Yours by Mary Robison Short Story Analysis

An old crate label for canned pumpkin

“Yours” is a 1982 short story by American writer Mary Robison. The year before The New Yorker published this short story, Robison published a novel called Oh! which was adapted for film in 1989. The film is called Twister. I don’t meant the late 90s blockbuster but a domestic drama set during a cyclone.

Delusional and spoiled Maureen and her eccentric brother Howdy decide to track down and meet their estranged mother, all while the drama of dysfunctional relationships, disastrous weather conditions and a dark family secret ensue.
Delusional and spoiled Maureen and her eccentric brother Howdy decide to track down and meet their estranged mother, all while the drama of dysfunctional relationships, disastrous weather conditions and a dark family secret ensue.

As for “Yours”, this is a very short story, so won’t take long to read. But you’ll probably want to read it again right away. Otherwise you may be left wondering what it’s all about, especially regarding the significance of the pumpkins.

THE PUMPKIN AS SYMBOL AND MOTIF

The pumpkin is clearly a motif. What’s the difference between a symbol and a motif? Symbols are more universal. They tend to stand for the same sorts of things across different stories, and even across time and culture. Motifs work like symbols, standing in for something else, but they are specific to the work of art at hand.

So what do pumpkins symbolise, generally? Hallowe’en, for Americans, and increasingly for the rest of the world. (Here in Australia kids are starting to Trick or Treat, even though Halloween happens in spring.)

Pumpkins are also sometimes a sexual symbol. (What isn’t?)

Sir Nathaniel Bacon Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit c.1620–5
Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit c.1620-5 Sir Nathaniel Bacon
Halloween themed publicity photo featuring actress Anne Nagel
Halloween themed publicity photo featuring actress Anne Nagel

Mary Robison’s short story is set around Hallowe’en, so the story utilises the Hallowe’en pumpkin as part of the plot. But these carved pumpkins are doing more than simply establishing a Hallowe’en setting. Let’s take a closer look.

Continue reading “Yours by Mary Robison Short Story Analysis”

Excess, Hyperbole and Pestilence In Illustration

We love stories of excess. examples of excess and visual hyperbole can be seen all across children’s literature. Literally any item can be turned into a visual gag by creating a large number of it.

In the example below it is mittens.

Too Many Mittens by Florence and Louis Slobodkin (1958)
Too Many Mittens by Florence and Louis Slobodkin (1958). The Hundred Dresses (also illustrated by Slobodkin) also features (supposed) excess.
Continue reading “Excess, Hyperbole and Pestilence In Illustration”

Avocado Baby by John Burningham (1982) Analysis

Avocado Baby (1982) is a picture book written and illustrated by John Burningham. This was my first introduction to John Burningham. Our teacher read it in class. I was about six.

I don’t think I’d ever eaten an avocado at age six, so it functioned as a magical fruit, and didn’t strike me as odd that Burningham refers to them as ‘avocado pears’. I just checked: avocado is not related to the pear. Avocados were sometimes called avocado pears (in England) because of their pear-like shape.

Fruit is prone to changing its name between generations. Where I grew up, in New Zealand, my grandmother always called kiwifruit ‘Chinese gooseberries’. That’s what kiwifruit were called until the fruit marketing board got a hold of them and rebranded the ‘Chinese gooseberry’ for mass export, conveniently linking the furry brown skins with New Zealand’s most famous endangered bird. (Kiwifruit are not related to gooseberries.)

Then, when I left New Zealand, I realised only New Zealanders call kiwifruit ‘kiwifruit’ — the rest of the world shortens to ‘kiwi’, which is unsettling for a New Zealander self-identifying as ‘kiwi’. I am not a fruit!

Continue reading “Avocado Baby by John Burningham (1982) Analysis”

Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown Analysis

Creepy Carrots book cover

Creepy Carrots (2012) is a picture book written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. For anyone wondering how to create a scary book for the very young reader without keeping them awake all night, this book is our masterclass in the horror-comedy blend.

First of all, the story is about carrots — a familiar, everyday food item not typically associated with horror. This story is therefore an inherently funny ironic juxtaposition.

Continue reading “Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown Analysis”

Candy and Sweets in Art and Children’s Stories

Gomi Tarō illustrations food in jars
Eleanor Abbott, a young San Diego school teacher invented Candy Land in 1948 in the midst of a polio epidemic
Eleanor Abbott, a young San Diego school teacher invented Candy Land in 1948 in the midst of a polio epidemic

Sweets and children go hand in hand, especially in non-Western countries, where sweetness is so connected to childhood (and to femininity) that ‘real men’ eschew sweets and instead take up smoking, and probably drinking as well. When I was a teenager, my Japanese host father saw a photo of my Western father eating something sweet and laughed.

