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!
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.
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.
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).
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
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!
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.
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.
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…
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!’
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.
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’.
Parties provide an excellent setting for getting people together. And when people are together this creates conflict, the backbone of any story.
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 inhrently interesting about a birthday 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.
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.
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
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.
DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
LOCATION — rural Sweden
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.
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.
NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pieis 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.
Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
We extrapolate that Frances is permanently fixed and that she’ll never look at bread and jam in the same way again.
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.
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.
Eggs are common ingredients in modern cooking. Likewise, throughout the history of folklore and fairy stories, eggs are a common ingredient in magic spells. Anyone who has kept chickens knows that poultry regularly go off the lay. If your chickens are hungry, stressed, clucky or sick you won’t get any eggs. Before modern chicken farms, eggs were a luxury food item.
Symbolic Egg Associations
potent life force
new life and rebirth (Easter) — classic masculine mythic stories will include a rebirth. Keep an eye out for egg symbolism at this point.
pregnant bellies (in both shape and contents)
The World Egg
According to various mythologies, the universe is thought to have hatched from an egg. The egg origin story has been told by the Celts, Hindus, Egyptians, Greeks and Phoenicians among others. The details vary:
The egg comes from primeval waters, incubated by a bird
The bird is a goose (Hamsa) according to Hindu belief. The yolk becomes Heaven, the white becomes Earth.
The bird is a hen according to Japanese Shinto tradition. The heavier parts became the Earth, the lighter parts became Heaven.
The universe exists in a massive egg standing upright.
The Philosopher’s Egg
The egg is important to the ancient study of alchemy, the symbolic place where great transformation takes place. The egg is thought to contain the seed of spiritual life.
There are a number of origin stories relating to the Djinn (genies, but more complicated). One origin story is very much like that of Adam and Eve: God created the first male Djinn from burning wind, and only then created a mate because men require mates. Their union resulted in 30 eggs. Each egg released a different kind of Djinn.
Easter started out as a celebration of the Goddess Eostre. (The hormone estrogen is related to this name.)
Christians now utilise this holiday to commemorate the death of Christ and resurrection. The symbolism crosses over: Both are about new life and hope.
According to an old Ozark superstition, if a young woman boils an egg, removes the yolk, fills the egg with salt, & eats it before bedtime, she will dream of her future husband bringing her water to quench her thirst.
Storytellers seem to really enjoy the idea of massive eggs. There are of course many examples of children’s stories featuring oversized objects and exaggerations of differential scale, but perhaps a disproportionate number of massive eggs?
Below, another book making use of the egg shape for frames in a story about chickens.
We may laugh at the cartoon above, in which a rabbit shits out the chocolate eggs, but that same year, a similar image appeared in an actual children’s book.
Here are more images from the same book.
Eggs in Fairy Tales
If we take anything from fairy tales at all it is this: Do not eat the food that they give you. You will be drawn irreversibly into a world that is not your own. For this reason, fairy tale spells often recommend something that is food adjacent. When it comes to eggs, rather than eating the egg itself (a luxury item), the spell might advise to eat the sweat of an egg.
Which Came First?
The chicken was in the egg and the egg was in the chicken
The Nome King had left his throne and pressed through his warriors to the front ranks, so he could see what was going on; but as he faced Ozma and her friends the Scarecrow, as if aroused to action by the valor of the private, drew one of Billina’s eggs from his right jacket pocket and hurled it straight at the little monarch’s head.It struck him squarely in his left eye, where the egg smashed and scattered, as eggs will, and covered his face and hair and beard with its sticky contents.”Help, help!” screamed the King, clawing with his fingers at the egg, in a struggle to remove it.”An egg! an egg! Run for your lives!” shouted the captain of the Nomes, in a voice of horror.And how they did run! The warriors fairly tumbled over one another in their efforts to escape the fatal poison of that awful egg, and those who could not rush down the winding stair fell off the balcony into the great cavern beneath, knocking over those who stood below them.Even while the King was still yelling for help his throne room became emptied of every one of his warriors, and before the monarch had managed to clear the egg away from his left eye the Scarecrow threw the second egg against his right eye, where it smashed and blinded him entirely. The King was unable to flee because he could not see which way to run; so he stood still and howled and shouted and screamed in abject fear.
L. Frank Baum; “Ozma of Oz”
Header illustration by Carlos Marchiori for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969).
The Cider Duck (1969) is an Australian picture book written by Joan Woodberry and illustrated by Molly Stephens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR
Joan Woodberry (1921-2010) was an influential, widely-travelled Tasmanian feminist whose efforts made women’s lives palpably better in Tasmania.
