The fishbowl is a common symbol of surveillance, as is a glass house. For house cats, the fish bowl is a miniature version of the pond or lake — domestic version.
Brigid Lucy tries to be good, but it doesn’t always work. This could be due to the invisible imp hiding in her hair. When Biddy’s pet slug dies in tragic circumstances, Dad promises to buy her a new pet. But Dad is allergic to almost every pet in the shop! Things get even worse when the invisible imp in Biddy’s hair decides to get involved. She can’t help but encourage Biddy into trouble.
When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.
It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.
The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?
Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom – the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it – somehow.
Header painting: George Dunlop Leslie – The Goldfish Seller
Tad (2019) is a picture book written and illustrated by Benji Davies. This is an especially good mentor text for illustrators because I’ve never seen a better example of a fairly muted colour scheme that suddenly pops after the page turn at the end. I literally said, “Wow!”Continue reading “Tad by Benji Davies”
The Nightfish is an Australian picture book written and illustrated by Helen McCosker. Published in 2006, this children’s story makes a good counterpoint to There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984). In Margaret Wild’s 1984 story, a boy takes a shell home with him from the beach and — as a child of the eighties I can tell you — no one thought twice about taking souvenirs from nature.
Our current generation of children are more environmentally aware. Now they have at least bumped up against the idea of ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. This change of societal attitude is reflected in their picture books: If you take something from nature you must return it, otherwise you’ll upset the environmental balance and all hell will break loose.
SETTING OF THE NIGHTFISH
The setting of this picture book is an interesting mixture of cosy and scary. The little fishing village, nestled at the end of a bay, is cosy. The off-kilter perspective can go either way in illustrations, seeming either childlike or scary, depending on context. The colour palette of purples juxtaposed against orange hues reflects that mixture of cosy versus scary.
Unlike Margaret Wild’s There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea, or The Sailor Dog, The Nightfish uses the depths of the ocean as an arena rather than sticking to the surface, which in many stories might equally be a flat plain of earth.
A note at the back of the book explains to fans of mimesis that the author/illustrator has taken liberties in creating her fish, which is based on the baby angler fish, usually found in far deeper waters, and here called a ‘nightfish’ rather than a ‘lightfish’. This is an interesting thing to do if your fantasy elements are a not so far removed from reality that a reader might think, “Hang on, that’s not right!” Do as you wish for the purposes of story and add a disclaimer. Simples.
This setting could easily be anywhere, but Helen McCosker has gone out of her way to make it Australian by repetition of the particularly Australian exclamation of surprise, “Hooley dooley!“
Helen McCosker is also making use of the miniature in storytelling, though it’s subtle. The boy is introduced in the first line as Adrian Nicholas Timms, but on page two his name has been shortened to ‘Ant’ — ants are tiny, living vulnerably in a much bigger world than they’d realise. Our main character is therefore also tiny, depicted as such on the establishing two-page spread, but also in relation to the vast depths of ocean, hinted at throughout the arena of this particular story.
Helen McCosker depicts the night as a magical, sparkly sort of place, and it is until Ant does something he shouldn’t. I’m always interested in how illustrators depict the night-time, because if we depicted night as it really is, no one would see anything much. There’s a wide variety of palettes you can use to illustrate the dark.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE NIGHTFISH
Ant’s shortcoming is that he doesn’t understand what he is taking.
He wants to collect something to keep in his own room, as a pet for himself. But he doesn’t realise the creature has its own social connections.
Ant’s opponents are the scary deep sea creatures who come to collect their baby.
Ant doesn’t have a plan, except to keep a hold of the fish. In stories like this, the opponent must have the plan. The fish tell Ant to give their baby back, and when he doesn’t…
Twice, the fish wreak havoc on the village, taking first the lesser sources of light, then coming back for the main ones (the street lights and lighthouse).
Ant puts two and two together and realises he’d better give the nightfish back. So he does.
This part of the story is truncated. But we can extrapolate: Now that the precious fish has been returned to the sea, the scary, deep sea fish will stop wreaking havoc upon the village.
The most hilarious thing about President Squid is that it is not about President Trump. Well, of course it’s about Trump and all of his kind, but as the author told Betsy Bird in an interview, it was already written and in the publishing pipeline before Trump even began his campaign. Reynolds wrote it around 2013/2014 with an election year book in mind.
Yet you can’t get a book that is MORE about President Trump.
But Aaron Reynolds is very clear in his intention for this book: A conversation starter about what it takes to be a good leader. Not a critique of anyone in particular.
