestors who built (but didn’t design) the beautiful church they’re sitting in, we see where Tony comes in a long line of people, some of whom were probably decent — the honest labourers, like Jesus. Because bloodlines mean something in our culture, this works.

Of course, bloodline is especially important in an Italian gangster story. But the significance of bloodline is utilised in stories of other ensembles, too.

Make The Antihero Level-headed When Needed

Tony keeps his cool and kisses his ungrateful, disrespectful mother goodbye. This is a guy who keeps his cool, whatever else we say about him. We like characters who keep their cool. Of course, this juxtaposes with the fact he later has a panic attack.

Give Him A Life And Death Battle

The pilot of The Sopranos follows a universal story structure, complete with a big struggle and a anagnorisis in its own right. In this episode (mini-story) we see Tony close to death in the hospital, almost like he’s in a morgue, except he’s going into a full-body scanning machine.

Keep Other Characters’ Legitimate Grievances Off-screen

“What a bedside manner!” Tony says to his wife, because Carmela is angry with him.  She is practical and has no sentimentality. We know — we just know — Carmela is justified in her lack of sentimentality, and the way she brushes Tony off as he goes into the scanner. Let’s be real — Tony is safer in that thing than he is when he goes out of the house each day for work. But we don’t see Carmela’s reasons for being angry with her husband. Not in the pilot episode, when we are required to empathise only with the antihero. Disproportionately in stories, the female characters cop it. Livia, Carmela and Meadow are all written to be not only neutral, but non-empathetic. Carmela is at least interesting because she has a droll sense of humour and a practicality that is attractive.

Show A Fake-Ally Plotting Behind The Antihero’s Back

We are shown Livia and Junior complaining about the younger generation (Tony’s generation) in the car. “Something may have to be done Livia, about Tony.” Someone is plotting about him behind his back. Later in the series, many members of ‘The Family’ will do things behind Tony Soprano’s back, and we’ll be on board with Tony as he retaliates. For now we need to empathise with that feeling — the feeling that our friends and family are not true — they’re all faking it.

I find it fascinating that Sex and the City – a show about a bunch of white women making jokes and shagging – is considered embarrassingly retro and borderline offensive, but The Sopranos – a show about a bunch of white men killing each other -is considered an untouchable classic.
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The River Between Us by Richard Peck


The River Between Us cover
This cover gives no indication of the intended audience. Nor does it show that this is the story of a family. Anyone would think Noah were the star, and the faceless woman in the background the stereotypical love interest. This is one of my least favourite children’s book covers.

There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.

  • July 1916 is the wrapper time
  • Summer
  • North America
  • Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
  • Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
  • This is the story of a journey. Stories with rivers are generally about journeys. See: The Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling.
  • Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
  • World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
  • ‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
  • Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
  • The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.


  • 1861 is the flashback story within a story.
  • The American Civil War started in 1861 and lasted until 1865. The war officially began April 12 in Charleston. The big struggle at Port Sumter marked a turning point in the Civil War, when secessionists started to lose. Until then, escaped slaves could be sold back to the south.
  • Food is lacking in variety, especially in the winter. Mother makes a dish called ‘scrapple’ made from cornmeal and shredded pork off the neck bones. You slice of bits of it to fry in lard. For a fancy occasion you might fry it in butter.
  • Coffee is expensive and a luxury but the family drinks sassafras tea. (Root beer is made from the root of this tree.) These days it’s thought to be carcinogenic to drink it regularly.
  • In Southern Illinois the town was divided between north and south sympathies. By law black people aren’t even allowed in the state, although ‘everyone ignores this’. The fact that the law exists speaks to the levels of racism.
  • People commonly keep a sick drawer (to put medicines etc.) and a ‘death drawer’ (where they keep a sheet and clothes to be buried in). Very morbid sounding to the modern reader, but evidence that death is on people’s minds a lot more than it is today. People expected death, but at any moment.
  • After the Battle of Bull Run, this little town is ‘solid’ for the North. (Anti-slavery, with President Lincoln.)
  • Louisiana and New Orleans developed a ‘three caste’ system from the Caribbean. Mixed-parentage people were recognized as a distinct group, neither “White” nor “Black”. The history of slavery in Louisiana is a bit different. Under Spanish rule almost 2,000 slaves were freed. Most of them ‘self-purchased’ or were purchased by black relatives. Some were freed by lovers or fathers. With dwindling numbers of slaves to do the work, the numbers were augmented by mixed-race refugees from Haiti. They were called libres. Many were light-skinned. They were generally artisans and tradesmen. A few even became wealthy planters and slaveowners themselves. Under Spanish rule these gens du couleur formed militia companies and sometimes helped recapture runaway slaves. That’s how a three-caste system came about.