Continue reading “Candy and Sweets in Art and Children’s Stories”

Tawny Scrawny Lion (1952) by Jackson and Tenggren

Tenggren, Gustav, Tawny Scrawny Lion by Kathryn Jackson, 1952

Tawny Scrawny Lion is a Little Golden Book first published in 1952, written by Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. The same team worked on The Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947).

The Tawny Scrawny Lion 1952 Gustaf Tenngren
The Tawny Scrawny Lion 1952 Gustaf Tenngren

This picture book is an interesting example indeed, the peak example of how storytellers for children must cast aside certain unpleasant food chain facts when anthropomorphising animals.

Specifically: lions cannot live on carrots. Carrot soup does not provide nearly enough calories required to live as a lion. Even when made with fish, a lion would need a hell of a lot of it.

Nor do rabbits eat fish. The fish in this story are not considered live, empathetic creatures. Unlike the land animals, their eyes are dots. (The lions and rabbits have human-like eyes, with ‘whites’ (yellows) indicating where they are looking.

Why is the tawny lion so scrawny even though he catches everything he chases? There is no realworld biochemical reason. This is classic fairytale physics, in line with the nonscientific cooling rates of the three differently sized bowls of porridge in Goldilocks And The Three Bears.

SETTING OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION

At first I assumed Tawny Scrawny Lion is set in a utopian, picture book jungle, looked harder at the pictures and realised it was probably a savannah, then saw a Golden Book Video Classic called ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’s Jungle Tales’ and realised the setting is meant to be a coded as a jungle. Compared to other picture book jungles, there is comparatively little typical jungle imagery. (Compare to The Saggy, Baggy Elephant, full of classic jungle imagery.)

The social world of Tawny Scrawny Lion starts out more like a real savannah/jungle (where larger carnivores eat smaller ones) and ends in a place completely divorced from a real world place. In any picture book starring animals, those animals will be anthropomorphised to some degree. Normally the storytellers pick a spot on that continuum and stay there, though animals in the same story are frequently positioned at different points on the anthropomorphising continuum.

The rabbits in this particular story are more civilised than the lion, who must become equally anthropomorphised before any of them can live in harmony. (The rabbits have access to bowls, spoons and a cauldron for cooking their carrot soup. They also have access to fishing lines and, most importantly, wear clothes, which are gendered.) Becoming more civilised (more like a human) is the lion’s main character arc. Tawny Scrawny Lion moves from wild animal to gentrified patriarch.

The poor old fish remain as foodstuffs. It’s clearly more difficult for humans to empathise with fish than with land mammals.

Tenggren’s illustrations are appropriately folk arty for this fantasy picture book world, with just the suggestion of savannah, and shapes placed on the page without an attempt at real world perspective.

The implicit ideology is clear; if animals could live more like (vegetarian) humans, the savannah would be a kinder, less brutal place.

This is what dates the book. Mindfully leaving vegetarian ideology aside, we now know how vital large animals are to an ecosystem. Taking wolves as an example, the reestablishment of just one pack of previously eradicatedwolves to an ecosystem can do an amazing amount of good… precisely because they hunt and kill. Lions are equally important.

STORY STRUCTURE OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION

PARATEXT

Tawny Scrawny Lion cover

Once there was a tawny scrawny lion who chased monkeys on Monday—kangaroos on Tuesday—zebras on Wednesday—bears on Thursday—camels on Friday—and on Saturday, elephants!

So begins the funny, classic Golden story of a family of ten fat rabbits that teaches the hungry lion to eat carrot stew—so that he doesn’t eat them!

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

The Tawny Scrawny Lion has a fantasy medical condition where the more animals he catches the scrawnier he becomes.

DESIRE

The lion seems content enough continuing to chase animals, probably never understanding what satiety feels like. The rabbits seem to understand that if they can persuade the lion to eat carrot soup, the benefits will be two-fold: The lion will feel more vigour and the rabbits will have saved all the animals further down the food chain (including themselves) from getting eaten.

OPPONENT

Since lions eat rabbits, they are natural opponents.

PLAN

Though this is left off the page, I imagine a belling the cat scenario in which the rabbits have a meeting, make a plan to invite the lion to change his diet, then invite him around to eat carrot soup.