How could he have predicted the future? This book is an excellent example of how the world changing around an author can cast a different light on your work of art… whether you meant it or not.
Reynolds is also keen to keep older readers, grades four and five, reading a lot of picture books. Betsy Bird agrees that the complexity of picture books tends to be higher than the early chapter books. Of course — chapter books are designed for emergent readers, who need help decoding the text. President Squid includes words like ‘unimpressed’, which may not make it into chapter books.
Reynolds has also noticed adults using this book as therapy for themselves, and believes it could easily be catalogued in the self-help section.
My own copy of President Squid was shipped second hand via Thriftbooks from a library in America. It’s a perfect, unread looking hardback copy with a big red stamp which reads ‘DISCARDED’. I have never in my life encountered this before. A brand new, perfect, library-bound children’s book from a popular, funny author… discarded. My hunch is that President Squid is considered too political for the children’s section of a public library and someone complained.
STORY STRUCTURE OF PRESIDENT SQUID
Desire is connected to need: Squid needs to be taken seriously and to wield lots of power.
As you may have noticed, the story opens with a realisation:
I HAVE REALIZED SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT. Something that changes everything! No giant squid has ever been president before!
Which means I will be the first.
Now that has a nice ring to it.
Of course, this is not to be mistaken for the Anagnorisis phase of the story. For starters, that comes in exactly the wrong place.
Don’t you love the ‘ring’ almost-pun? Squid rings… yum.
The desire-line in this book is super strong, which of course makes for a very strong story. In a funny book, hyperbole is king, and so a character who really, really wants something fits the comic tone.
Squid really wants to be president.
After listing five reasons why he would make a most excellent president, Squid demands all hail and listen to him. But no one does. The fish just swim on past. This makes them his opponents.
President Squid’s plan is to list all the reasons he would make a great president. They range from the frivolous to the grandiose. Interestingly, Reynolds lists five reasons, which is like the Rule of Threes only extended. Once he’s listed them, he recaps. He’s trying to persuade the reader as well as himself.
Then he seems to start out on his campaign, which involves going around demanding people listen to him.
The Battle doubles as Squid’s Save The Cat Moment. (He saves a sardine from a clam.) The sardine tells him helping people is very presidential. This leads directly to Squid’s anagnorisis…
Hmm. Being president is more work than I thought.
(OMG, how can you read this and not think of Trump?)
There’s an unintended consequence for Squid, and an unexpected consequence for the reader: Because he helped somebody, everyone starts to think he’d make a great president after all.
Aaron Reynolds is super clear about story structure and underscores the Anagnorisis in case we missed it:
I have realized something very important.
Being president is exhausting.
I do not want to be president.
President Squid ends the same way The Pigeon Wants A Puppy ends (by Mo Willems). The capricious main character who suddenly decided he wanted one thing REAL BAD moves onto the next great love of his life.
Takeaway point: There’s nothing wrong with using the same gag, structured as other authors have structured it. It’s still really hard to come up with the content of that gag, and Aaron Reynolds comes up with the perfect new desire for Squid.
HUMOUR IN PRESIDENT SQUID
As you can see, Reynolds used classic story structure to tell a humorous tale. (This is not ‘comic structure’ — set up followed by gag.)
I am finding The Onion’s taxonomy of jokes incredibly useful when thinking about what makes picture books funny.
First we have IRONY: The reasons Squid gives for why he’d make a great president are a list of all the reasons why he WOULD NOT make a great president at all.
CHARACTER HUMOUR: This works even better when Squid is coded as Trump. Character humour is always better when you recognise ‘the sort of person’ being lampooned. The character humour in this picture book is therefore elevated to parody, and also satire.
HYPERBOLE: Basically essential in funny picture books. Squid doesn’t just want to be president of his class — he wants to be president of everything. Visually, he’s also the biggest squid of them all. When writing humour, exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate. Aaron Reynolds has also exaggerated the story structure itself. The desire is super strong (until it is suddenly, exaggeratedly, not); the anagnorisis arc is underscored. The reasons for being president are laid out clearly and then clearly stated again.
WORDPLAY HUMOUR: Squid uses the word ‘ring’ at the beginning and then at the end without even realising his (adult) audience (at least) thinks of him as food.
MADCAP: The crazy, wacky, silly, nonsensical aspect of humour has been given over to the illustrator, who has made the most of the many-handedness of a Squid. Varon has also exaggerated his body language.
MORE ON SARA VARON’S ILLUSTRATIONS
President Squid is illustrated in cartoony style, with outlines and flat colour fill. It can be difficult for an illustrator to stand out as unique with this kind of art, since it’s a pretty common, comic book style. But Varon’s illustrations do stand out as specifically hers.