Howard writes in first person, an elderly adult looking back on his early life. This is apparent from the first sentence: “They don’t make them like that anymore.”

Chapter two switches from the grandson as a young man to his great aunt, Tilly.

The narration has metafictional elements such as, “If life was a storybook, that would have been the night Noah left us for the war.” Peck is obviously conscious of the need to avoid tying up the narrative in too neat of a package — ironically, that would read like a contrived, made-up story and pull us out of realism. In this way, metafictive elements in narration can sometimes add to the realism of a story rather than detract from it.

See also: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction



Narrator, Howard

  • Howard Leland Hutchings
  • 15 years old in 1916, so born just before the turn of the century. Published in 2003, the narrator would hypothetically be 104 at time of publication.
  • Younger brothers, twins, five years old: Raymond and Earl
  • Has grown up ‘thinking the whole world is paved’

Howard’s Father, Doctor William Hutchings Jnr

  • Father is a doctor, never seen without a necktie.
  • Works long hours — a 6 and a half day week
  • Self-made man (Bill Gates would disagree. Bill Gates refuses to call himself a self-made man in acknowledgement of his own privilege. Likewise, this son of a doctor had white middle class male privilege). That said, his own father was not rich. Doctors in poor towns were paid in fish and vegetables often.
  • Originally from Grand Tower on the other side of the Mississippi River
  • Lived through the Civil War

Howard’s Mother, Mrs Hutchings

  • Born and raised in St Louis
  • Does not like her husband’s family
  • Does not go on the trip, is not part of the story.

Grandpa William Hutchings Snr

  • “Waxy with age, trapped by years in his chair but alive behind his eyes”



Tilly Hutchings (nee Pruitt)

  • In 1916 she is a little old lady who wears an apron, wrinkled like a walnut
  • Youthful movements and build
  • Tilly’s mother takes in Delphine Duval and her companion Calinda
  • In 1861 she is 15 years old, which makes her 70 in the framing story.
  • She will later marry William Hutchings (the town doctor) and give birth to Howard’s father.

Noah Pruitt

  • Grandma Tilly’s twin brother
  • Missing an arm by his 70th birthday.
  • Marries Delphine

Delphine Duval

Although Delphine initially comes across as a Blanche Dubois type, her strength amazes and inspires everyone when the war begins to take its toll. Even the twins’ mother blossoms from Delphine’s proximity (“She put some starch in my spine,” Tilly’s mother says). These relationships cement and then reverberate throughout the novel. A showboat’s arrival on the Mississippi, and Tilly and Delphine’s trip to the big strugglefront in search of Noah, occasion further revelations about Delphine and Calinda’s background as well as fascinating details of the complex New Orleans society.

