The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.

Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.

In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO

For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The mouse.

What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.

But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a stand-in for the child.

Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.

Gruffalo and Mouse

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.

In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by  having Gruffalo walk behind.

Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.

BIG BATTLE

In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one battle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo behind, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.

So what’s the Big Battle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.

Mouse has won.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.

At a lower level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any battle.

At an even lower level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, that thing really will seem true after a while. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

The final page shows Mouse eating nuts, and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before, though I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now.

 

STORYWORLD OF THE GRUFFALO

Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.

Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.

Silence Of The Lambs Film Study

Silence Of The Lambs Poster

Where were you when you first watched The Silence Of The Lambs? I was about fifteen, mid-nineties. The film had made it to midday TV. It was a rainy, wintry day outside and my mother sat knitting in the recliner chair. I was on the floor making flashcards for high school Japanese, but as relaxing as I found this task, the film won out that day. The cosiness of my environs juxtaposed against the content of the film stands out in my memory.

Some years later, on a fine Monday morning, I was walking to work and saw a man struggling to put a sofa into a van. He didn’t accept my help as it happens, but I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t actually get inside the van.” Sometimes films do that to you. I can’t see a glass of water wobbling without thinking of Jurassic Park. I can’t see a man loading furniture into a van without thinking of Buffalo Bill.

The Silence of the Lambs mostly holds up to multiple viewings, and maybe even requires it. It took me a while to work out exactly how Clarice got to the right house before her colleagues did, and I’m still not sure I’m meant to know exactly what went wrong there. Here’s the thing about rewatching in 2017, though: It’s clear this film has not helped dominant attitudes towards gender non-conforming people. In 1991 the film-going public didn’t really know the difference between transvestite, transgender, gay and transsexuality. We certainly didn’t give that community a second thought.  Continue reading “Silence Of The Lambs Film Study”

Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

Light vs. Darkness

Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.

Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is about a young boy’s fear of the symbolic house at night.

the dark jon klassen

In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against pinks  (warm and light), and the flame from a fireplace casts a frame within a frame as our villain creeps towards the door. Continue reading “Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories”

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

Here’s what happens in the 2017 indie American film I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore:

When a depressed woman is burgled, she finds a new sense of purpose by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour. But they soon find themselves dangerously out of their depth against a pack of degenerate criminals.

CHARACTER LINE: a depressed woman finds a new sense of purpose

ACTION LINE: by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour

SOME SENSE OF THE OUTCOME: They are either going to win or lose their battle against the pack of degenerate criminals. It may well be a pyrrhic victory since Ruth is well out of her depth.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore film poster

Continue reading “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore”

Symbolism Of The Atrium

When an atrium appears in a story it’s likely there is a symbolic meaning. For example, the glass ceiling makes a character closer to god.

The Atrium As A Functional Room In Architecture

In architecture, an atrium is a large open air or skylight covered space surrounded by a building. Modern atria, as developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries, are often several stories high and having a glazed roof or large windows, and often located immediately beyond the main entrance doors (in the lobby).

Atria were a common feature in Ancient Roman dwellings, providing light and ventilation to the interior. The Latin word atrium referred to the open central court, from which the enclosed rooms led off, in the type of large ancient Roman house known as a domus.

The impluvium was the shallow pool sunken into the floor to catch the rainwater. As the centrepiece of the house, the atrium was the most lavishly furnished room. Also, it contained the little chapel to the ancestral spirits (lararium), the household safe (arca) and sometimes a bust of the master of the house.

It’s clear looking at the original function of the atrium what it might mean symbolically in stories:

  • a direct link between home and the heavens, where a character might go to look up at the sky and contemplate freedom, journeys or death.
  • luxury and riches — you’ll find an atrium in a house with unbound riches.
  • water, light and cleanliness — purity of spirit and soul

The human heart is also divided into ‘atria’. The atrium is the ‘heart’ of a large house, connecting various parts of the house to other parts. It is where various things meet, symbolically.