- She’s used a pastelly palette for everything… except President Squid, who is chartreuse pink. If I’ve learnt one thing about colour it is this — an illustrator can use any palette they like, so long as it fits the story. The science of colour still applies, but once you know those rules, go ahead and break them as you see fit. It makes sense that Squid is lurid, against a background of normality. (Again, how can you not think of Trump’s tan?)
- Varon achieves aerial perspective by outlining foreground objects/characters in black, and background objects/characters in a darker shade of the main colour. You can see something similar done in Peppa Pig as well, though in Peppa Pig the foreground is outlined and the background not outlined at all. For more on how illustrators depict aerial perspective, see this post.
WRITE YOUR OWN
- The main character must really, really want the thing.
- The desire comes on suddenly after a false epiphany or encounter with the thing.
- The opposition is that the world does not want them to have this thing.
- The character basically lists reasons why they want this thing. That’s the main bulk of the story. These reasons are ironically wrong.
- The anagnorisis is that they don’t want that thing after all because they realise it is too much work. This character is inherently a shirker. The thing they have realised is true about that thing, in the real world.
- The joke is that they don’t realise something about themselves. Instead of taking a moment to reflect, they move on to the next totally inappropriate thing.
Do you like the idea of river fishing, without the annoying realities? One option is an afternoon plumped in front of Deliverance, starring the late Burt Reynolds. Another option is Annie Proulx’s short story “The Wer-Trout”, included in her Heart Songs collection of the late 1990s, though first published 1982. You won’t know what to expect from this one, as Proulx’s short stories can be darkly humorous or downright dark, and you might think you’re in for a Wallace and Gromit Wer-Rabbit experience. Be forewarned, this is one of the dark ones, with a little humour to make it even darker.
I’m also reminded of The Homesman, with the psychotic episode of a woman who’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with no social support (and past the point where she can seek it out herself). I’m reminded also a short story by Keri Hulme from her Te Kaihau collection, “King Bait“, which is more clearly magical realism. The magical realism in Proulx’s story could be interpreted as character invention, or part of a tall tale. The tall tale is a strong part of masculine, living-in-the-wild tradition — that’s probably where the genre was birthed.
This story is written in present tense. An interesting exercise is to look at why Proulx wrote some of these stories in past tense and a few in present. I believe it’s because “The Wer-Trout” has an element of build-up, as in a traditional supernatural tale, and the present tense is good for maintaining a suspenseful tone.
“The Wer-Trout” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re writing:
- Two characters (or couples) living different but parallel lives
- Creating suspenseful atmosphere
- Writing a story with magical realism elements but which is nevertheless grounded in realism
- Writing a character who is living in denial, pretending he doesn’t care, when his Anagnorisis is that he actually does.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WER-TROUT”
[Rivers] has left the city to open The March Brown, a failing shop [WEAKNESS] stocked with “custom-tied flies, antique rods, imported English creels and old fishing prints, his books of Chinese poetry”. At the beginning of the story his wife leaves him [ROMANTIC OPPONENT], her exit precipitated when the woman who lives in the trailer up the road drives through their garden and mows down their little apple tree. Rivers tells himself he does not care about his wife’s departure [MISIDENTIFIED DESIRE], finding peace in his Chinese poetry and the ambiance of his empty shop: “He has found a way to cure himself of all suffering and worry by memorizing ancient Chinese poems and casting artificial flies in moving water. He is solaced by the faint parallels between his own perception of events and those of the string-bearded scholars of the Tang, enjoying, as he does, a sad peace at the sight of feathered ephemera balanced on the dark-flowing river.” Realizing that all his ambition is gone, he “doesn’t know if this is contentment or deadly inertia.”Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
THE TWO-SIDED NATURE OF REPOSE
This paradox around inertia/idleness/relaxing seems to be at the heart of the themes in this story. Others have noticed the same thing, in which the concept of repose forms a kind of contronym:
When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break.
As busy as we think we are today, people were complaining about business back in 1982. Traditionally, the rural life is considered the arena of relaxation (symbolised by all the hobby equipment Rivers sells in his shop), whereas city life is considered the arena of work and productivity. While this distinction has its problems (farming and rural shopkeeping requires many hours’ labour, though they may be lower in stress), the idle/busy distinction is nevertheless a distinction maintained in city minds. I believe Proulx is encouraging us to examine that part of our rural idyllic collective imagination. She makes sure to tell us that Sauvage works very long hours, lingering on descriptions of how his headlights look as he leaves in darkness and comes home in equal darkness.
