Unmentionable by Paul Jennings

Unmentionable Paul Jennings

Unmentionable (1991) is a collection of 9 hi-lo short stories by iconic Australian author Paul Jennings.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “ICE MAIDEN”

In “Ice Maiden”, a boy falls in love with an ice statue, but he gets over his love for the ice once he meets a real girl.

I have some sympathy for the phenomenon whereby adolescents lust after (hopefully) safe targets — celebrities, cartoon characters, teachers, coaches. These objects feel safe because they will never reciprocate our nascent lust.

“Ice Maiden” is about the humiliation sometimes felt when lusting after someone — or something — utterly unattainable.

There are strong echoes of Pygmalion in any story with a plot like this. Jennings has rewritten Pygmalion knowingly, with mention of a Greek statue. I’ve written about Pygmalion previously. The Greek myth is inherently sexist. When writing this humorous retelling for kids, Paul Jennings didn’t manage to subvert that aspect at all. I don’t believe he manages any subversion in “Ice Maiden”.

The image of the beautiful frozen girl is also inside a glass case, which has echoes of fairytales such as Snow White.



SHORTCOMING

I just wouldn’t go anywhere near a redhead.

Jennings opens the story like that and I’m immediately suspicious. But Jennings reassures us:

Now don’t get me wrong and start calling me a hairist or something like that. Listen to what I have to say, then make up your mind.

The moral shortcoming of the narrator is that he doesn’t like redheads, and refuses to be friends with Mr Mantolini’s cousin.

DESIRE

The narrator wants to continue lusting after an ice statue in the fish shop window, but she’s about to perish under the hot sun. His object of desire will no longer exist.

OPPONENT

Mr Mantolini, who wants to replace the statue of an ice maiden with a new one.

PLAN

My plan was to take her to the butcher. I would pay him to keep the ice maiden in his freezer where I could visit her every day.

Jennings makes use of a ticking clock device:

The sun was rising in the sky. I had to hurry.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle sequence begins with the narrator kissing the ice statue on the mouth. The slap stick gag is that his lips get stuck to her. We all know the gag, and accept that, in stories, ice is dangerous in this way.

The narrator takes the statue into the sea, aiming to melt her in sea water.

Paul Jennings uses the trope of ‘life flashing before eyes’ to insert back story, including the revelation that the narrator himself has red hair. At least, it’s a reveal if you aren’t reading an edition with this picture on the front:

Ice Maiden Paul Jennings

This is meant to be a subversion of redhead bigotry. I.e., You can’t possibly hate red headed people if you have red hair yourself. But this doesn’t take into account the phenomenon of internalised hatred and lateral violence. So this reveal feels like a failed ‘subversion’ to me.

ANAGNORISIS

The entire story feels as if it were written around a pithy closing paragraph:

I guess that’s when I discovered that an ice maiden who is dead is not sad. And a nice maiden who is red, is not bad.

A big reveal is that the narrator’s red hair probably helped save him (because it made him more visible to rescuers in the water). We are therefore meant to conclude that red hair is a good thing now.

Another big reveal is that ‘Tony’ is a girl. She is beautiful despite being a red head. This reveal is a little forced. Tony is a gender neutral name, but this is the way boys spell it. All the girl Tonis I’ve known have spell their name with an ‘i’. However, once Jennings spelt the name with a ‘y’, he had to keep spelling it like that. Or, chose to.

The reveal also relies upon a fractured, non-native rendition of English of Mr Mantolini, which doesn’t quite work.

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that the boy is no longer sad about losing the ice version of a crush because he can now fixate upon the girl who inspired the ice creation, in the same objectifying, dehumanising way.

If the reader is familiar with the ur-Story of Pygmalion, we might imagine they will have a son and daughter together.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BIRDMAN”

“Birdman” plays on the wish fulfilment fantasy of flying, common in children’s literature. It also fulfils the fantasy of winning against your biggest enemy.

SHORTCOMING

Sean wants to win a flying competition. We deduce he’s after prestige.

DESIRE

Sean is trying to fly.