Finding information on Molly Stephens is a little more difficult partly because she was also known as Molly Pascall, her birth name. The Cider Duck is perhaps the only published book she illustrated. It seems she was a fine artist and teacher the rest of the time. She may have liked cats? If it’s the same Molly Stephens, she left some of her estate to The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Like Joan, Molly was a teacher. She was born in 1920 and educated in England, as an artist, then after the war spent a while in Egypt. She then emigrated to Australia. She lived in Tasmania until her death in 1970, first in Smithton, then in Hobart. She specialised in portraits.
In short, both writer and illustrator were well-travelled women who lived through the 20th century wars. They both worked with children and settled in Tasmania. I’m guessing — though it’s just a guess — they knew each other and collaborated, unlike most writer/illustrator combos today, who are set up by the publisher and rarely meet until the job is done, if at all.
STORYWORLD OF THE CIDER DUCK
The reader is left in no doubt about the setting:
When? 1832, conveyed as intratext across the bridge. Night time.
Where? The Eider Duck Inn, Richmond, Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania), Australia. Richmond is not far from Hobart, to the NNE. I’m not sure if The Eider Duck Inn was a real place — let me know if you have the answer.
Weather: windy, rainy, with lightning.
Pictured above is The Richmond Bridge.
The Richmond Bridge is a heritage listed arch bridge located on the B31 (“Convict Trail”) in Richmond, 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) north of Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. It is the oldest stone span bridge in Australia.
Well, the duck gets drunk. Drunk on fermented apples, to be specific. This isn’t on the page, but deduced after she wanders into the kitchen and ‘falls asleep’ so soundly that she doesn’t notice all of her feathers being plucked out. Because she is drunk she is powerless to stop it.
I figure this duck had a brush with death by alcohol poisoning. The child audience believes the little duck is gloriously happy frolicking about in the utopian world of wind-fallen fruit, finally getting so tired she simply nods off.
The duck is more duck-like than human-like, though we are to believe the duck has human emotions (such as pride, in the end). Therefore, the plot revelation is had by the human main character — the ‘kind hostess’ realises the duck wasn’t dead at all. It was simply asleep.
So the duck’s opponent also functions as the human proxy after this harrowing near-death experience.
To make amends, the hostess knits jumpers for the duck — one for every day of the week. Here I am reminded that the creators of this book had pedagogical interests — this sequence feels like an overt exercise in teaching young children the days of the week.
We see the teaching of the days of the week in a Little Golden Book from around the same era — The Tawny Scrawny Lion. This was also the era of ‘animals who aren’t quite animals but aren’t quite human, either’.
By the time The Cider Duck was published, half a century had passed since Beatrix Potter, but Potter’s influence remained strong. Reading these stories today, they seem horrific. Sure, the animals seem to live in utopias with beautiful forests full of food, but death lurks behind every corner. There may be food on the ground just waiting for you to enjoy it, but you yourself are food for someone else.
The modern reader may find the plucking scene disturbing in itself.
Live plucking causes birds considerable pain and distress. Once their feathers are ripped out, many of the birds, paralyzed with fear, are left with gaping wounds—some even die as a result of the procedure.
But in this book from 1969 we are to imagine being plucked as akin to taking one’s clothes off. This is therefore not the Battle scene of the plot.
For that we get a trope borrowed from cosmic horror. I’ve recently seen this trope given a name: ‘Spatial Horror’.
When the Cider Duck wakes up and doesn’t know where she is, she is completely disoriented and falls into a dark hole. (Actually off the table.)
I’d offer this is a picture book example of spatial horror. It also marks the end of the Big Struggle sequence.
The Anagnorisis phase gives way to the utopian world of the apple orchard. The duck is basically famous now, for her ability to escape death. She becomes a local celebrity.
The anagnorisis in this story is implicit — after admiring herself in jumpers, the duck seems to realise her value. The humans will not eat her, because they have welcomed her into the human world, removing her from the menu. She must realise at some point that she is safe.
When an illustrator signs on to illustrate a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, I bet the scene they look forward to the most is depicting the gingerbread house. On the other hand, how to make it original?
CHARLES JAMES FOLKARD
OTTO KUBEL’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
Kubel added black witch’s cats, which should have alerted the children, really. The children are rosy cheeked and look pretty well-nourished to me. The witch isn’t immediately obvious. The eye is drawn to the children first, catching the ambient light. The witch is dressed in white, but remains standing in shadow. The house is small, closing around her, like the house itself will gobble you up. The foregrounded tree reminds us that we are in the forest.
Otto Kubel was a German painter and illustrator who lived from 1868 – 1951. He studied at the Dresden School of Applied Arts then worked uneventfully, it seems, as an artist and sometimes illustrator of children’s books.