On the same day Rivers’s neighbour, Sauvage, the husband of the woman who smashed the apple tree [PROXY OPPONENT], comes home to discover his wife eating a mouse. Because she has thrown their telephone in a sink full of hot water, Sauvage rushes to River to call an ambulance to take her to a mental hospital.
Visiting Rivers’s shop the next day, Sauvage proposes a fishing trip to the Yellow Bogs in the north-country swamps, a place he has heard about from his French Canadian grandfather, who spoke of the huge brook trout to be found there. The two men set out on their adventure, which reads like a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925, in which Nick Adams gains a measure of psychological renewal after the trauma of the First World War.
On the trip Rivers plunges into a fantasy world of his own making. An alcoholic who has not had a drink in six years, he begins drinking heavily. While fishing apart from sauvage, he takes off all his clothes except his boots, wades into the water, and fishes with his shirt wrapped around his head as protection against black flies. After he dresses and returns to camp, Sauvage, who has seen him through the fog but not recognized him, says there is another, crazy fisherman in the bogs. Thinking to scare Sauvage [PLAN], Rivers tells him he saw the Wer-Trout (man-trout), a being with a man’s body and a trout’s head, who goes after fishermen who catch female trout. “That’s how come our wives are gone,” Rivers adds. “In the daytime when we weren’t there the Wer-Trout came around …. and scared them away”. Sauvage laughs off Rivers’s story [BIG STRUGGLE], but later, alone in his tent, Rivers pulls out his last bottle of whisky and sees his face distorted in the curve of the glass, “the chinless thorat, the pale snout, the vacant rusted eyes of the Wer-Trout”. Having become a grotesque embodiment of all the pain he has sought to avoid, he finally glimpses his own culpability [ANAGNORISIS] in the failure of his marriage.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
I feel this is a commentary on masculine communication, or lack thereof. Annie Proulx really does seem to be a part of this culture, though gendered female in life. It’s quite amazing. In any case, it seems that, aided by alcohol, Rivers would like to open up about the situation with their wives, rather that this displacement activity of fishing. But Sauvage isn’t having any of it. He’s a rough, manly man who goes into nature to escape his domestic problems, not to indulge in them. He retreats into his own tent, angry with Rivers for bringing his wife up in the context of a joke.
THE WOMEN OF “THE WER-TROUT”
The women are unnamed archetypes. Sauvage’s wife is described like a modern (Greek) Gorgon — a woman with hair made of living, venomous snakes. Her eyes turn men into stone.
Rivers has noticed the wife driving the Jeep up from the mailbox at the base of the mountain, her animal-brown hair long and tangled, shooting away from her head like dark, charged wires, her beaked nose, bloodless lips, black eyes like wet stones.
But in this story, Rivers sees the woman as a crow. Later she will mow down his apple tree with her wagon. Crows are known to feed on apples if you don’t put bird nets on them.
The wives are linked — whereas Sauvage’s wife is compared to a crow, Rivers’ wife likes to embroider birds. By linking the wives, Proulx also links the husbands. She’s creating two couples living in parallel.
SETTING OF “THE WER-TROUT”
As she always does, Proulx makes a strong connection between character and environment. Characters who can’t cope with the harsh environment are spat out:
In “The Wer-Trout”, Sauvage’s wife seems unhinged by living in a trailer in an isolated spot “at the base of the mountain,” and Sauvage returns home one day to find her eating a mouse; she is hospitalized. Thus the decay Proulx identifies encompasses not just the effect of climate on manmade structures, but also the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of individual characters.The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
The weather is especially important to a story set in Northern Vermont:
The stories in Proulx’s Heart Songs suggest that newcomers to northern Vermont will be unable to cope with the weather and this factors in their decisions to live. […] In “The Wer-Trout”, Rivers’s wife leave him during the late wet spring to return to the city, sick of living “on a back road where tongue-tied, hostile natives squat in claptrap trailers.” It would seem these transplants, in addition to their personal problems, cannot manage the severity and monotony of the northern Vermont climate, and since they have the means to leave, they do.The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
Annie Proulx likes to use unabashedly symbolic names. She uses them here for the two main characters.