But we only see the plan being carried out.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Anyone who knows anything about lions will be expecting disaster, but anyone who knows anything about Little Golden Books from the mid 20th century will know that this is a cosy story and the animal characters will be friends by the end.

The prose contains plenty of suspense. When the little rabbit stops to catch some fish ‘this is almost too much for the hungry lion’. The illustrations support the reader’s fear that the lion will lose control and gobble the little rabbits up.

Peak danger: four little rabbits ‘plumped themselves down in the lion’s lap’. Don’t you love the author’s use of ‘plump’? And the illustrator’s depiction of a wide open lion mouth, with those tiny, crazed pupils…

Tawny Scrawny Lion rabbits in lap
Tawny Scrawny Lion with plump rabbits in lap

Turn the page and we learn that the carrot soup has worked as a magic potion to quell the lion of hunger. ‘And somehow, even when it was time to say goodnight, that lion wasn’t one bit hungry!’

ANAGNORISIS

The lion realises he feels much better eating carrot stew, albeit made with fish stock. He will give up hunting and from now on live the more civilised life of a stew eater…

NEW SITUATION

… so long as the rabbits keep making it for him.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

It’s true that large cats (or any wild animal) won’t hunt unless they are hungry. Humans are the only species who kill more than we need for our own sustenance.

So long as the rabbits keep feeding the lion that soup, and so long as it contains plenty of fish, maybe I can believe this happy scenario will continue forever.

RESONANCE

It could be argued that this storybook world is so far removed from reality that young readers wouldn’t draw any connection between morality and diet. But that’s not how children’s stories work at all. The surface interpretation is clearly fantasy. Covert ideology carries a story’s resonance; in this case, that animals who eat animals further down the food chain are morally wrong, and until they mend their ways, they will lead an unhappy life.

Adults love a story for children in which enemies become friends. Over the second half of the 20th century The Tawny Scrawny Lion stood the test of time a popular picture book character and sequels followed. ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’ was now ‘THE Tawny Scrawny Lion’.

The Tawny Scrawny Lion and the Clever Monkey
The Tawny Scrawny Lion and the Clever Monkey

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

For more on Gustaf Tenngren, see the article on him at Animation Resources.

Parties in Art and Fiction

Elenore Abbot (1875–1935) balcony party

Parties provide an excellent setting for getting people together. And when people are together this creates conflict, the backbone of any story.

Like other high-stress, socially critical events such as competitions and staged performances, parties also often happen at the climax of a story. Events leading up to the party garner suspense due to the ticking clock.

Kameeka is confident that today she will finally beat her rival, Jamara, and become the Hula-Hoopin Queen of 139th Street. But then Mama reminds her that today is their neighbor Miz Adeline s birthday, and Kameeka has a ton of chores to do to get ready for the party they are hosting.

Whenever I did creative writing exercises with high school students in English class, I knew it was no good asking them to write about autobiographical events which had recently happened. My own English professor at teachers’ college had told us that people need at least seven years of reflection before writing about our own lives well. Since these kids were about 13 and 14, I asked them to remember a time from when they were seven or younger. I didn’t ask them to discuss their memories with their classmates as part of the drafting process because I wanted them to come up with their own memories, but after a few years of doing this I finally learned something else — the vast, vast majority of kids will write about birthday parties and injuries. I got so sick of reading about stitches and broken bones that I asked them not to write about injuries. I also learned that there’s nothing inherently interesting about a birthday party.

Out of Ice Cream by Amos Sewell (1901-1983) The Saturday Evening Post cover June 27, 1953 party

However, birthday parties are important to young people, and of all the memories we make during childhood, parties are some of the most resonant. Not surprising, then, that parties feature large in children’s stories.

Where's my date, Charlie Dye (1906-1972), balloons party
Where’s my date, Charlie Dye (1906-1972).

Apart from bringing people together, promising conflict, there is another useful storytelling function for the tea party, demonstrated in picture books such as Pettson and Findus by Sven Nordqvist and the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo. These stories have carnivalesque elements, and an inherent problem with the carnivalesque plot is that the hijinks must at some point wrap up. The tea party makes for an excellent conclusion to a fun, hygge children’s story. Typically, the small community sits down together and shares food. No matter what just happened, all is well with the world. In some long-running series, the sit-down food party concludes every single story.