Publishers Weekly

  • Bedridden as an elderly woman, about    70 years old
  • Always stout
  • Smells of lavender, violet eyes, associated with the colour purple
  • French. “Her accent came and went.”
  • Has says she has a rich aunt in St Louis but it is later revealed that there is no aunt.
  • By the end of chapter four it’s clear she’s a fantasist who, like Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker and Richard Peck’s own Molly Moberly in Strays Like Us, has grand delusions about where she comes from and who her female relatives are.
  • Also like Molly Moberly’s real grandmother, she has taken to her bed in her old age.
  • From New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Says her grandmother one of Les Sirenes — beauties who fled the slaves’ uprising on the island of Saint-Domingue years and years ago. Grandmother took her mother to Cuba then New Orleans. Father is Monsieur Jules Duval
  • She cannot marry white men because there’s a Spanish and French law against it. However New Orleans customs are different — instead of marrying these women the white men set them up in houses. Daughters are brought up by their mothers and expects to find a white gentleman of her own under a similar arrangement. These women are called quadroons.
  • “We free people live on a kind of island, lapped by a sea of slavery.”

Cass Pruitt

  • Younger sister of Tilly who hallucinates. She sees ghosts of the past as well as visions of the future.
  • In 1861 she is 12 but looks 10
  • Wispy hair (to match her visions)
  • Small statured
  • Keeps chickens — her wispy hair is somewhat ‘feathery’ itself
  • Died of diphtheria after the Civil War at the age of 17

Calinda Duval

  • Delphine’s black companion (free person of colour)
  • ‘Her eyes trust no one’
  • Has the same eyes as Delphine (the first hint that they are half-sisters)
  • Not just in skin colour — Calinda is in other ways the mirror reflection of Delphine. “While Delphine would starve in a pantry, Calinda would thrive in a wilderness.”
  • As well as being the reflection character for Delphine, she is also a companion for Cass. Cass looks like a ‘scrawny, pale reflection of Calinda, including the tignon, tied in a tidy knot’.
  • Makes money by making pralines and selling them to passengers on passing ships.
  • Calinda wears a tignon because in 1786 a law was passed which required black women to cover their hair. Intended to keep black women in their place, it was also a fashion statement for black women themselves. Today it is worn as a celebration of Afro-American culture.
  • Real name CoinCoin, an ancient name
  • Calinda is named after a dance from the Caribbean.
  • Calinda and Cass together lend a touch of fabulism to the text, with their ability to predict the future and sense the past.



Without graphic description, Peck does not shy away from the horrors of war, nor how it divided the families and friends of Grand Tower. Peck’s finely tuned writing makes plausible the ways in which these characters come together, putting their human concerns ahead of their political interest.

Publisher’s Weekly



This is a story within a story: The road trip in the present world of the story and the stories told about Howard’s father’s childhood.

Who is the main character? Well, this is two stories really but the story as told by Tilly is the main one. The wrapper exists for the function of connecting these people to modern readers: Peck is emphasising that this story happened only three or four generations ago (which is actually terrifying in today’s political climate).

In fact this is a story within a story within a story. This is Howard narrating Tilly narrating the love story of Delphine and her twin brother Noah. But it is also the mythical journey Tilly herself makes to locate her brother after he’s gone off to war. Who is the main character? To answer that question, “Who changes the most, not in circumstance but in psychological growth?” That would be Noah and Tilly both. Richard Peck has made them twins to provide both a male and female experience of one bit of the Civil War.


The Pruitts are poor and therefore must suffer the social cost of harboring the young women off the boat — they need their rent money.

Noah no doubt has naive, heroic visions of being a war hero, and probably also wants to impress Delphine by being a big man.

Tilly’s big disadvantage is her gender. The mother’s ghost is that she has already lost a husband, so losing a son would double her grief. Being a woman herself, she needs Tilly less for chores.


Noah wants to fight but more deeply he wants to be a Man.

Tilly, like her mother, wants to keep Noah at home and to protect their home and hearth. When the mother sends her on a mission this is a female version of the Hero’s Journey.


The Seceshs are the villains in this story — the ‘monster’ stand in — the overriding fearsome opponent. But in this particular setting, a purple area, there are plenty of locals who are fighting against the Yankees and the women who visit the house to cast judgement on harboring the girls from New Orleans provide a more local opponent, given faces.