Because of Dior’s marketing, I’m familiar with Sauvage from this:
Which frankly was crying out for this modification on billboards:
ESPECIALLY since the name is meant to be so evocative of manliness. In English it’s also a common wine term:
Sauvage is a French term meaning “wild” or “natural.” There are three things it might refer to. First, when appearing in a tasting note, it might mean gamy, earthy or forest floor flavours. Second, it might reference a wine that was fermented with wild or indigenous yeasts. Finally, I’ve also seen it refer to a sparkling wine, to indicate that no dosage (a sweet syrup added just before bottling) has been added, making it very dry, even drier than a brut sparkling wine.Dr. Vinny
Then there’s Rivers, who is has chosen for himself an equally symbolic name as his French-Canadian neighbour. His father’s name was Riverso, meaning “Misfortune, Reverse, Wrong Side”. I have a similar family name — it started out as Eustace (in French) but was shortened to Stace at some point, probably because it was being shortened naturally anyway, but also perhaps because it rhymes with English ‘useless’.
What’s the new thing Annie Proulx has done with the river and symbolism in this story? It’s authentic genius. I believe Proulx’s rivers can always be tied to the fatalistic nature of life — plonk certain archetypes in a certain environment and just see what always happens. But rivers also contain a paradox — they are slow in some places, fast in others. Moreover, we tend to sit by rivers, watching them move past us — this effect is seen no more clearly than when river fishing. The moving nature of the river underscores our fixed position beside it. This ties back to the dual nature of repose — sitting by the river fishing can be considered a fun pastime, but that kind of idle repose can equally be a torture, as it turns out in this story. Quietude is what drove the women away.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WER-TROUT”
Two men are in superficial, dick-waving conflict with each other, but this stands as proxy for another kind of deeper conflict: concerning that of their respective wives, who aren’t there to catch it.
This is the story of two men, but for storytelling purposes they are one and the same man.
They are unable to communicate well, but despite their wish for a solitary rural life, they do need company. They will try to find it in each other.
Rivers is never a sympathetic character. He has his sights set on ‘something more’ with the woman next door (presumably at least 20 years younger). He makes a rude gesture when she doesn’t wave, though he waits until she looks away before making it. Yet we do feel some sympathy for him. It’s not a good feeling to constantly be ignored by a neighbour, especially when you’ve moved somewhere to enjoy a rural lifestyle, with thoughts of making friends with your neighbours.
Overall, Rivers and Sauvage want to live in rural Vermont and lead quiet, happy lives with the love of their lives. That’s the long-term desire underpinning everything, but that’s far too broad for the purposes of a short story.
In this particular short story, two men want to find company in each other to paper over the fact that their wives are gone. They think a fishing trip would be good for this purpose.
Because they’re both telling themselves that it’s the act of fishing that’s the real thing they want, they head off on a quest for a really big fish, part of folklore. But the quest for the massive trout is a conscious desire.
The opposition web involves men and their wives, then each other, as they try to clumsily find solace in each other’s company.
Of course, they are each their own worst enemies as well — Sauvage because he’s not able to communicate with another man, and Rivers because of that and also because he mistakenly thinks alcohol will help him in that regard. It’s significant that these men are neighbours — the geographical proximity tends to highlight to the reader their similar (parallel) lives. Like the four men in Deliverance, or each character in Winnie-the-Pooh, each of these characters represents a different aspect in men in general.
Sauvage suggests the fishing trip, so they prepare for the trip and go.
Change of plan — they’re not getting on very well so they split up.
Further change of plan — Rivers wants to antagonise Sauvage and when he sees the opportunity he pounces.
The Battle is the naked-man conversation between Rivers and Sauvage, in which Sauvage won’t talk about his wife, or engage in Rivers’ churlish attempts to talk about it, and retreats inside his tent.
This part of narrative structure is often emphasised in a short story, and “The Wer-Trout” is a good example of a short story in which the Anagnorisis is the main point.
By placing the mouse in the pan, Rivers tips over into seeing himself as a horrible person. But we deduce this is the end of a long line of wrongs. Those wrongs are left off the page, but we’ve had enough snippets of conversation between Rivers and his wife to guess that he’s put his needs above hers. It’s masterful that Proulx leaves this off the page. I did get the sense, reading the wife’s dialogue that there’s nothing unusual in the reasons for his wife’s leaving — that’s why it’s not the main part of the story. A wife leaving a husband because she can’t cope with rural life is a story that feels done before. So instead the writer has focused on the Anagnorisis phase of the story.
There’s an extrapolated ending, in which we know what’s going to happen without it being on the page. (The words end at the Anagnorisis, which can make short stories seem a bit perplexing to the uninitiated.)