Five O'Clock Tea, by American painter Mary Cassatt (1880). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Five O’Clock Tea, by American painter Mary Cassatt (1880). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855-1919) - Five O’Clock Tea party
Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855-1919) – Five O’Clock Tea party
Kate Greenaway [1846-1901] THE TEA PARTY from Marigold Garden c1892
Kate Greenaway [1846-1901] THE TEA PARTY from Marigold Garden c1892

In the pleasant green Garden
We sat down to tea;
“Do you take sugar?” and
“Do you take milk?”
She’d got a new gown on –
A smart one of silk.
We all were as happy
As happy could be,
On that bright Summer’s day
When she asked us to tea.

Schnick schnack trifles for the little-ones by Oscar Pletsch 1867 children playing together
Schnick schnack trifles for the little-ones by Oscar Pletsch 1867

WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE WORLD OUTSIDE THE PARTY?

I always ask people caught in conflicts the same question: “Why did it take you so long to leave?” Or “Why didn’t you leave when you had the chance?” The answer is nearly always the same: because we never thought it would happen.

I remember summer afternoons in Damascus in 2012, standing on my hotel balcony watching a massive rave below me: partiers were dancing around a pool, beers in hand, rap blaring. On the edge of the city, bombs were falling — I could see the plumes of smoke in the distance. The pool party was an attempt to deny the inevitable and freeze time: a desperate, defiant last chance at normality.

America Shows Troubling Warning Signs of a Slide Into Civil War by Janine Di Giovanni, October 2020

Food, in general, is important in children’s literature.

Frederick Daniel Hardy - The First Birthday Party
Frederick Daniel Hardy – The First Birthday Party

DRESS UP PARTIES

This watercolour illustration of a fancy dress party is by Carl Larsson.
This watercolour illustration of a fancy dress party is by Carl Larsson.

TEA PARTIES

Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987), 1956 tea party
Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987), 1956 tea party
There are many beautiful tea scenes in the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma (2020)
There are many beautiful tea scenes in the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma (2020)

THE BARN DANCE

Haugtussedans, 1903, Theodor Kittelsen
Haugtussedans, 1903, Theodor Kittelsen
An Unexpected Party -The Hobbit  Brothers Hildebrant 1977
An Unexpected Party -The Hobbit Brothers Hildebrant 1977

THE DINNER PARTY

CHARLES DANA GIBSON New Cartoons  dinner portrait
CHARLES DANA GIBSON New Cartoons

THE NIGHT PARTY

THE FUN PARTY SUBVERTED

Norman Rockwell after party kitchen
Norman Rockwell
MARTHA SAWYERS 'THANKS GIVING 1947 Collier’s Magazine
MARTHA SAWYERS ‘THANKS GIVING 1947 Collier’s Magazine
Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) 1943 after party
Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) 1943
November 26, 1949 Thanksgiving TV
November 26, 1949 Thanksgiving TV
Doggie Buffet cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, January 5, 1957 By Dick Sargent, American illustrator
Doggie Buffet cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, January 5, 1957 By Dick Sargent, American illustrator
Spanish Life Magazine Kodak
Spanish Life Magazine Kodak
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 - 1973) the party
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 – 1973) the party
Arthur Sarnoff New Year party
Arthur Sarnoff New Year party
Ben Kimberly Prins (1902 - 1980) 1955 'Party After Snowfall' illustration for The Saturday Evening Post
Ben Kimberly Prins (1902 – 1980) 1955 ‘Party After Snowfall’ illustration for The Saturday Evening Post
The Rabbits’ Christmas Party The Arrival Beatrix Potter 1892
Bear Party 1951 William Pène du Bois
Bear Party 1951 William Pène du Bois
A 19th century print depicting a Laughing Gas (Nitrous Oxide) party
A 19th century print depicting a Laughing Gas (Nitrous Oxide) party
Edwin Georgi (1896-1964) party
Edwin Georgi (1896-1964) party

Mrs. Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Header painting: Elenore Abbot (1875–1935)

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Pettson and Findus Pancake Pie by Sven Nordqvist

Pancake Pie (1984) is a Swedish picture book written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, and is the first in the Pettson and Findus series starring a man and his cat who live together on a rustic farm, along with many little creatures who make the setting seem alive.

What is a pancake pie? Is it just… a pancake? I’m reminded of a certain song about a big pizza pie (actually just a pizza), which is much improved after the moray meme came out.

The Pettson and Findus books have been adapted for children’s TV. The Pancake Pie book became Pancake Pudding in the adaptation. I’ve not heard of a pancake pudding, but it does look more like a storybook cake, and I can see it works better on the screen. The storytellers don’t really want the audience to be stuck, as I am, on the question of what the food is. The food is not central to the story.