The inverse of an atrium is a cloister, or perhaps a basement.

Beauty and the Beast

atrium beauty and the beast
The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty’s ascent to Heaven. That’s where she thinks she’s going, after all.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Miss Rumphius Barbara Cooney atrium

The gardener’s glasshouse is a form of atrium.

I made use of the glasshouse atrium in Midnight Feast, in which the child character wishes she were more connected the outside world (but not really, now that she knows what’s out there).

midnight feast atrium glasshouse

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

from the film
from the game

See also Storytelling Tips From Northern Lights

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry

midnight feast aquarium cats

An aquarium is related to an atrium… and below we have an atrium as it commonly appears in modern architecture.

midnight feast first atrium

Hilda Bewildered by Slap Happy Larry

Here is the background to page one of our third storybook app Hilda Bewildered, where the princess looks up and into the sky, wanting to escape.

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book film poster depicts the jungle version of an atrium as first envisioned by the Romans in their architecture — a home in the jungle whose canopy of trees overhead lets in light. The forest is often seen as nature’s ‘cathedral’ but I think atrium is a better fit.

Garth Pig And The Ice Cream Lady By Mary Rayner

Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is a British picture book written and illustrated by Mary Rayner in 1977. The story is part fairytale, part 1977 modernity.

garth pig runs after ice cream van

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mary Rayner was born in 1933 in Mandalay, Burma of British parents. She was 8 years old when Japanese troops invaded Burma. Her mother and two siblings walked over the mountains into India. Her father had joined the army and was killed.

After the war, the Rayner family returned to the UK from India.

The sense of a family pulling together in dire circumstances is conveyed, though comically, in this story.

The illustrations are very much of England.

That’s because after a degree in English in England, Mary Rayner joined the publishing industry. Her first book was The Witch-Finder in 1976. This one came the year after, along with Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out. She wrote and illustrated the pig books for her own three children, though by the time she’d finished them they’d themselves grown too old for them.

All of her children grew up to be writers themselves.

STORYWORLD OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY

Fairytale Land

This is very much a fairytale world, borrowing elements from:

The depiction of the village is very much a fairytale one, and decidedly English.

storybook-village_1000x1295

Whoosh Ice Creams

I wonder if English readers will know what a Whoosh ice cream is? I certainly can’t find out from my Internet research, though I thought it might be an abbreviation of the Whoosh! Cecil flavour. Apparently that is chocolate ice cream with salted caramel and cashews, but I doubt that’s what’s intended here because when the pigs finally get their whooshes they’re holding a rainbow coloured ice block type of thing.

(I believe the Whoosh! Cecil is American anyway, but even in 1977, English children were very much influenced by American culture. We see that in the second scene in fact, where all the brothers and sisters are playing cowboys and Indians.)

eating-whooshes-mother-sleeping

Apparent Utopia of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady

This is an apparent utopia, in which everything looks homely and safe but in fact a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time. Fairytale worlds have always had the function of scaring children about strangers, and neglecting the cover the more sobering fact that adults most likely to hurt you are those you love and trust.

In any fairytale land you need a forest right next to the village/town. We have one here, and that’s where the wolf drives off to. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of a fairytale that there have been no forests in England since 1086 at the latest.

See also: Symbolism Of The Forest In Storytelling

Technology In Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady

It’s fitting that the wolf drives a Volkswagen Kombi because those things were always breaking down.

broken-down-kombi

STORY STRUCTURE OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY

WEAKNESS/NEED

It’s interesting that Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady opens with the mother pig scrubbing the floor because she is not the main character. We see her overleaf very much not coping with her ten children — she has her head buried in her hands. Most mothers in picture books are coping very nicely, in their aprons and clean, middle class homes, so it’s interesting to see this variation of motherhood. I wonder why the author decided to open with the mother — perhaps she’s saying that while the mother is busy with housework the children will get up to mischief.