Rivers won’t let Sauvage away with his attempt at escaping difficult conversation, and mean-spiritedly places a dead mouse in Sauvage’s pan for him to find later. The reader knows that of course Sauvage will be reminded of his wife’s psychotic episode when he sees this. It will ruin the trip for him, and possibly ruin future trips. It will certainly cement the rift between neighbours who might otherwise find solace in each other.
To tie up the conscious desire of catching the delicious trout, Sauvage has success (because he’s not drunk) but this story is still a tragedy for him, because he doesn’t get what he needs — someone to provide emotional support in a difficult time. He probably thought Rivers was going to be a sage father figure, especially after Rivers did him the courtesy of leaving him to use the phone in peace, but drunk Rivers is quite a different character.
The story of Helen Palmer is — from the outside, certainly — a sad one.
Helen is ‘the woman behind the man’ in the Dr Seuss duo. It was Helen who encouraged her husband Theo to start writing picture books.
When the marriage ended and Theo embarked upon a second relationship, Helen suicided. It would be nice to think that her separation from Theo had nothing to do with it, because had been dealing with cancer for a long time. But the truth is, she left a note. So we know that had almost everything to do with the timing of it.
Helen was a much better editor than she was a writer, which I’d like to emphasise is no small skill in itself. (Roald Dahl’s editors, for example, had a MUCH bigger hand in making him look great than most people realise.)
The book A Fish Out Of Water is a story that Theo cast aside. He didn’t think it worked. Helen disagreed and made sure it was seen by the world. It’s still reasonably easy to get a hold of. I somehow ended up with two secondhand copies on my bookshelf, for instance. This is possibly a sign that it’s a picture book people decide not to keep.
If this had Dr Seuss’s name on the cover I would certainly agree that this is not him at his finest. I agree with him that it doesn’t work. Let’s take a closer look to try and find out precisely why it doesn’t work, and why Helen thought it still had merit.
The illustrations, by P.D. Eastman are as attractive as those done by Theo himself, if without the distinctive colour palette, so it must have something to do with the text or the plot. First, the plot:
A boy needs something to nurture and he is the sort of kid who does what he’s told not to do.
He needs to learn to be obedient.
A boy wants a goldfish. Not only that, he wants to nurture the fish.
So far so good. This is all established on the first couple of pages.
This is a carnivalesque story, so the opponents are the circumstances themselves. The fish getting huge.
Again, so far, so good. It’s common and usually very successful to write a children’s book about something either very big or very small. The young reader enjoys seeing this fish getting bigger and bigger, and can probably predict that it will end up in the swimming pool, or perhaps the ocean.
Unfortunately this is where the plot starts to unravel. The boy can’t solve this on his own — first he calls the police. This is kind of comical in itself because the police are depicted as being right on the end of the phone waiting for his call, and it is clear that they deal with the overfeeding of giant fish on a regular basis.
The problem with putting the fish into the pool is that the swimmers don’t like it, so the boy’s plan changes and he is forced to call the man who sold him the fish.
It’s never ideal to have adults step in and save the day. Not in a children’s book. Even if an adult technically saves the day, the child hero must show more initiative.
The ‘big struggle’ in a carnivalesque book is a sequence of increasingly dire situations, and these keep going until the writer’s imagination is at a limit. Preferably, in the most successful stories of this type, the writer is able to go one or two steps further than the reader’s imagination. A great example of this is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more could happen, it does. This is where the surprise comes in, and carnivalesque stories in particular are all about fun and surprise.
There is no surprise here. All of us could imagine a giant fish being taken to the town swimming pool, and in fact I expected the fish to end up in the ocean.
The big struggle sequence does not surprise us enough.
This is where the book really fails.
The writer cheats. We see the fish seller dive into the pool and do something to the fish. The fish becomes small again. The boy (and reader) is told to not ask what was done.
This is the wrong way of using magic in stories. The audience must know the basic rules of the magic even though magic, by its very nature, is mysterious.
The boy takes the fish back home and will never feed it too much again.
In the end, this is a moralistic tale about the common childhood tendency to overfeed fish in bowls.
The scansion and rhyme of this story is not up to the same standard as Theo’s other books. This is clear from the very first page:
“This little fish,”
I said to Mr Carp,
“I want him.
I like him.
And he likes me.
I will call him Otto.”
Reading that, you get the feeling it should rhyme but doesn’t quite. Overleaf, we do have some rhyme:
“When you feed a fish,
never feed him a lot.
So much and no more!
Never more than a spot!
This is why, when writing a picture book, decide whether you want it to rhyme or not and then stick with your decision.
In conclusion, Theodor Geisel put this book aside for good reason. But I’m glad it exists, as a lesson in what doesn’t work, and also to know that even the masters like Dr Seuss didn’t write a winner every single time.