OPPONENT

Spider is ostensibly an ally, helping Sean to fly. But he’s also encouraging Sean to perform beyond his capability. The boy friendship combo in which our main character is the Every Boy and his best friend is an even lower-mimetic hero is common, even today. We see it in Wimpy Kid (Greg is the Every Boy, Rowley is his chubby, hapless best friend); we see it in Monster House (DJ and Chowder); we see it most famously in Harry Potter (Harry Potter and Ron Wesley). When we see it in Hollywood, often with grown men, these are known as Buddy Comedies.

Note that Jennings has used the trick of alliterative names to link two characters together. (Both Spider and Sean begin with ‘s’. Katherine Mansfield, who wrote a very different sort of short story, made use of this also e.g. in “The Garden Party“.)

Buggins is the kid who always wins the competition. He is also vindictive. He deliberately ruins Sean’s wings. This is the big bad opponent.

The mother is an opponent because she doesn’t want her son to participate in this competition.

PLAN

Without really requiring a plan, Sean and Spider happen upon ‘treasure’ buried at the beach. They find a dead cat in the shape of a hat, which is a blend of gross-out and black humour.

Their plan is to pick up the uncle’s hang glider from the railway station. But they are dismissed by the authority figures there. The cat takes over Spider’s body and makes him boom like a man. The hat is thereby proven magic, in a way hats often are. With a hat, a character changes roles completely.

BIG STRUGGLE

The boys know immediately that the cat opens its eyes and copies what it sees. This leads to a series of humiliation gags:

  • The father puts on the cat hat and ends up eating dog food like the dog
  • Sean follows girls into the changing room, in a gag which I doubt was ever funny to girls. It now has an extra level of ick post Trump’s boasts about hanging out in the changing rooms at Miss Teen USA competitions.

ANAGNORISIS

At first Sean and Spider choose not to use the cat hat, because it’s too unpredictable and risky to make use of in a high stakes flying competition.

But of course the cat hat is used. We expect this. The revelation is in how it’s going to be used.

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that Buggins will end up with poo on his head and face. This is a highly satisfying ending for many in the child audience. As a kid I was delighted by Roald Dahl’s poem “The Cow” included in Dirty Beasts, which ends:

She dived and using all her power
She got to sixty miles an hour
‘’Bombs gone!’’ she cried. ‘’Take that’’ she said,
And dropped a cowpat on his head.

I took my copy of Dirty Beasts to school. Our teacher read it naively, but before he had read the final line, he cast the book aside in disgust. My classmates turned to me and with accusing tones said I’d personally ruined storytime (which they wanted to last longer). Obviously, I’m scarred for life. (But not by the vengeful poo conclusion.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF “LITTLE SQUIRT”

From the title of “Little Squirt” we can tell: A small boy underdog gets his own back after being bullied by larger boys than him.

This is so short it’s almost micro fiction. It’s a story of a literal pissing contest between boys.

SHORTCOMING

The story opens with an actual pissing competition (used metaphorically mostly, to describe hierarchical struggles between boys and men). Sure enough, Weesle is little and therefore at the bottom of the hierarchy.

DESIRE

Weesle wants to be better than his big brother at competitions.

OPPONENT

Sam and the other boys, who are bigger and therefore better than him at competitions.

PLAN

His mother sits him down and tells him to practise. If he practises, he’ll be better than the other boys.

BIG STRUGGLE

By talking about the running race, Jennings misdirects us. We don’t see the big finale of the running race; we see a repeat of the pissing competition in the toilets.

ANAGNORISIS

The gag is that when the earnest mother sat Weesle down and told him to practise, Weesle didn’t interpret that as ‘practise for the running race’. He interpreted that as ‘practise for the pissing competition’.

NEW SITUATION

Weesle is now proud of himself.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE MOUTH ORGAN”

“The Mouth Organ” feels like Paul Jennings making up for his hitherto use and misuse of girl characters. The main character in this story is a girl. The saviour is a woman. Right there, on the page, Jennings writes:

There’s nothing to say that the man has to be the brave one. Why shouldn’t it be a woman?

Why a girl in this story? I have a working theory that stories with heavily symbolic use of trees tend to be more feminine, especially when the trees are a flowering variety. Flowers = pretty = femininity.

SHORTCOMING

The exact nature of the problem is revealed slowly.