mother-pig-scrubbing-floor_1000x1306

DESIRE

The main character of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is Garth. He wants an ice cream. Not only does he want an ice cream, he wants an upgraded ice cream. While all the siblings are happy with whooshes, Garth hopes there will be enough change to buy himself a double cone with flakes coming out of it. This is obviously the luxury choice of the storyworld. At first it looks as if Garth is punished for being so greedy. But he gets his upgraded cone in the end, because the mother feels sorry for him after his ordeal. It is therefore left to the young reader to decide if being greedy was all worth it.

There is a problem with the plot in my opinion: It is decided that Garth, alone, will go to the ice-cream truck and get 10 ice creams for his brothers and sisters. But there is no way in hell a person with hands let alone a pig with hoofs could carry back the ice creams alone. Haha. This is what Hitchcock would have called a refrigerator moment.

While a good measure of suspended disbelief is necessary to enjoy picture books, this is one step too far. In real life I’m guessing children will be familiar with the difficulties of carrying multiple ice creams without help, and there is no good reason why several of the little pigs wouldn’t go along to help Garth. It’s necessary for the plot, however; Garth is vulnerable precisely because he is alone.

 

OPPONENT

The wolf dressed as a nice lady.

Garth Pig buys and ice cream

Perhaps the wolf really is a female wolf — she remains ungendered. But the evil wolf dressing up as ‘grandma’ obviously has its roots in Little Red Riding Hood. I believe therefore that most readers will read the wolf as male underneath. (In cases where a female is revealed to be a male, this is playing on an instinctive human fear of mistaking something for something else. This trope continues today and is damaging to the trans community. See Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl.)

ice cream van with ice cream horns in garth pig
The ice cream decorations on the roof look almost like horns.

PLAN

Just as happens in Dr Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, this story makes use of symbolic crossroads. When the ice cream trail runs out at the crossroads, the pigs are forced to change their plan from ‘following the trail’ to actively searching for Garth.

Meanwhile, in the van, Garth hears the wolf singing about chops and realises someone’s not quite right.

Even an abducted and therefore quite helpless child character must not be passive. We enjoy watching Garth try to get himself out of this difficulty of partly his own making. (If he hadn’t been so greedy about counting the money to see if he could upgrade his ice cream he might have noticed, as well all did, that the ice cream vendor was a wolf.)

Garth Pig gets himself out of difficulty

BATTLE

There is a fairly lengthy action scene in which the reader enjoys seeing the wolf try to control a bicycle built for ten as it careens downhill. This eventually ends with him being thrown into the river.

chase scene in garth pig

Next there is a shot to Garth inside the van, realising he’s in trouble. The van breaks down. Garth breaks free.

rolling down the hill in garth pig

 

downhill calamity in garth pig

wolf-falls-into-river

SELF-REVELATION

In this comic tale there is no groundbreaking soulsearching revelation. Instead, the pigs — who live in fairytale land, after all — realise that they still haven’t had their ice creams, and that they can just go up the hill and get some for themselves now that the evil wolf has been taken care of.

All is fair in this story, because the mother points out that she’s already paid for them, after all. (There’ll be no promotion of thievery in picture books, thanks very much.)

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

It’s fitting that the final image we see is of the wolf’s old straw hat, caught in the branches which hang into the river.

In stories, hats have a special significance of denoting power or otherwise. A father will give his son a baseball cap, for instance, or a king will give a prince his crown to symbolise a transfer of power. Without the hat as disguise, the wolf is now rendered completely powerless. We can extrapolate from this image that he won’t be bothering this village again.

new equilibrium in garth pig
Instead of dead bodies we sometimes see discarded items in picture books to accompany the disappearance of a baddie.

Symbolism Of The Forest In Storytelling

the hobbit full cover

Be it woods or forest, when a character enters the trees in fiction, beware! We learned this from fairytales, but is fear of the forest innate,  or taught to us via fiction?