This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen shows that toddlers can cope with the horror genre.
“Jon Klassen’s darkly humorous illustrations are a joy to behold. Deceptively simplistic, the expressions and events that he captures, which range from the sublime to the sinister, are utterly wonderful.”The CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal judges’ commentary
Someone on Goodreads called this a “hard-boiled crime thrillers for toddlers”. This is fairly apt description! Below I will refer to a number of 1 and 2 star reviews of this book on Goodreads, because these reviewers say something interesting about what adults think is good for children, and what should be kept from them. Committees who award big prizes are a lot less conservative than many book buyers, but I fear it’s the book buyers who drive the market.
PLOT OF “THIS IS NOT MY HAT”
A little fish steals the hat of a big fish when big fish is napping. Little fish thinks he has got away with it. He plans to hide in the reeds. Unfortunately for little fish, the big fish works out exactly what has happened and finds him in the reeds. The reader never knows how it ends exactly, but I figure the big fish eats the little fish up.
It’s interesting to read the 1 and 2 star reviews of this book on Goodreads, because there you will find parents who don’t approve of such morbid tales for children:
But who would I recommend this for? For a “scared straight” morality tale about the wrongness of stealing? I don’t feel like traumatizing children.2 Star Review
Others take issue with the message it sends to kids:
In this book, a small fish steals a hat from a big fish and, although he knows it is wrong, thinks he can get away with it. What kind of message does this send to kids? It’s ok to steal if you don’t get caught! There is a conscience though. The big fish EATS the little fish and gets his hat back! What message does that send? If you steal something from someone the person has a right to kill you?
– 1 Star Review
Stealing is ok——I think not! This is NOT a book to be shared with anyone other than the trash! How very sad the committee accepts and medals a thief! The insanity must stop somewhere. This storyline is NOT ok! Perhaps some will try to explain the parameters of the medal again to me. I know the parameters – I don’t know why the committee would choose this book knowing full well many people will purchase it just because it is a winner.
– 1 Star Review
Any book that engenders such strong reactions in parents must be a good one, in my view.
– 1 Star Review
From Klassen himself:
The bear [from I Want My Hat Back] can’t talk to the rabbit and can’t reason with him. So the only thing he can think of doing is to eat him. I’m not endorsing it but it’s what you can feel like doing! I like the fact that the hat abstracts the idea. The object doesn’t need to be a hat, it could be anything. We just need a motor for the story. In This Is Not My Hat, the morality is slightly more overt because the fish states his case: ‘I know it’s wrong to take the hat but I’m going to do it anyway.’ You don’t know whether you’re supposed to be rooting for him or not. The reader has been with him all the time and that’s a more complicated emotional scenario: are you going to feel bad when or if he’s caught?
I think the book does have certain ideas about morality but not ones that the characters are necessarily aware of. As the reader, you’re part of that process. When I was little, I didn’t need books to name those lessons so I don’t use a narrator or a verb like ‘she whispered’ or ‘she said angrily’. It frees things up and you have to look to the pictures and the font colours for emotions. … But this is a hard argument to make, especially in the United States, where they think that if it happens in a book, then the author has endorsed what goes on there.Jon Klassen’s Visual Narratives
WONDERFULNESS OF THIS IS NOT MY HAT
I love the voice. There is nothing adult about it whatsoever. This is the voice of a naive youngster. The little fish speaks directly to the reader — the reader is in on a big secret. The little fish’s conscience eventually kicks in. He knows it’s wrong to steal someone’s hat but he justifies it to himself. (Non sociopathic) readers will be familiar with this kind of stream of consciousness and will identify with the little fish. But we identify equally with the big fish, who has had something stolen, after all. Modern picturebooks are devoid of moralising, and this voice is a wonderful example of such a tone.
It is difficult to pull off an ambiguous ending in a picture book simply because there are so many readers out there who won’t stand for it. I admit looking and looking into the reeds trying to find where the little fish was still hiding and, you know what? He’s definitely not there. He’s either too scared to come out or he’s been eaten. When I asked my daughter what had happened to the little fish she said, ‘Dunno’ and at first I thought it was because she hadn’t engaged with the story and didn’t care, but she rushed off and wrote her own picture book, which just happened to star a big fish, so this book definitely resonated with my six-year-old.