He did live in various different places around Germany: In the early 1900’s Kubel went to live in Furstenfelbruck (a well-known artists colony — home of “Die Brucker Maler”). He then lived in Munchen where he basically stayed put, apart from the later part of the Second World War in which he stayed in Partenkirchen.
Wanda Gag had only black and white to work with. She surrounds the children with white so they don’t disappear by accident into the image. This makes it look as if light emanates from the children themselves. In most depictions of the gingerbread house, light seems to come from the house itself, or out of the surrounding trees. The witch has not yet appeared, but a black cat on teh stoop lies in wait.
Wanda Gag made the Grimms’ fairy tales popular in America during the 1930s and 1940s, which is when anti-German sentiment was on the rise.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as produced by Disney in 1937, helped when it came to popularising these German tales across the Atlantic.
Wanda Gag was born in 1893.
She was the daughter of a ‘free-thinking painter’ with seven children who he couldn’t feed properly. This might explain partly why Gag felt so drawn to a tale which is ultimately about starving children? Her father died when she was only 15, too, in which case it’s possible she idolised him in the same way the tale idolises paternity (and vilifies maternity).
Gag is most famous for her book Millions of Cats.
She died in 1948, before she had finished the job she had set out to do, which was to translate and illustrate 50 of the Grimm tales.
KAY NIELSON’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
These children look a bit thinner than many other depictions. The trees are absolutely huge. The foliage growing around the house has been affected by its magical aura and are therefore green when all the other trees are coloured in ochres. There’s a soft curviness to this illustration. The only hard angles are the windows and chimney. Light comes from the house, somehow.
Kay Nielsen was a so-called Golden Age illustrator from Denmark who lived from 1886-1957. (Despite the name Kay being largely a feminine name in the West, in Denmark it is a masculine name.) Like Wanda Gag, he came from a highly artistic family. In 1939 he moved to California and because he was a white man and also good at art, he secured a job working for Disney. Can you guess which movie he worked on, judging by his style?
Well, he did some concept paintings for The Little Mermaid. His work was used in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Fantasia. (Here’s the thing about that movie: It wasn’t actually produced until 1989. Nielsen died a long time before then.)
Walt Disney only employed him for four years. He had to return to Denmark, where he spent his final years. Unfortunately, trends had moved on, and Nielsen’s style of illustration was no longer in fashion.
This is a much more recent publication. I’ve covered it here. This text was written by Neil Gaiman, who crafted a less sexist version than the usual, giving Gretel more agency.
This one looks almost like a photo which has had a Photoshop filter put on it. Look closer and you immediately see it’s not, but there’s a weird, unsettling realism about it. The light comes clearly from the moon filtering through trees, though Mattotti has surrounded the children — or the shadows of the children — with white as Wanda Gag did. The layout is also similar to that by Wanda Gag, with the children coming in from the right to a house positioned centre left.
Rodeffer is an artist working today, in a style that harks back to the 1970s. This is a relatively symmetrical version of the gingerbread house. It doesn’t look all that much like food — it doesn’t make you want to lick the page, but the hints of sweets are there. (It would be hard to make this look tasty in this colour palette).
GINGERBREAD HOUSE BY FRANK ADAMS
The trees are foregrounded in this minimalist illustration. This is a forest with no life in it at all. There is a light source, coming from the bottom left. The house itself is almost in the centre of the layout… but not quite. These two aspects combined contribute to the uneasy, off-kilter atmosphere.
Edible houses predate Hansel and Gretel. “The Land of Cockayne” is a poem included in a 14th century manuscript, Kildare Poems. This is Ireland’s earliest known literary text in (Middle) English. This particular poem is a satirical piece about a corrupt community of monks, who lead a life of fantastic luxury and dissipation in the mythical land of Cockaigne.
The gingerbread probably didn’t come into this German tale until its English translation.
Schwankmärchen (Farcical tales) of Schlaraffenland (German): delicatessan products are on the roof
Fabel de Cocaigne (French): fish, bacon, and sausages are on the roof
Navicula sive speculum fatuorum by Geiler von Kaisersberg: Pfannkuchen (pancakes) on the roof
The poem “Das Schlauraffenland” (1530) by Hans Sachens: Fladen (pancakes]) on the roof
Wrozki by Podworzecki (1589) (Polish): sides of bacon and dumplings etc.
Hänsel und Gretel: the witch’s house is built from bread, covered in cakes and the windows are made of clear sugar. (The text of Hänsel und Gretel is from various tellings from Hessen. Told by Henriette Dorothea Wild, 1793 – 1867).
Note: the house is made of bread, the roof is decked with cake and the windows were made of clear sugar (hellem Zucker). “Gingerbread” probably came from an English translation.