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.
— Henry David Thoreau

The central story quality of the forest is that it is a natural cathedral. The tall trees, with their leaves hanging over us and protecting us, seem like the oldest wise men assuring us that whatever the circumstances, it will resolve as time moves on. It is the place where contemplative people go and to which lovers sneak away.

But this intense inward gaze of the forest also has a sense of foreboding. The forest is where people get lost. It’s the hiding place of ghosts and past lives. It is where hunters stalk their prey, and their prey is often human. The forest is tamer than the jungle; the jungle will kill anything in it at any moment. The forest, when it does its frightening work, causes mental loss first. It is slower than the jungle but still deadly.

– John Truby, The Anatomy Of Story 

Continue reading “Symbolism Of The Forest In Storytelling”

Hop O’ My Thumb by Charles Perrault

Hop O’ My Thumb is so similar to Hansel and Gretel you might wonder how both co-existed. Both stories have:

  • A time of famine
  • In which the parents decide to leave their children in the woods
  • A trail of pebbles
  • A second abandonment, further into the woods
  • A welcoming cottage in the woods
  • A cannibalistic inhabitant who wants to fatten the children up and eat them
  • Trickery and cunning on the part of one child as a means of escape
  • A home-away-home structure, in which the children end up (richer, in some versions) back home after an adventure
  • No mention of the trauma of abandonment that must surely have resulted after being abandoned — twice — by your very own parents.
This is the poster for the 2011 French film
This is the poster for the 2011 French film

The truth is, Hansel and Gretel is the version that survived the best in the English speaking world. How many people know the story of Hansel and Gretel but have never heard of Hop O’ My Thumb? That certainly described me until I recently made an effort to read some of the lesser known fairytales.

Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne

Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Manzatotti

This tale is much kinder to mothers than to fathers, and far kinder to mothers than the Grimm brothers were. Here, the mothers stand up for their children while the fathers want to get rid of them. In Hansel and Gretel it is the other way around. There has been much psychoanalysis of that.

There are also elements of Tom Thumb in this tale (obviously, from the title!), though no mention in the actual story about Hop O’ My Thumb’s diminutive size. Nonetheless, almost all illustrators depict not only the titular character but also the brothers as very tiny.

Hop O My Thumb Poucet woods

I’m also reminded of Jack and the Beanstalk when the ogre arrives home to his cottage in the wood and sniffs out the children to eat.

His seven daughters are somewhat vampiric, with their pointy teeth. They have already started sucking on the blood of babies, we are told.

What can I say? This story has it all.

 

Continue reading “Hop O’ My Thumb by Charles Perrault”

Black Dog by Pamela Allen Analysis

Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991) is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picture book with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.

Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.

For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF BLACK DOG

If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?

After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.

WEAKNESS/NEED

The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.

Christina black dog happy_600x509

Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons01Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons02_600x620

Then we have a switch to the singulative: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.

The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.

Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.

One cold day_600x553

DESIRE

It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.

So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.

See: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Food In Children’s Literature

Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.

Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of three: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.

OPPONENT

Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.

You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).

Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.

Christina is her own worst enemy.

Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.

Blue bird dream_600x1062

PLAN

After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.

He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.

As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches (heh) the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.

BATTLE

The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.

Black Dog flying_600x421

For more: The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

SELF-REVELATION

But it is Christina who has the revelation. We see her pick him up carefully, gently, and carry him inside and lay him on her bed. She cuddles him and tells him she loves him.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

We don’t see Christina’s emergence from depression, but we do see that she has now realised she must pay attention to her dog.

In other words, she must take care of herself during this dark time.

 

Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairytale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairytales as ur-texts.

Anthony Browne writes postmodern picturebooks and Into The Forest is an excellent example of intertextuality.

WHAT IS INTERTEXTUALITY?

The relationship ‘between texts’.

No work of literature stands entirely alone. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.

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