The thing about humour is, it will never catch everyone. Kirkus described Klassen’s earlier book I Want My Hat Back as ‘cynical on wry’ and this one could be described that way also. One thing that almost always works to get little kids laughing is incongruity: Mum wearing Dad’s shoes, dogs smoking pipes, that kind of thing. Klassen makes use of incongruous humour here, too, not only with a fish wearing a hat (haha) but with a huge fish wearing a little hat that’s obviously not for him. In my mind, this big fish has already stolen the hat from a much smaller fish. This is a wry comment on the food chain which parents can shield from children as long as they like, but they’ll never shelter them from it completely.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THIS IS NOT MY HAT
This is a minimalist picture book, not only minimalist in words but in illustration:
A few consumers don’t like such minimalist books:
The story is really simplistic, even for a picture book.1 Star Review
This Is Not My Hat stands out from a lot of other picture books because the background is black instead of white. (Six Feet Under flipped this same expectation by making use of fade to whites instead of fade to blacks.) How many illustrators would have even considered using a black background when the story is set underwater? Jon Klassen’s colour palette is as much a part of his distinctive style than anything else, and I suspect he is now going to stick to blacks and ochres. The shapes are wonderfully textured, with splatters and watercolour washes (which could just as well be acrylic or gouache for all I know).
(How else does this book feel minimalist? There’s minimal punctuation, also. Klassen explains that this was very much a deliberate choice:
It’s all about context. There doesn’t need to be exclamation marks. Let the pacing do the work.)
When personifying animal characters, illustrators very often put eyebrows on animals who don’t normally have eyebrows, because it’s difficult to convey the full range of human emotion without them. This big fish doesn’t have eyebrows – he has 4 different, very simple drawings:
- Asleep eye
- Open eye
- Open eye looking up
- Squinty, suspicious eye
Nothing else about the picture changes — these eyes say everything. Of his earlier book I Want My Hat Back, Klassen articulates the reasons for his design choice when it comes to animal expression:
The characters’ expressions barely change with just some movement of their eyes. If the rabbit is too characterised, then he becomes too cute. If he shows no reaction, then it’s okay to want consequences for him. When you’re a kid and you’re being picked on, this is the big question: what do you do when you actually find the person who’s done something wrong to you and they’re indifferent? Amoral. They’re blank.Jon Klassen’s Visual Narratives
Irony in picture books is often achieved when the pictures say something different from the words. This book is a perfect example of that. The reader knows the big fish understands what has happened, but the words come from the little fish’s stream of consciousness, and are in complete contradiction to the reality of the story. This serves to amp up the drama. The young reader knows what’s going to happen to the little fish. The ending is both satisfying and surprising, if only because we don’t often see death at the conclusion of humorous picture books starring personified animals.
STORY SPECS OF THIS IS NOT MY HAT
Pictures have a black background, so on most the text is laid over a white band at the top.
Landscape shaped book.
Marketed at level K-3
The Candlewick edition is 36 pages.
The FollettBound edition is 32 pages.
Deep in the sea there lives a happy school of little fish. Their watery world is full of wonders, but there is also danger, and the little fish are afraid to come out of hiding . . . until Swimmy comes along. Swimmy shows his friends how—with ingenuity and team work—they can overcome any danger. With its graceful text and stunning artwork, this Caldecott Honor Book deserves a place on every child’s shelf.
Another picture book with a retributive conclusion is The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was None of his Business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch.
Another illustrator with a distinctive colour palette is Nick Sharratt, who works closely with Jacqueline Wilson.
A lot of picture book artists start off as painters, but Sharratt’s style has not evolved from that tradition, and you don’t find subtle references to the world of fine art. He doesn’t go for a painterly look; his pictures are arresting in their almost schematic simplicity, and he favours strong flat colours. He speaks directly to a young audience – his pictures are easy to read and humour is his first concern.Books For Keeps
Jon Klassen’s art background is quite different — he studied animation and has worked as a concept designer in film (notably Coraline). There is definitely a graphic design/fine art feel to Klassen’s art — you could hang these pictures in an upscale restaurant or dining room and they wouldn’t look out of place. What these guys have in common is distinctiveness of style.
Some adults don’t think this art is ‘for children’. Another 1-Star review on Goodreads comments on Klassen’s colour palette, which brings up an interesting expectation among some adults and many children, who have been trained to understanding that most brightly coloured things are designed for them:
I didn’t care for this book at all, and it is not a book that I would read to any children. The pictures were all dark and not very fun colors. Jon was trying to show that it is not okay to steal someone else’s belongings. The thing is, he could have done this by having bright fun colors so children would be more apt to want to read this book.
If you enjoyed the art in This Is Not My Hat, check out artwork by Philip Giordano.