After The Fall by Dan Santat Story Tips

After the Fall cover

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Today as case study let’s look at Dan Santat’s After The Fall, a metaphorical picture book with a very simple storyline and a strong message. Still, this isn’t a didactic (preachy) message. Why not? Because it’s metaphorical. If you have a strong message you sure can put it in your story, but you can’t tell readers directly — you have to allow them to put two and two together. (Hopefully they’ll make four.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF AFTER THE FALL

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The main character is a well-known figure from the world of nursery rhymes. Even if modern kids aren’t being read the classic nursery rhymes (due to there being so many other things to read), Humpty Dumpty will still be familiar because of things like the Shrek franchise.

WHAT DOES HUMPTY DUMPTY WANT?

After The Fall opening page

Have you ever wondered WHY Humpty Dumpty wanted to sit on that wall? I hadn’t. I just figured he liked it up there.

To convert a short nursery rhyme into a full story, Dan Santat had to think a bit deeper. He knew there had to be a reason why Humpty Dumpty was sitting up on that wall. “I loved being close to the birds.” (Read: He wants to be close to birds.)

Heavy symbolism alert: Birds and flight are used often in literature to symbolise freedom (along with other things). Here they symbolise freedom from fears and anxieties. (Read: He wants to be free, like birds.)

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Normally, the general rule is that the main character’s main opponent can’t be themselves. This doesn’t make for a great dramatic arc, mostly. This is true for longer stories.

But it works here for two reasons:

  1. Very short works like picture books can break a few rules because they don’t have the problem of a saggy, boring middle.
  2. Humpty’s anxiety is so strong that it really is a formidable opponent. (I just realised I wrote that sentence as if Anxiety is an opponent in its own right.) Dan Santat has talked widely about the very personal story behind this picture book, like at Publisher’s Weekly.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Humpty’s plan is to avoid the scary thing. That’s pretty common in main characters, especially when those characters are pretty ordinary people just like you and me. They don’t have any reason to believe they can overcome adversity, so they sit around hoping they won’t have to. We can identify with this.

But fictional characters who plan ‘to do nothing and hope it goes away’… well, that NEVER happens.

Otherwise there’s no story. Well, maybe there’s an ironic, shaggy dog kind of a gag:

Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall.

He decided not to sit on walls.

So he didn’t.

The End

(Comedic arc is different from dramatic arc. We’re talking about dramatic arc here, folks.)

Humpty’s world becomes very grey and dull. The supermarket/cereal aisle scene shows that. But Dan Santat doesn’t dwell on that period of Humpty’s life. One double spread is enough to get the message across. Notice how the cereal boxes are bright and colourful, but Humpty’s state of mind makes everything he sees (at his eye level) dull and grey. Even the titles of the cereals look rubbish down low. This totally benign cereal display reminds him of the wall. Ladders, and all that. (Notice he’s looking at the ladder and frowning.) This picture says so much.

After the Fall supermarket page

Next, Humpty catches sight of a paper plane so he decides to make those because it’s kind of like being close to birds again, even though he is anxious about getting paper cuts (and does get paper cuts). This isn’t as good as being up there with the birds, but it’s a little bit like that.

All of this is a way of saying: You might not be able to do the REALLY scary thing, but if you do something a little scary you can build on that and eventually the scary things seem less scary.

BIG BATTLE

The Big Battle for Humpty is when he tackles that wall again. It’s all in the hands — there’s a close up of the hand, reaching up to grasp onto the higher rung.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When he’s up on that wall he realises it’s awesome being with those birds again.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Humpty has overcome his fear of falling from the wall, and feels a huge weight lifted from his life.

Is he up there flying with the birds? There are three small white dots in the sky and any one of them could be Humpty flying.

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

To a modern audience, The Little Match Girl is unbearably tragic. Perhaps, like me, you vividly recall reading your version of this story as a young kid and being profoundly affected. For me, it was probably the first time I considered the possibility of childhood death.

Hans Christian Andersen was commissioned to write a story based on a woodcut. This woodcut illustration was by painter Johan Thomas Lundbye and was of a poor girl selling matches, dressed in rags. It was widely recognised in Denmark at the time and appeared in calendars with a caption encouraging people to give to the poor. Lundbye himself died at the age of 29, during the Three Years War in Denmark but it’s not clear whether he was accidentally shot or whether he took his own life.

STORYWORLD OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL

For the Victorians, child death was all around them. These days when a young life ends we focus on all the years lost. But the Victorian mindset was a little different. Sad as death inevitably still was, the focus was not on the years wasted but on the opportunities presented when one is able to fly up to heaven with their childhood innocence intact.

Alison Lurie writes not of The Little Match Girl but of Peter Pan when she talks about the Victorian ideology of childhood innocence, but it applies equally to the mindset of Hans Christian Andersen:

In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and have superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.

The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappeared in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm that often move the angels to carry them off. But the early death of these children was not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never became adults they would escape worldly sin and suffering; they would remain forever pure and happy.