This is likely why Swedish Pannkakstårtan was first translated as Pancake Pie in 1985 but later as The Birthday Cake in 1999

SETTING OF FINDUS AND PETTSON

Max and Marla Are Having A Picnic
Contrast with Max and Marla, another human/animal duo who go off on adventures, sometimes by bike. The owl doesn’t talk in this one, so if you find Pettson’s cat a bit irritating, you may prefer the silent, stoic owl.
  1. PERIOD — Findus and Pettson live on a storybook farm which is clearly Scandinavian, if you are at all familiar with with a Scandinavian farm looks like, with the open rectangular arrangement of the farm buildings.
  2. DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
  3. LOCATION — rural Sweden
  4. ARENA — The whole story takes place between the farm and the nearby village where it is possible to buy anything you don’t have at home, in this case flour.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — The Swedish farm buildings, the village shops, the well (which looks unlike your archetypal storybook well — this one must be based on a Swedish well.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
  7. WEATHER — The Pettson and Findus stories span all the seasons. Some of them take place when it’s snowing; this one happens in a temperate season, perhaps summer.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Pettson’s bicycle is important to his characterisation. I really love this guy, with his pedal power and his cat. If he drove a car he’d be a different sort of guy altogether.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the hierarchy of human struggles, this is an unlikely, fantasy, carnivalesque struggle in which the goal is simple; to bake a birthday cake. It’s not even a high stakes birthday given that the birthday person celebrates birthdays three times a year, just because.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — In the TV adaptation, Findus is annoyed that Pettson seems to have forgotten one of his superfluous birthdays. This story is also about how annoying things happen and there’s no point apportioning blame for these things. Rather, we have no choice but to get on and deal with them if we want to achieve our goal.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PANCAKE PIE

PARATEXT

Translators over the years have had a bit of a job deciding on how to translate this series into English. The paper below makes for an interesting case study into how publishers try something then later change their minds.

From Pettson and Findus to Festus and Mercury… and Back Again: A Comparison of Four Translations of Sven Nordqvist’s Picture Books

The book title Pancake Pie is also translated as Pancakes For Findus (which I admit makes more sense). The title is probably modelled on Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClusky.

Pancakes for Findus is the first story in the adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus. Pettson wants to bake a birthday cake for Findus, who has three birthdays a year. But how will they get the eggs with the bull in the way?
Findus and Pettson live in a ramshackle cottage in the country, with a henhouse, workshop, and woodshed. Their fascinating, magical world is inhabited by tiny creatures who move Pettson’s things about when he isn’t looking.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

We know from other books in the series that Pettson is probably a widower and his neighbours find him a little odd. The cat comes across to the reader like a proxy child. For storytelling purposes we can consider Findus a child ranging between the ages of 5 and 10, depending on what the situation calls for.

Pettson wears glasses as part of his character design. This shows how he is oblivious to the small creatures around him who are alive. Another character with the exact same trope is Muriel of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In both cases the pet can see all the opponents but the human occupant sees nothing. In Muriel’s case she fails to see some pretty dire baddies, but the setting of the Pettson and Findus stories is more utopian. The creatures are mischievous and sometimes cranky, but never evil.

The co-star Findus has all the shortcomings typical of a small child, and as in any comedic series, he never grows up. He continues to be self-centred and petulent, in a lovable way. I I find the TV version of Findus unlikeable, and I think it’s mainly to do with the English dub of his voice, which is irritating. Voicing animals is always difficult.

Another example of this exact difficulty: ‘Dog’ of Footrot Flats by Murray Ball. New Zealanders were already in love with Dog from the newspaper comic strips, and the makers of the 1980s Footrot Flats film had a hell of a time settling on how Dog’s voice should sound. I have a Border collie myself these days and I think they got it right.

The creators of the 1980s Garfield animations also got Garfield right, but as a kid I didn’t think so. I was shocked to find that Garfield had a lazy adult male voice when I had expected something more like… the Findus voice. More ‘miowy’, more aimed at kids. Now I’m an adult I can see Garfield’s voice is correct, and that as a kid I had been far too generous in my interpretation of that cat’s character.

DESIRE

Self-centred Findus wants three birthdays per year and Pettson wants to oblige his cat. However, this kind of self-absorption is only briefly critiqued, and only in the TV adaptation, in which a hen clucks at the extravagance of three birthdays per year. The young reader is not encouraged to side with the judgy hen though, so the idea of three birthdays per year is a carnivalesque bit of fun and also wish fulfilment. What kid wouldn’t want three birthdays per year?