Nicole has accidentally killed a tree. The tree must flower, because until it flowers, Mr Hardbristle has — with no real rhyme nor reason — decided that he won’t forgive himself for his wife’s death until the magnolia tree, planted upon her grave, flowers.

Nicole feels that it is her personal responsibility to mange the feelings of Mr Hardbristle, which is another reason why Jennings may have (unconsciously or consciously) chosen a girl to be the main character of this one. In stories, across the board, girls are considered givers of emotional labour. A stand-out example of this dynamic in children’s literature is a Nick Bland picture book called The Very Cranky Bear. In that story, a female sheep saves the day by donating her own fleece. The gendering of the animals in that story is no accident.

DESIRE

Nicole wants to replace the dead magnolia tree, which will eventually make Mr Hardbristle happy.

OPPONENT

Nicole wants Mr Hardbristle to be happy and to forgive himself. Mr Hardbristle can’t seem to manage that, despite his extra decades of emotional maturity, so that makes Mr Hardbristle the girl’s opponent.

When the man with the mouth organ appears, we wait to see if this guy is an opponent or an ally. This is a Paul Jennings story so we know: He’ll be an opponent at first, until the child learns to use the magic he gives her. Then, when she has learned to manipulate his magic, he’ll be proven a firm ally.

PLAN

Busk, earn money, buy a new magnolia tree.

This plan isn’t working at first because nobody gives Nicole much money.

BIG STRUGGLE

There is a level 1 metadiegetic level to this story which describes the fire which killed Mrs Hardbristle. This has its own big struggle — in fact, it’s mostly big struggle sequence.

The big struggle sequence of the level 0 busking story starts with a slapstick, carnivalesque scene in which tourists rip their clothes off because the girl is playing a strip tease tune.

Paul Jennings makes use of a ticking clock (it feels a little forced) because the mouth organ wants to return to its owner. She needs to earn $1000 for a tree but she hasn’t got enough yet.

Nicole has a personal big struggle with the mouth organ itself when it lodges itself inside her mouth, like a sideways banana. This puts her classmates in a trance:

The class close around me with outstretched fingers. Their nails are like claws.

The entire class chases her through town as if they are wild animals.

ANAGNORISIS

When Nicole has been through the mill, accidentally turning the townsfolk to wood, she meets the Ponytail Guy again.

There’s been a misunderstanding. The Ponytail Guy reveals that the mouth organ ‘does good for those who do good. And bad for those who do bad.’

When Nicole tells him what she wants money for, the mouth organ suddenly starts to do good.

NEW SITUATION

The story ends on a ‘tune of love’. The magnolia tree is in full bloom.

This is a very feminine ending and I would have liked Paul Jennings to use a boy main character for this story. Ironically, perhaps, this would have been more gender subversive.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE VELVET THRONE”

“The Velvet Throne” is a bit of a departure for Paul Jennings. The main character is not a child. The twist is a little more difficult to piece together. It relies on a basic knowledge of divination — the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.

SHORTCOMING

Mr Simpkin is a carer for his brother — Gobble — who has an insatiable appetite. Mr Simpkin is a victim of this appetite because there’s never enough food left for him, and Gobble makes insatiable demands. Gobble is verbally abusive.

Mr Simpkin is spineless, which is his main problem. This character flaw allows him to be mistreated.

DESIRE

This is the story of a downtrodden man’s awakening. He starts off wanting to keep his brother happy and go to work, but he will develop a real Desire in the Anagnorisis.

In the meantime, he needs a proxy desire, to get him to that point. He wants to get away from his opponent…

OPPONENT

Gobble, Mr Simpkin’s brother, who is enormously fat. emotionally abusive and demanding. Gobble is a human dragon character, sitting on a hoard of money which belongs to Mr Simpkin in the first place.

The man who locks Mr Simpkin in the toilet block.

PLAN

He’s doing a bit of a Marion Crane, though with his own money, by running away and booking into a hotel.

That’s the plan, but he gets locked in the public toilet.