Noah’s mother does not want him to fight, providing the well-meaning opponent. The mother shows herself to be a fairly despicable mother to Tilly, though, when she falls into a heap and tells her she only cares about the brother, not her. This mother is a completely different kind of mother-opponent to each twin.

In a more stereotypical story, Delphine would be an opponent to Tilly. There are many stories about girls — one rich, one poor — pitted against each other as opponents, but Peck has created a more nuanced frilly girl in Delphine by letting her add to the Pruitts’ life with the introduction of different foods and nice things.


Noah joins the war but his plans to fight to the end fall short when he loses a limb.

Tilly takes Delphine on her journey to find Noah and refuses to go back home until she’s found him, as instructed by their mother.


Tilly shows us some pretty shocking images. The big struggles taking place around this time all over America are off the page — we’re shown the aftermath.


At this point the story switches back to that of Howard. He realises the reason for the visit — Great Aunt Delphine is dying. We learn Cass is dead and buried, in an overgrown graveyard. She died of diphtheria a year after the war.

This tells us that the war’s casualties included more than just men dying heroically in big struggle. With war there is always a lot of other death too — for unromantic reasons such as this.

Another revelation: Noah is Dr Williams’ father, not the old Dr Hutchings. Great Aunt Delphine is actually Howard’s grandmother, not his great aunt, in a revelation similar to the one used in Strays Like Us.


We learn that Calinda had to leave town because her skin was too dark to stay. We don’t know what happened to her — symbolic of how there is nothing in the historical records about what happened to the Quadroom women of New Orleans after the Civil War.

The rest of the family stays in the White town and has lived here in this big house together all these decades. Old Mr Pruitt is buried in the graveyard though not next to Cass. Old Mrs Pruitt was buried in the river.

I had expected Delphine would have married Noah but we learn they never married. Peck does this to let the character of Delphine retain her tradition of never marrying a white man (even though the law itself was passed by white men).

Howard is allowed to drive the car some of the way home. Howard, too, is now a man because he knows his own family history. Howard’s father tells Howard he’ll be joining the war if it begins. The reader knows it did begin, so we can extrapolate that Dr Hutchings went off to war.

Howard mentions a ‘daughter with giant violet eyes’, a detail so specific we might imagine Howard does have such a daughter and that’s who he’s telling this family history to.


Storytelling Tips From The Edge Of Seventeen


The Edge of Seventeen is a coming-of-age movie about an American girl called Nadine who struggles to fit in. That could describe many of us in our teen years, but with Nadine there’s a bit more to it.


The film opens to a witty, high stakes dialogue scene in which Nadine rushes to her history teacher and tells him she’s going to kill herself. Mr Bruner is an excellent contrast to Nadine because he is calm and ironic and on the face of it, cruel. Nothing is a drama to him, not even suicide threats from students.

Next we have Nadine as storyteller narrator guiding us through her early life. This ends with her father dying two years back, and she sums this period up as ‘it was shit’ so she doesn’t bore us with the details. The father is grounded while the mother is not. Basically, the writers are taking a girl and doing the worst possible thing to her — taking away her father just as she enters the adult world. We’ve seen just enough of the father to fall in love with him ourselves, too.

When we’re in ‘the present’ the story starts in earnest, with Nadine talking to her best friend under a tree at lunch break, announcing her desire to have sex.


I’m not suggesting the writers knowingly did this, but I read Nadine as an autistic girl. I believe we’re to read Nadine as living with depression. My reasons for autism in no particular order:

  • She has problems making any friends (at all) in primary school. This isn’t just a depressive episode — this is a lifelong struggle with social interactions.
  • Eventually another little girl approaches her with a caterpillar and because this other girl is kind and nurturing they are best friends for years.
  • When this relationship breaks up Nadine literally has no one else to turn to. She has been clinging possessively to this one friend the whole time. She has expanded her social circle only by clinging on to the sardonic history teacher who spends lunchtimes in his classroom avoiding people. She either doesn’t notice his bluntness or finds it at least understandable.
  • She is inclined to ‘burn bridges’. When she cuts off Krista for dating her brother this really feels like it could be done forever.
  • Her mother says at one point, “I’m done trying to understand you!” (Even her own mother doesn’t understand her.) A lot of people don’t understand autism, especially as it typically presents in girls.
  • Nadine is interested in love and sex but gets herself into a situation she really doesn’t want. The whole thing is better inside her head. But she doesn’t know she doesn’t want it until she’s right in it. She is socially naive. She also makes an offer to Erwin which he takes seriously. She wants to make jokes but doesn’t quite know how to do it. She explains that she was only parodying a movie when she asked him if he wanted to have sex with her in the pool.
  • She has no idea what to do at parties but is nevertheless drawn to them. When she finds one girl to talk to it turns out that girl is also socially inappropriate, so rather than rejoin the group she takes off, telling Erwin the party was ‘cancelled’.
  • After getting herself into an unwanted hookup with a boy who doesn’t like her as a person she makes reference to the make and model of the boy’s car. He accuses her of making fun of his car. She says “No, I was just being specific about the car.” Miscommunication + keen eye for detail + tendency to be unnecessarily specific.
  • Nadine is prone to anxiety and depression and is constantly viewing herself from the outside. She has internalised society’s criticism of her. Girls on the spectrum, or with any other invisible differences, get criticised a lot.
  • She hasn’t passed her driver’s licence. A disproportionate number of autistic people have trouble with that. This means she’s behind her peers in terms of freedom and reliance on other people.

So there you have it. Call it depression or autism or plain old end-of-childhood, those are Nadine’s psychological and moral shortcomings in a nutshell.

Her problem is that her social circle isn’t wide enough to withstand relationship break ups.


As mentioned above, the main desire line revolves around Nadine wanting to have sex with a particular boy. It’s significant that the writers had her announce this intention right at the beginning of the ‘present timeline’ within the world of the story because until the main character wants something the audience can’t ‘care for the character’. She says the boy is “so much more attractive since he came back from juvie.” And that’s all we really need to know about him.

Of course Nadine wants other things more generally and in a deeper way. She wants her best friend to stop dating her brother, for instance. She wants her mother and brother to get off her back. She wants independence. But these desire lines are at a higher level of abstraction, so in order to drive the story forward the writers gave Nadine the very specific, and comedically ripe, goal of wanting to have sex with the boy who just got back from juvenile detention. (She is the ‘anti-Kat’ from 10 Things I Hate About You.)

Because Nadine is so lacking in self-awareness, the audience knows immediately in a form of dramatic irony that this thing with the juvie boy is a self-destructive desire and will not work out at all. Partly this is because movies are inherently conservative, even the indie films like this one, because we have mostly internalised the idea that when girls have sex with bad boys, for the sake of having sex, the girl will end up hurt. There is no question in our minds that she could hook up once with the bad boy, have great sex, and walk away a slightly more rounded person.

Also because Nadine is so lacking in self-awareness she will change her mind before the end of the movie. The audience knows she will. She’ll realise that the socially awkward but rich and talented and handsome Erwin is a much better match for her. Characters don’t often change their minds about what they want but it does occasionally happen in a story, as it’s connected to the anagnorisis (that they were wrong about themselves). Another film which does this is Legally Blonde. The main character thinks she wants the boy but it turns out she wants a career.


Nadine’s opponents are also the people closest to her.