Don’t Tell The Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature

How do we really know this is set in Victorian times, though? That is the assumption, because Hans Christian Andersen lived during this time, and the sensibilities line up. But this is a more timeless story than that, and others adapting this tale have chosen a variety of different eras and places for the story. Another common era for setting this story is the early 20th century, sometimes in an American city, sometimes in London. Continue reading “The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen”

Storytelling Tips From Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.

Opening scene from Kiki's Delivery Service
Children’s books often begin with a child looking out a window, about to embark upon a journey. Kiki does something similar, but she gazes up into the sky.

BASED ON A POPULAR JAPANESE CHILDREN’S BOOK

Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.

Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.

“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.

STORYWORLD OF KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE

photo of real landscape which inspired Kiki's Delivery Service

location of the inspiration for Kiki's Delivery Service setting
Visby is a town on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its well-preserved town wall, a medieval fortification incorporating defensive towers. The town’s many churches include the grand, centuries-old St. Mary’s Cathedral and the medieval ruins of St. Nicolai and St. Karin. The main square, Stora Torget, has cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants.

Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian storyworld of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.

[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.

Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.

THE TITLE

Kiki's Delivery Service Japanese Book Cover
This early cover gives quite a different feel, doesn’t it?
Kiki's Delivery Service updated Japanese book cover
The series has since been reissued. This is number six. A completely different vibe again, with Kiki now looking coquettishly at the audience in a slightly self-conscious, sexualised pose.

Continue reading “Storytelling Tips From Kiki’s Delivery Service”

Loveykins by Quentin Blake Picture Book

 

The ideology behind Loveykins: Wild creatures, while sometimes requiring some human nurturing if abandoned by their mother as babies, must eventually be returned to the wild.

There is also a message against ‘over-mothering’ in this story. Let wild creatures be wild creatures is a close cousin to ‘let kids be kids’. Another picture book with the same ideology is Lauren Child’s Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t.

You’ll find flying kids and creatures right throughout children’s literature. In this story flight symbolises the most basic of its metaphorical meanings: Freedom. For other symbolic uses for flight, see The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF LOVEYKINS

WEAKNESS/NEED

‘My goodness,’ said Angela. ‘It’s a baby bird blown out of his nest. He needs someone to look after him.’

Anglea Bowling seems to be on the look out for someone to look after. When this happens in a picture book, we tend to assume the weakness in the main character is loneliness. (In real life, there’s no correlation between ‘caring for others’ and a deep seated loneliness.)

DESIRE

Angela Bowning is just out for a walk, but desire kicks in when she comes across the bird fallen from its nest.

When we see how Angela looks after the bird, we see that she has no idea what birds really need. She treats the bird like a pretty ornament rather than like a wild creature.

OPPONENT

Angela is the bird’s opponent as well as his carer. We can tell from the look on his face that he does not want to be wrapped up in a cardy and placed in a basket.

Misery Kathy Bates bbq indoors

PLAN

She feeds the bird delicious food, names him Augustus (which reminds me a lot of Roald Dahl’s over-mothered Augustus Gloop),  puts him in a pram and generally treats him as a toddler. She obviously plans to keep this bird as a child stand-in for herself.

This story has a basic mythic structure — Angela leaves the house and encounters a variety of different characters. They end up back home for the battle…

BATTLE

…which arrives in the form of a storm. Another storm, in fact, reminiscent of the earlier one which happened just before the story opened, the one that initially knocked the bird out of his nest. This storm blows the garden shed to bits and has the unintended consequence of setting the bird free.

Loveykins storm

SELF-REVELATION

Angela faints ‘clean away’ when she sees the shed has been flattened. The bird takes this opportunity to fly off. So the self-revelation is had by the bird.

Loveykins flies away_700x939

Angela comes to eventually and has we see she has realised cacti make more reliable ‘pets’. Angela has filled a new shed with these.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The bird lives like a bird should in the wild and occasionally brings Angela presents in the form of dead mice or beetles. “She never eats them.”

In other words, Angela gave the bird what he needed, but when it was grown he flew off, into the wild, to live as a wild creature should.


COMPARE AND CONTRAST

THE TOYMAKER AND THE BIRD BY PAMELA ALLEN (2009)

The Toymaker And The Bird

In a little house in a dark forest, a toymaker lives all alone.

The Toymaker learns that although he and the little brown bird make enchanting music together, he must let her follow her natural migration patterns and leave him.

Airships And Hot Air Balloons

Flight is highly symbolic in children’s literature. The airship, dirigible or hot air balloon is another means by which writers can take their characters into the sky, varying the topography and the view.

The title of the new Disney/Pixar movie “Up,” as well as its signature image of a house floating beneath thousands of tethered balloons, reminds us how frequently the theme of Lightness appears in children’s literature. From Mary Poppins to Peter Pan, from Tarzan swinging on vines to Harry Potter scooting on his broomstick, children’s stories seem to feature the quick, the lithe and the aerial. Maybe that’s not surprising. While adults seem earthbound, youngsters zoom by on skateboards or jump from heights as caped incarnations of Superman.