BIG STRUGGLE

The night in the toilet block is pure psychological horror. And it plays on a fear we’ve probably all had at some point — getting locked inside a building because we haven’t managed to find our way out before closing time. Some of these fantasies are utopian — getting locked in a supermarket and eating all the marshmallows. But this one is dystopian. It’s cold, it rains, and toilet wall graffiti functions as divination.

ANAGNORISIS

The revelation is that whatever’s written on the toilet wall as graffiti comes true. So Mr Simpkin realises he can get rid of his abusive brother in one fell swoop.

NEW SITUATION

He writes damning graffiti on the wall, gets home and finds he no longer has a brother.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “CRY BABY”

“Cry Baby” is more like “The Mouth Organ” than any other of his stories, both in structure and in tone. This one stars a boy who cries, which is gender transgressive for Paul Jennings. Unfortunately the entire story is called “Cry Baby”, which shames a boy for his tears, undoing what might otherwise be a nice message — that a boy crying actually saved the day.

There is the weirdness of the bum on photocopier, which today doesn’t have quite the same air of jocularity to it. We’re a lot more careful about images of naked children these days, even ones taken by the children themselves, because we have to be.

SHORTCOMING

Gavin, a.k.a. Cry Baby’s shortcoming is that he cries more than is socially acceptable for a boy. He is also a non-judicious prankster. (An odd combination, now I think about it.)

His problem is that he’s been suspended from school for photocopying his butt and putting it on the pinboard. Another sulky mother — the mother won’t talk to him.

The school incident is a bit of a MacGuffin. His next problem is that he cries on his mother’s precious writing pad and ruins it.

DESIRE

Gavin wants to get himself out of trouble.

OPPONENT

Teacher followed by mother.

Then the road rage men, covered in tattoos, back when only rough characters got tatts. (Now pretty much every second Australian seems to have tatts.) Tellingly, they’re driving a Ford.

PLAN

Outside, looking for his mother, Gavin just happens to spy his grandfather, who is off on a trip to find the water-holding frog. These are frogs who live in Western Australia. They have adapted to a climate with a rainy season followed by lengthy drought.

Gavin decides to escape his mother’s anger by taking off on a frog-scouting jaunt with his grandfather.

It doesn’t take much to endanger your own life in the Australian outback. Leaving the tap of water on will do it.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle sequence is Gavin looking for the frog while his grandfather naps, almost dead of thirst, according to Gavin.

ANAGNORISIS

He finds the frog by crying on the ground. His anagnorisis is that something shameful can save the day.

NEW SITUATION

I’m wondering if they’re going to have to suck the frog dry in order to survive. People do gross things for water. But by complete coincidence, at that exact moment, there’s a rain storm. So I extrapolate that they don’t need to kill the frog they’ve come in search of.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “EX POSER”

“Ex Poser” is another very short story based around humiliating someone — a girl, this time — for adolescent nascent love. This set up feels borderline abusive. My problem with this story is that the narrator’s actions and intentions are rewarded with the love of a popular, rich girl. His humiliation tactics are never questioned, because the reader will side with him, the underdog. Also, girls aren’t stupid. Girls don’t typically like boys who humiliate them, and I hate to see it modelled.

SHORTCOMING

A boy has pimples and he is not rich. He feels he has bad luck because of this.

DESIRE

When a boy called Boffin makes an accurate lie detector, the boy would like to humiliate the snobbiest girl in the class by asking her questions about her love life. He does this in front of an audience for maximum impact.

OPPONENT

The narrator’s love opponent is the girl he humiliates.

PLAN

He plans to ask Sandra Morris embarrassing questions for the sheer joy of humiliation.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is where the narrator asks Sandra who she likes.

ANAGNORISIS

The big twist is that she doesn’t like the equally rich and popular boy in the class — she likes him.

NEW SITUATION

I’d like to think Sandra realises she doesn’t want to be with a boy who humiliates her and reveals that she only said that to get him back for the stunt, but this is a happy ever after ending. Boy gets girl.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SLOPPY JALOPY”

“Sloppy Jalopy” is another revenge story, this time against a teacher who confiscates jewellery. Before he is able to exact revenge, the young narrator must endure quite a lot of humiliating hijinks himself.

SHORTCOMING

A boy isn’t allowed to wear an earring to school. His father is also a character who does wacky things like cut the top off a standard Holden to turn it into a (non) convertible in the name of uniqueness. This means they can’t go out in the rain.