  • Her brother Darian is interesting because he is presented to the audience as a classic jock. Over the course of the movie we learn that there is far more to him than the beefed up, health conscious athlete. He takes over as caregiver after their father dies, because the mother is also neurotic. For Nadine he is an opponent because he has everything she wants. He is handsome, popular and socially adept. He is the golden haired boy when it comes to their mother. Classic sibling rivalry but taken to the extreme.
  • Krista is a best friend who suddenly becomes an opponent when Nadine disapproves of her sleeping with her brother. She has ‘joined the dark side’. In the story Krista is not given much in the way of ‘personality’ or ‘spark’. She is the Diana of Green Gables, or any other nice girl who exists in contrast to a fiery heroine.
  • Nadine’s mother undergoes a bit of a character arc when she texts ‘OK’ instead of requesting Nadine call her immediately. She has realised that what Nadine needs is a bit of freedom, and that she can’t do anything to help her out anyway.
  • The audience probably knows that the history teacher is playing a part when he pretends to be this uncaring person who hates teaching. Mr Bruner is a ‘fake opponent ally’ who looks after Nadine later when she’s in crisis mode. He also gives her money for a frozen yoghurt. We suspect he’s in his classroom at lunchtime not to avoid everyone, but for precisely the opposite reason — to be there for the oddballs who need him. We also have it confirmed that he is not what he seems when we see he’s got a wife and family — this is after Nadine has accused him of being bald, lonely and single.


Nadine (sort of) plans to have sex. With the juvie guy (Nick). She mistakenly thinks having sex will plunge her into adulthood and she can bypass the rest of the awkward inbetween years. She tells Krista she’s going to have sex with him in the Petworld storeroom and the audience thinks she’s joking, but she really does stalk him at his workplace, and in an ill-considered moment she accidentally sends a stream-of-consciousness offer of sex, which he takes her up on.

This plunges her into her main crisis and she runs to the history teacher in a repeat of what we saw in the opening scene. The most memorable line is repeated, “I’m going to kill myself” then there is a cutaway and we understand the initial scene just took place.


Nadine has a very bad day. She won’t get out of the car when her mother drops her off. The mother decides to just take her to work with her and she can sit there and be quiet. Nadine takes off in her mother’s car. She arranges to meet up with the boy for sex. She is abandoned after that goes all to hell. She has no choice but to call the history teacher to rescue her, then she won’t get into her brother’s car when he turns up to give her a ride home. This sequence naturally provides much opportunity for interpersonal conflict.


After Erwin awkwardly presents his short film on stage Nadine realises she really likes him. She gives him a bunch of flowers and tells him, in a supremely awkward moment, that she realises the film was about her.

The audience, also, has been lead to believe the film was about her. But in a surprise ending, Erwin tells her it wasn’t about her at all. We have been seeing the world guided by Nadine as storyteller, so this comes as a surprise to the audience as much as to Nadine. We may choose not to believe Erwin when he says this. His actions have spoken otherwise, or maybe off screen he just plum changed his mind.


Because this is a ‘quirky’ film with characters who say one thing and want another, or who say one thing and mean another, a nice, neat ending in which Nadine ends up with Erwin would not feel right. Instead we are left with them awkwardly together but not together. We hope they’ll get together properly in their own time. Or perhaps they’ll be good friends.

More important, Nadine has made friends with her brother and Krista again. She is no longer alone in the world.


Stevie Nicks apparently wrote her iconic song Edge of Seventeen after painkiller side effects subsided. She went to studio 54 to celebrate and realized she was gayer than she thought, then wrote Edge Of Seventeen about a woman.

Describing Emotions and Physiological Reactions In Fiction


Descriptions of physiological reactions are hard to write well because:

  1. We all know what the feels to be thirsty/humiliated/busting to go to the toilet, so why does an author feel the need to explain it again, as if her character is any different? Why not just tell and not show?
  2. Every possible physiological response must have been written before, over and over, so how to sound original?
  3. It’s so easy to sound unintentionally comical.
  4. Certain physiological reactions can be cringe inducing unless done masterfully.

Far too many stories these days prove merely three-dimensional. In other words, their principal characters display psychological width, length and depth, but operate as minds utterly detached from corporeal beings. As readers, we live inside their heads—not inside their bodies. We discover how their psyches process their surroundings, but not how their skin senses the living world. These characters explore an intensely abstract universe like brains trapped within jars, conversing with other similarly trapped entities.  They suffer ennui and angst, but never a stomach ache or a chest cold. They are the opposite of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman in that their existence does not extend below the neck.