On a deeper level, Findus wants to be the centre of attention with luxuries foisted upon him.

On the most surface level, Pettson and Findus want to celebrate the day by baking something and eating it as a treat, whether we call it a pancake pie or a pancake pudding or whatever.

OPPONENT

The storyworld itself stands between Pettson getting flour, or not. But ‘things going wrong in the world’ doesn’t usually make for a satisfying opposition, so literally populating the arena with tiny creatures, each with their own agenda, is a masterful way to make a setting come alive. Pettson doesn’t simply get a hole in his bicycle tyre; a little creature bites a hole in it.

This is literally how people of yore saw the world. We only need look into earlier versions of fairytales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker to know this. That tale’s reason for existence is to warn people against fraternising with small creatures and spirits in the home, so clearly many people thought they actually existed!

We might as well consider these little creatures fairies. They don’t look like the 21st century conception of a fairy — small, butterfly-like femme coded creatures influenced by Disney’s Tinkerbell. Fairies can refer to any creature who lives in the world around us, and in our living spaces. Earlier humans imagined fairies absolutely everywhere. (Modern audiences get the feeling we now understand Earth and seem more concerned with populating space… we call them aliens though, not fairies.)

This page layout beautifully expresses the flow of events from fishing a key out of the well, to fixing a tyre to riding to town to the goal of enjoying pancake pie for Findus. Notice how each image blends into the one below, creating a clear visual sequence for the reader.
This image reminds me very much of The Tomten. I haven’t even read The Tomten yet, but I still recognise the imagery of a Scandinavian character peering in through a window.

The neighbour who ambles by right as Pettson is washing his pants in a bucket also functions as an ‘observer opponent’. I’ve seen these scenes in other children’s stories, recently in Bluey, in which the father is playing a ridiculous game with his daughter when a dressed-up judgy poodle walks by and drags him with side-eye. She hasn’t got the memo that this small snippet is part of a game.

Audiences seem to love this gag — in which a main character is caught in the most humiliating part of a plot when someone happens to amble by. A funny moment now becomes comedically humiliating with the addition of an intradiegetic audience member. Funny how that works.

In such scenes, is it not humiliating enough that we, the audience, are watching? No, not if the fourth wall remains intact. Also, we are in possession of the complete story. We know how the character got into that position. Humour derives from the fact that the passerby is in audience inferior position. The joke is sort of actually on them, for failing to understand the whole scenario.

PLAN

Pancake Pie is basically a There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly cumulative plot, except for one major difference: In the fly story, the old lady’s self-formulated plan is ridiculous. She herself is ridiculous. Perhaps for this reason I have never found that old lady an empathetic character. I couldn’t care less whether she lives or dies (and both endings exist in the world).

In the case of the empathetic Pettson, the scenarios are ridiculous (thanks to the fairies) but his plans are quite sensible, given the world of the story. Key falls down the well? Get a long stick and fish it out. Pants covered in egg? Take them off and wash them in a bucket.

It’s not Pettson who is eccentric; it’s his farm. Pettson is a misunderstood widower.

Another beautiful sequence of events illustrated on a single page. These pages are excellent examples of Continuous Narrative Art. This describes art which gives clues about the sequence of events, without making use of frames. In a Western picture book, the reader’s eyes are trained to move from top to bottom, left to right.

Honestly, I couldn’t follow the Plan part of the plot sequence on first reading. if you’d quizzed me immediately after for comprehension I would not have been able to tell you how Pettson goes from looking for flour to being chased by a bull in a field. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoy the spectacle and don’t mind the sequence.

That said, the sequence must make sense for the story to work, and it does if you’re paying attention, with a clear path from A to B to Z. Lucky for me, someone else wrote the sequence down in a humorous consumer review:

If Pettson, P, is to make a pancake pie, then P must buy flour.

If P is to buy flour, then P must cycle to town.

If P is to use a cycle C, then C’s tires must be intact.

If P is to make C’s tires intact, then P must obtain a cycle repair kit R.

If P is to obtain R, then P must have the key to the toolshed K.

If K is in the well W, then P must have a fishing rod F.

If F is on the roof, then P must have a ladder L.

If L is in the bull B’s field, then P must scare away B.

If P’s neighbor N had known all of the above, then N wouldn’t necessarily have thought P had lost his wits when he saw him playing Jussi Björling records for B on P’s wind-up phonograph.

That’s logic. What do they teach them in schools these days?