DESIRE

He wants his earring replaced.

OPPONENT

The teacher who confiscates his earring, along with the chorus of his sister, who seems to agree with the teacher about no jewellery at school.

Next the father is an opponent for being wacky.

Inside the earring shop, the opponents sell the boy an earring which attracts rubbish.

The main opponent is the filthy tanker truck who covers them in muck. This reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s early film Duel (basically Jaws but set on a highway).

PLAN

The narrator will escape the rubbish by getting into a taxi. This doesn’t work. The taxi becomes dangerously covered in rubbish.

BIG STRUGGLE

This story is somewhat divided in two — the first Battle is the near death experience after the narrator is covered in gunk.

The second half of the story is the big struggle against every bit of rubbish which wants to stick to him. This is the Muck Monster trope. Except there’s no environmental message. This is pure gross-out slapstick comedy.

ANAGNORISIS

After the taxi big struggle, the revelation is that the earring is what’s attracting rubbish. He gets the earring back from the taxi driver.

NEW SITUATION

The new plan, which belongs to the bookended story set at school, is to take the earring to school in a jar (apparently if it’s inside a glass jar it doesn’t attract rubbish), and hope to get it confiscated so that the mean teacher will become covered in rubbish.

We extrapolate that this is what happens next, creating a circular story structure.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “EYES KNOWS”

“Eyes Knows” is a cautionary tale against doing things just because someone else says so. The wrapper story is the more serious narrative of a child who is forced to choose between his separating parents.

SHORTCOMING

The main character has been sabotaged by a ‘little robot man’ who tells him what to do. The problem is that he’s now stuck high up a ladder, scared that he will fall.

In the backstory we learn that Harry is in a vulnerable position because his parents are separating. They are forcing him to make a decision about who he wants to live with. This is an impossible choice. In this vulnerable position, he accepted the appearance of a decision-maker.

Jennings uses a save the cat moment near the beginning of the story (save the caterpillar).

DESIRE

Harry wants to be able to make a decision. Since he can’t, he is going to outsource it. Once he decides to put his trust in the robot man, he no longer has to make any moral decisions.

OPPONENT

Since Jennings opened with Harry in peril we know from the start that the robot man is his opponent. (A fake ally opponent, to be specific.)

PLAN

Now Harry has been established as a do-gooder (with the caterpillars), he continues on his do-gooder mission when he tries to save the old people from the nurse, who treats them like children.

BIG STRUGGLE

Harry and the old people embark upon a carnivalesque escape. In a trope utilised later by Speed, one of the characters on that bus has a history of fast driving (because he used to be a racing car driver, not because he got lots of speeding tickets).

ANAGNORISIS

When Harry entrusts the robot to make the divorce decision for him (in the wrapper story of separating parents), he realises this shouldn’t be his decision to make. He confronts his parents, who come to their own realisation.

NEW SITUATION

Harry discards the little robot and other kids find it. This creates another circular story, in which we imagine a similar caper happening all over again.

Unreal by Paul Jennings Hi-lo Short Fiction

Unreal Paul Jennings

Unreal is a collection of 8 short stories, first published 1985. This was the book that really kicked-off Jennings’ career as a children’s author. Though it wasn’t called that at the time, these books are excellent examples of hi-lo literature.

I am revisiting the work of Paul Jennings with the benefit of 2019 hindsight. I’d like to clarify what writing lessons I can learn from Paul Jennings, against what to throw out.



STORY STRUCTURE OF “WITHOUT A SHIRT”

The premise of “Without A Shirt” is masterfully childlike.

I’m reminded of a group of boy classmates in Year 9 who started saying ‘Cheese On Toast’ very randomly. There was nothing behind this joke — it wasn’t an in-joke — the joke was that it was utterly meaningless.

One day these boys got in big trouble. They stole a piece of chalk (I guess our high school was phasing out blackboards in 1991) and used that chalk to write Cheese On Toast in huge letters across the blank canvas wall of the Hunter Gym. Although chalk isn’t permanent, and although Cheese On Toast is harmless, a PE teacher walked past, saw the graffiti and started fuming. My friends and I happened to be sitting right in front of the wall. Looking back, the boys were probably hoping to impress.