Fiction Writers’ Review

Yet now and again I come across a physiological description that’s original and engaging and poetic, and I’m filled with hope that it hasn’t all been done before. And then I think, “The field of possibles has just narrowed. I wish I’d written that!”

I wonder if anyone’s ever had a GOOD case of diarrhoea.

Edward Gorey Neville died of ennui

Be careful not to use descriptions of physiological reactions in the wrong place. Below, Jane Friedman is talking about story openings to avoid:

If we meet a character who is in crisis or pain from line one, we have something tension-filled on the surface, but it may not raise any interesting questions or reasons to keep reading if there’s not sufficient context. In some openings like this, we don’t even get the character’s name—just the fact they’re in wrenching agony.

Such openings tend to emphasize physical, bodily description, and showing, not telling.

Jane Friedman
Continue reading “Describing Emotions and Physiological Reactions In Fiction”

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark is a picture book written by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A boy faces his fear of the dark in an archetypal dream house.



Psychological Shortcoming: “Laszlo was afraid of the dark.”

In children’s books, characters don’t need a moral shortcoming. (In other words, a child character doesn’t have to be treating anyone else badly in order for us to find them a sufficiently interesting and engaging character.) This boy is the Every Child.


On the first page we can see what Laszlo desires: He is playing with his toy cars in peace and solitude on the floor, so he obviously wants to continue doing that without being afraid of anything.


The Dark. “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo”. Normally the opponent has to be another human or monster, but here the dark is personified, and might as well be a monster: ‘Sometimes the dark hid in the cupboard’. Daniel Handler spends quite a bit of time describing this monster and what it does.


Lazlo’s trick for keeping the dark out of his bedroom is saying hello to it during the day.

Until the phrase ‘But one night’ the entire book is written in the iterative. Now we see the switch to the singulative.

lazlo's bedroom

Big Struggle

But when the bulb on the night-light burns out (we assume at this point), the dark does come into his room. The dark challenges Laszlo to visit it in the basement, which requires a scary trip down several flights of stairs. (Why he doesn’t just turn that torch on and use it as his night-light I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s a possibility, though I have to admit it bothers me some — I think it’s a minor shortcoming in the plot.)


Laszlo’s anagnorisis comes in the form of a lecture, delivered by the author, meant for the young reader. There’s a very Roald Dahl feel to it, because Dahl used to do the same thing (for example in The Twits, when the reader gets a — rather hypocritical — lecture about not judging people based on what they look like):

The Twits beauty

In The Dark we have:

You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.

Young readers are then told that every scary thing with dark insides is actually necessary and useful and, ‘without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb’, which is of course the far more humorous thing to say rather than, ‘without the dark you wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep’, and is very Daniel Handler.

We assume Laszlo has achieved this revelation on his own without the help of a narrator, and now the open drawer in the basement looks like a smiling face. He has realised there is nothing at all to be afraid of.

The dark can be kind, helpful even.

The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, shows us the dark through Lazlo’s eyes, which at first is scary and menacing. But through the shadowy illustrations and the lovely one page monologue in the middle of the book, we realize that we need the dark, and by the end, we fall in love with the dark’s generosity.

Nerdy Book Club
New Situation

‘The dark kept on living with Laszlo but it never bothered him again.’

We even have the very same image bookending the story — the one where he’s playing with his toys on the floor. But this time the sun is in a slightly different place and Laszlo doesn’t look worried. Also, he no longer feels the need to carry a torch everywhere. This small detail shows that he has now overcome his fear of darkness.



Darkness is of course symbolic throughout the history of literature and folkore and everything that came before. Below is a  beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates:

The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports—silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?

from We Were The Mulvaneys

Fear of the dark is at its peak in early childhood, between the time we first learn of the daily dichotomy and the age at which we can logically comfort ourselves that the dark is simply the absence of light; no more, no less.