Goodreads

THE BIG STRUGGLE

This story might align more closely to the carnivalesque picture book story structure if it weren’t for the bull sequence.

The animals in this story span a broad section of the ‘animal-ness continuum’, with Findus basically human (a child), and the hens who are middle-aged gossipy women archetypes and also this bull who is nothing more than an actual bull.

The bull is a Minotaur opponent (more literally than most Minotaur opponents, which can come in any shape or form and most have nothing to do with actual bulls).

That curtain tied around Findus’ ankle is very handy to the illustrator as a framing device which double as indicating the flow, leading the eye in the correct direction. As an accomplished adult reader you probably take this skill for granted. Younger, emerging readers need help with this.

The story climaxes at the bull fight. Although the ridiculous events around baking a simple pancake pie build into something more and more ridiculous, the level of ridiculousness is not enough to ‘finish off the story’, which must be finished somehow. So Nordqvist ends it with an actual battle scene, complete with danger of death and a chase.

Note the way Nordqvist depicts the movement. I suspect this is influenced by photography, specifically long exposure photography. I’m thinking of all those shots of highways on dusk, in which the headlights look like one long stream on the road of moving cars, or car singular.

ANAGNORISIS

Findus and Pettson have no major epiphany, because this story was all about spectacle (for the reader). They realise that when they have their hands on the flour that they can sit down to enjoy an afternoon tea of pancake pie.

NEW SITUATION

Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pie is an excellent example of a children’s book where all is well when the main characters sit down to enjoy food. A number of series work like this, including the more recent Mercy Watson picture books by Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen. Those stories end when Mercy sits down with everyone to enjoy hot buttered toast.

Food is very important in children’s stories.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.

RESONANCE

This story established the intriguing world of Pettson and Findus. I fell in love with Pettson immediately. For me the farmer is the sympathetic character, though for children I expect the cat will be relatable. In this way, the series achieves a dual audience.

Worlds populated by tiny creatures endure. The Pettson and Findus books were just a small part of that. The golden age of fairy and goblin stories may seem to have passed, but look at the Hilda series, recently adapted by Netflix, for a similar utopian world populated by tiny creatures who each have their own agenda but who pose no significant threat to the main, human characters.

PIES IN STORYTELLING

The Truth About Twinkle Pie by Kat Yeh
The Truth About Twinkle Pie by Kat Yeh
Pie by Sarah Weeks
Pie by Sarah Weeks

MORE MEN AND THEIR CATS

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Cannibalism in Storytelling

If you wanted to create a scary monster, the scariest ever, how would you go about it? Make it big (like an ogre). Make it invisible, so you never know when it’s there. Make it sometimes nasty, sometimes nice, like a white witch, seductive and charming, all the while scheming.

Make it unexpectedly violent. Therefore make it a woman. Worse, make it a mother. Make it a failed mother. Make it a vengeful failed mother who cooks and eats children. Make it a vengeful failed mother who eats her own children. RAW.

That, folks, is peak monster.

Actually, maybe we can go one step further and make it even worse. Make the cannibal a CHILD. Don’t blame me for that mental imagery. I didn’t invent it.

At least, that’s what I thought, until I listened to the Scale of Evil episode of Unpopular Culture podcast. At around the 20 minute mark they talk about actual instances of cannibalistic criminals in our time, and it turns out my mind hadn’t gone there. If you are hellbent on finding out what’s even worse than what I just described above, I offer only a link.

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Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban Analysis

Bread and Jam for Frances original cover

Bread and Jam for Frances is a picture book written by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, first published in 1964 as a part of a series about a girl in the body of a badger, who lives in a middle class house and has access to all the spoils you’d expect of 1960s middle class Westerner.

I never came across this picture book as a kid, but a book with a similar plot must have really affected me because it was probably read once in class, yet I remember it profoundly: The book I’m talking about is Mrs. Pig’s Bulk Buy, one of the Pig Family picture books by Mary Rayner. This family of pigs might be considered the 1980s follow-up to the Hobans’ Frances stories. (I’ve taken a close look at Garth Pig and the Ice-cream Lady on this blog.)

In Rayner’s 1981 version of Bread and Jam for Frances, the mother pig of the Pig Family gets utterly sick and tired of her piglets hoeing into the tomato sauce so she feeds them nothing but tomato sauce until they crave a more varied diet.

No matter how carefully she flavored the stews or spiced the puddings, the piglets always squealed for tomato ketchup. She had always tried to stop them from having it, and make one bottle last a week, but it was always gobbled up by Monday and then the piglets would grumble until she went to the supermarket again.