Jerry Griswold, Literary Antecedents To The Movie Up

  1. What do you know about airships?
  2. Have you seen airships before, in the sky or in certain types of stories?
  3. What does the presence of an airship add to the feel/mood/setting of a story?

What is an airship?

Airships are also called ‘blimps’ and are seen quite often at sporting events as advertising vessels. Airships are also called ‘dirigibles’.

In fiction, airships are a common sight in alternative superhero depictions of New York. You may recognise the airship from DC’s Batman series.

GCPD_Blimp_far
The GCPD Blimp from Batman

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s most internationally renowned animator of children’s films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro seems to enjoy animating airships in his un-Japanese, European-esque worlds of films such as Castle In The Sky. Steampunk fiction is also a fan of the dirigible.

An airship crashes in Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service
An airship crashes in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service

Airships were once a fairly common sight in Northern skies.

the boy who went magic

The Legacy Of The Hindenburg

The most famous real-life airship is The Hindenburg, which caught alight during an electrical storm while trying to land on May 3, 1937. Due to a limited supply of helium (mainly in America), hydrogen was used to give airships lift. Hydrogen is lighter than air but is highly flammable.

The Hindenburg was a massive airship — perhaps the airship equivalent of The Titanic — affordable only to the super rich, because a one-way ticket from Europe to America cost the equivalent of a car. Flight was brand new to humans, and it’s easy to forget that the passengers had never seen the world from a bird’s eye view before.

“Everybody looks up and they see this graceful, slow moving, big object, and that seems to be something people are just fascinated with.”

– Mark Kynett (Senior pilot, Goodyear Blimp) speaks on the documentary When Weather Changed History: The Hindenburg Disaster.

The fact that documentaries are still being made about this disaster shows that we are still fascinated by airships.

If the Hindenburg disaster had never happened, history would have played out differently. We would be living in a slightly different world as a result. No doubt a Hindenburg-type disaster would have happened at one point or another, but it’s fascinating to consider how the history might be slightly different. Airships are often used in fictional worlds which are basically real, but are slightly off-kilter. The presence of an airship helps to create such a setting.

The Airships In Hilda Bewildered

The Hindenburg was thought to be infallible. The vessel was referred to as “Queen Of The Skies”. This connection to royalty is fascinating because the airship as metaphor for royalty and celebrity is a good one. When common people see celebrity it’s easy to forget that these are human beings who are really not infallible at all. Often, celebrities die younger than they should, in ‘fiery’ events which captures the media’s attention.

The metaphor of height differential and flight is common in fiction. Altitude is also reflected in English idioms. We say ‘rise to the occasion’ or ‘look up to’ someone. In this story, a Princess is aware of the world that surrounds her. She can’t understand why she has been born into royalty when the role could just as easily have been given to some other girl. This doesn’t exactly fill her with confidence, as she prepares to deliver her first significant speech as a princess who has recently come of age. In an attempt to elevate herself in her own mind, she imagines herself on an airship, looking down on the world. Common wisdom about calming nerves before a presentation or speech often includes metaphors of lightness and flying: We are often advised to fill our lungs with air by taking deep breaths. We attempt to ‘rise above it’, to ‘glide’ into a room. We may feel ‘light-headed’. All of this relates to the metaphor of the airship. Princess Hilda’s freckles, which she considers proof of her ordinariness (despite being covered in makeup for the cameras), are now lights on the landscape; freckles make the landscape beautiful and therefore she must be beautiful. Or so she tells herself. By looking down on the landscape from high above, she is also trying to regain perspective on her own place in the world; a speech to open winter (a season which will happen with or without her blessing)seems less significant when she looks down on the world from high above, and realises she is not the center of the universe. There is a whole world besides, and not everyone is listening.

This includes the commuters who dash home to their own houses after a working week. These people are not royalists. They are busy with their own lives, and pay her little heed. It helps the Princess to remember these people. To them, she is invisible.

Because Hilda starts her imaginary journey in an airship, this allows for a dramatic and obvious change in altitude  over the course of the story. After emerging from the underground, Hilda instructs the taxi driver to ‘take the low road’ into the woods, prompting further descent. The imaginary airship sequence is thereby complemented with the alternative trick of spiriting her mind away to a dark basement in an abandoned hotel at the bottom of the deep, dark woods. All the while, Princess Hilda imagines she is not a princess at all — she is just an ordinary girl — an ordinary girl with ‘real problems’ — no loving mother, not enough to eat, no warm clothes, who is on the run from the police, to boot.

The Long-Lost Home

In number six (and final) of the Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place series, the main character is stuck in a Russian village but must make her way home to England. I’m guessing it involves a hot air balloon. Publication due end of 2017.

A miniature air balloon is also used in this episode of  Wallace and Gromit.