It’s that in-between period of literature that seeks to reassure rather than scare. There are no monsters here; just nothingness.

The House

As far as picture book houses go, this is a castle rather than an inviting, warm home. The floors are bare. Hard surfaces everywhere. It’s the oneiric house of Gaston Bachelard’s dreams (The Poetics of Space). Of course a house like this needs a cellar. A story like this needs a cellar, because cellars are always dark. From other stories we have learnt to be afraid of cellars — murders and criminals and all sorts can be found in a cellar, or at least suspected, and even when you take a torch down there, the place is still cast mainly in shadow.

(Interestingly, my version reads ‘flights of stairs’ rather than ‘sets of stairs’. Flights definitely feels nicer to me. Is ‘sets of stairs’ an Americanism?)

the dark house

The way Jon Klassen divides his interiors into shapes and segments reminds me of some illustrations from the 1960s. Klassen uses shadow to create an extra layer of shapes, but the basic bones are somewhat similar.

Fairyland Annual 1969 Stories By Joan Fisher, Illustrations By Hutchings, 1968


Illustrators have many different ways of illustrating the dark. For other examples, see my post Illustrating The Dark.


Many modern books include plenty of white space — white is the neutral choice. But where black is chosen as a fill, the effect is dramatic. Here, of course, the black simply equals darkness. These areas of flat blackness emphasise the geometry of the pages. Here we have a rectangle and a couple of triangles, formed by the light from the torch. The triangles themselves almost form a monster’s mouth, with the bed-end resembling a grille of teeth. The effect of these strong, geometrical shapes is to complement the ‘cold windows’ and hard surfaces of this huge, unwelcoming house, which in real life might be nothing of the sort; this is the dream house of a little boy, and when you’re little, your house always seems much bigger in your mind.


This kind of geometry really is well-suited to the horror genre in general.

by Levente Szabó
alternative film poster by Levente Szabó
The Beat Interrogation, 87th Precinct (1962) Edd Ashe reminiscent of The Dark Jon Klassen
The Beat Interrogation, 87th Precinct (1962) Edd Ashe reminiscent of The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen

The verso image below includes a couple of interesting shadow. We can’t see what is casting the shadow in the foreground. Likewise, we don’t know exactly where that rectangle of light is coming from down the hallway. (We do know it’s from Lazlo’s bedroom, but we can’t see the bedroom.) All of this ‘off-the-page’ lighting lets us into Lazlo’s fear.

the dark hi he would say


It creeps all over the house.

I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.

The above is an excerpt from the feminist short story from 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gillman inverted the usual trope of the dark, gothic house and applied horror symbolism to yellow, a colour most often associated with sunshine and happiness. The attic at the top of this particular haunted house is an example of a well-lit room, which is quite unusual in horror. Then again, the author isn’t writing a straight horror story; she is writing an allegory for postpartum depression, pointing out how horrifying the condition can feel when you’re in it. She’s inverting the very hauntedness of the house, saying it’s not the house that’s haunted at all; it’s the people inside the house.


A Brief History Of Home Lighting

Night and Dark Symbolism

An ignominious and unexpected burden to his family, Paddy, as [Lafcadio Hearne] was then known, was reared in the prosperous Dublin home of his great-aunt Sarah. “His mind,” in the words of one of his biographers, was “dominated by horror from an early age.” He had a crippling fear of the dark, which was treated by putting him to bed every night in a pitch-dark room that was locked from the outside. 

Why Lafcadio Hearn’s Ghost Stories Still Haunt Us
Frances Tipton Hunter (September 1, 1896 – March 3, 1957) An ad for Eveready Batteries in the October 1933 edition of Country Gentleman Magazine
Frances Tipton Hunter (September 1, 1896 – March 3, 1957) An ad for Eveready Batteries in the October 1933 edition of Country Gentleman Magazine

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