“But things will be different soon,” thought Mother Pig happily. She reached down one of the big jars and emptied it into a huge soup tureen.

My mother was frequently complaining about the family using too much tomato sauce as well, which is probably why the story stuck with me. (Criticism was mostly directed at our father, though, who used sauce not only for flavour, but to cool hot food to a more scoffable temperature.)

DIDACTICISM AND FOOD PREFERENCES
Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks illustrated by Hoffman Heinrich
Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks illustrated by Hoffman Heinrich

Do these stories do what they intend, that is, to encourage children to eat a more wide and varied diet? One Goodreads reviewer of Rayner’s picture book said, “I read this to my daughter in the hopes of encouraging her to eat less ketchup, but all it did was make her want ketchup sandwiches.”

I doubt these stories work as intended. I do remember Rayner’s story, but I don’t remember going easy on the tomato sauce. They appeal to adults for didactic reasons, and to children for the carnivalesque element. Eating nothing but your favourite food is peak carnivalesque fun. The ending of both stories doesn’t resonate; doesn’t count.

Parenting culture has changed since the 1980s and certainly since the 1960s. For better or for worse, modern parents hand more food choice over to their children. I know plenty of kids who’d be quite happy to eat nothing but white bread and jam for weeks on end, possibly forever. Some of them have sensory issues around eating, which is the first thing I thought about Frances as she described and personified her eggs.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES

PARATEXT

Frances is a fussy eater. In fact, the only thing she likes is bread and jam. So she’s delighted when Mother and Father grant her wish and give her bread and jam at every meal. This endearing story of how Frances faces unlimited bread and jam is a classic that will continue to be gobbled up by children, picky eaters, and parents everywhere.

marketing copy

Frances is also described as ‘America’s favourite badger’. (Frances is about as badger as Olivia is pig.)

SHORTCOMING

Frances has food preferences (possibly for sensory reasons) but she is a member of a family who have no tolerance for people who don’t eat what’s going.

Frances is disgusted by the egg.

DESIRE

Frances wants to eat bread and jam instead of eggs.

OPPONENT

Mother.

Is the school mate a plan or an ally. I find him insufferable. “Well, goodo for you,” I wanted to tell him, and, “I don’t remember asking for all those details about your damn lunch.”

PLAN

The mother has a secret plan, and we see it play out. The mother is basically a trickster, and I guess this is why she appeals to many mother co-readers; trickster mums are rare in children’s books.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Frances grows more and more tired of bread and jam. When the mother serves Frances the same dinner as the rest of the family is having, Frances is so keen for something different that she eats it up without complaining. Mother has won this battle.

ANAGNORISIS

Frances realises that a varied diet is an interesting diet.

NEW SITUATION

Frances is eating a varied school lunch.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

We extrapolate that Frances is permanently fixed and that she’ll never look at bread and jam in the same way again.

RESONANCE

I was prompted to read Bread and Jam for Frances after seeing the following image memed around the Internet. It’s actually an abbreviated version of the relevant page, and almost functions as a tagline. In abbreviated form, without any context, this image is perfectly suited to modern meme culture. Perhaps it encapsulates our collective existential loneliness.

FURTHER READING

  • The Evolution of Breakfasts in Fiction. In the 1960s, America was in the middle of switching over from cooked breakfasts to breads and extruded cereals. Frances in this story has clearly been influenced by the modern Continental breakfast (probably from ads on the TV) but her old-school mother resists.
  • Egg Symbolism. I wonder how many humans across history have found eggs disgusting. Until battery farming, eggs were a hard won delicacy and an important element of many diets.
  • The idea that all of the other kids will get something, and that you, due to your own moral shortcoming will miss out, was utilised by Beatrix Potter in Peter Rabbit, and in many stories after that, including Little Golden Books’ super popular The Poky Little Puppy. But can you think of any modern picture books which use this kind of punishment plot, withholding food from children? This was certainly how I was brought up. But I suspect it’s had its day.
  • Russell and Lillian were married Americans who moved to England together in 1969. However, Lillian moved back to America about a year later. Russell stayed in England and married someone else in the mid 1970s. They each continued to have a full and varied career in children’s books, independently. Russell died in 2011. Lillian died in 1998.
  • See also my collected notes on The Mouse and His Child.
“Children benefit from jam,” Soviet advertisement, 1950
“Children benefit from jam,” Soviet advertisement, 1950
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