The scary PE teacher interrogated us girls until we told him who had done it. I still regret telling this teacher who’d done it, because they all got detention. For ‘graffiti’ that would come off in a shower of rain.

Paul Jennings understands the things that kids do for fun. One reading of “Without A Shirt” is that Brian Bell’s speech issue is an analogue for stuttering or similar, but really, the premise could derive for this kind of playful ridiculousness.

Playing with words in this way is carnivalesque. Children are expected to say certain things at certain times, and by defying this expectation, humour ensues.

Paul Jennings does his trademark story-within-a-story in “Without A Shirt”, because Brian is doing a speech about his own family history. It starts, “A man fell overboard”. The content of this Level 1, metadiegetic speech is important to the Level 0 plot.

SHORTCOMING

Brian Bell has a speech difficulty. He can’t help but say ‘without a shirt’ at the end of every sentence.

His problem really challenges this shortcoming: He is giving a speech in front of his whole class.

Brian’s problems mount up. When he gets home he learns he and his mother are about to be evicted, due to all the holes dug by Brian’s dog, Shovel.

DESIRE

Brian wants to avoid getting teased. He wants to stay living in his house.

But neither of these things is possible.

He wants respect and security.

OPPONENT

Sue Featherstone, a high prestige girl (her father is the mayor), makes fun of him for his speech issue.

Paul Jennings likes to use girls for this role, on the basis that boys like to impress girls even more than they like to impress other boys.

Margaret Attwood: Men are afraid of being laughed at. Women are afraid of being killed. In this story, Brian happens to wish Susan were dead. Is this mitigated by the fact that he also wishes himself dead?

Not really. This oppositional set up feels so icky to me. That’s because I’m reading this story in 2019. Margaret Attwood’s quote wasn’t published until 1996. “Without A Shirt” was published more than a decade earlier than that. Hard to remember this, but people didn’t have a clue about the experiential differences between existing as a man versus as a woman.

The Featherstone family is a formidable opponent — Sue Featherstone’s mother is their landlady. She comes to evict them.

PLAN

After eviction, they go live in the cemetery. This is a very Paul Jennings thing to do. Common sense and reality is replaced by an absurd decision. But then he reveals that they actually live in a ‘cottage’ in the middle of the cemetery.

Now we have the comic scenario of a dog that digs holes, living in a graveyard. Paul Jennings needs the audience to understand this connection, so the real estate agent walks away chuckling about it. This is a necessary step.

Because predictably, the dog starts bringing bones back. Unpredictably (and quite a bizarre writing choice), the bones don’t come from the graveyard. They come from the nearby beach which we didn’t know about.

BIG STRUGGLE

The bones form a leg which hops. This scares the opponent Sue, as her mother was scared, which means Brian regains his social capital and also scores ten out of ten for his speech.

ANAGNORISIS

Brian fits the skeleton together, same as a detective in a detective story would piece together a puzzle. Eventually, Brian realises the skeleton is that of his great-great-grandfather, whose bones are unhappy because they are scattered and aren’t wearing a shirt.

NEW SITUATION

Once Brian has pieced the bones together and dressed them in the found-shirt, he no longer says “without a shirt” at the end of every sentence. The ghost has found peace.

Notice how Paul Jennings doesn’t give a fig about coincidence. That is the feature of the tall tale. By complete coincidence, Brian is giving a speech about his great-great-grandfather at the same time his dog happens to find the great-great-grandfather’s skeleton.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE STRAP BOX FLYER”

This short story reminds me very much of a picture book Wolf Comes To Town by Denis Manton (now hard to get).

  • The story opens from the trickster’s point of view. We are let in on the trickster’s scheme, so we are in audience superior position.
  • Next we are shown a few incidents in which the trickster causes trouble for a community.
  • In both stories, a boy dies as a result. So yes, it is okay to kill off a child in books for very young readers, if you were wondering. Writers have to be very careful about this, because it’s sometimes okay and at other times not. The rules seem to follow the rules for killing off mothers: If we don’t get to know the character, their death does not affect us. If we’re going to kill off a child character, set up the story so the child expects it. Don’t spring child death on the reader. Genre is important. Child death in funny stories is okay. Child death in sad stories must be handled with more care. See also: Death in Children’s Literature.
  • In both stories, the trickster leaves town in search of a new community of gullible people to trick.
  • Here’s where the stories part ways: The trickster wolf in Wolf Comes To Town successfully gets away. The trickster scam glue-seller in “Strap Box Flyer” meets his trickster match, then comes to a sorry end.

SHORTCOMING

Being a good con artists also makes you a really good mark. This is a psychological phenomenon which applies to real con artists. The con artist is always on the knowing side of things, and they can’t imagine themselves on the dupe side. This gives them a lot of (false) confidence.

This is explored in many stories which end in the con artists getting duped by another con artist e.g. Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels.

This is one of those stories. Audiences do love tricksters. We love it even more when a trickster outwits another trickster.

DESIRE

Giffen, con artist, wants to get rich quick. He is immoral. He is only after money and, by extension, power. He is the ultimate trickster villain.

OPPONENT

His opponent appears as the “little man”, named Flinty. Flinty is a symbolic name. When describing a person, the word means very hard and unyielding. We know that this trickster is going to outsmart Giffen.

PLAN

Once Flinty appears, the audience is now placed in reader inferior position. We have full trust in Flinty and watch him as he carries out his plan.

It is satisfying to watch what a master trickster does, but only when that information is withheld from the audience. This is how heist stories work, too. To see how this is done, it’s a good idea to refer to the heist subgenre of crime. Breaking Bad and Animal Kingdom are TV series for adults which also structure their episodes in this way.

The plan: Flinty makes a flying machine, uses Giffen’s glue to hold it together, then coaxes Giffen up into the air. That’s the plan in sequential order.

But note that, as revealed, the audience is shown the plan in reverse order. The LAST thing the reader learns is that the flying machine has been held together with Giffen’s glue.

BIG STRUGGLE

When it comes to the metrics of ascent and descent, artificial intelligence has come up with six basic plots:

  • Rags to Riches (rise)
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  • Riches to Rags (fall)
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
  • Icarus (rise then fall)

Jennings has clearly drawn upon the Greek tradition here. One of the most influential stories in Western literature is the Greek story of Icarus and Daedalus.

Giffen’s glue = the wax, a symbol of hubris.

A lot of the time, flight = freedom. Not just freedom from specific circumstances in the plot but also freedom from more general burdens. In a slightly religious sense, flying = freeing of the spirit. The notion that the disembodied soul is capable of flight is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition and probably many others. But for the ancient Greeks and Romans this concept was problematic: the souls of blessed and damned alike were meant to go to an underground realm. The belief in a celestial heaven leads much of later Western culture, who think of a soul as light and travelling upwards.

But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom.

If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.

There are plenty of stories about flying whose flights — like Icarus — are interrupted prematurely.

For more on this see The Symbolism of Flight In Children’s Literature.

SELF-REVELATION

These much earlier stories in the Icarus tradition were written in highly spiritual times and the endings include an element of rebirth. (Gravity starring Sandra Bullock is a clear example of that. Testament of Youth is another.)

But there is no such religious awakening in a Paul Jennings story. Instead, the reader gets a simple ‘plot revelation’, in line with a comedy set up and gag. After fully expecting it, the reader learns how the “little man” tricks the con artist.

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that the con artist falls to his death. This feels like a just punishment because he has already killed a child, and is fully a victim of his own misdeeds.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SKELETON ON THE DUNNY”

The Australian-ness of this story is evident from the title. We know it’s going to follow in the tall tale tradition.

SHORTCOMING

Bob is scared of the outhouse toilet at his Aunt Flo’s house. The name Aunt Flo is in itself funny, for being a pun on ‘flow’.

Bob’s problem is that the dunny is haunted by the ghost of Old Ned, who died out there. Comedy derives from Aunt Flo’s deadpan story that she came home to find her housesitter dead on the toilet. Only his skeleton was left.

DESIRE

When the ghost makes Bob’s teeth chatter, he breaks one off. The plate is expensive, then falls down the toilet.

This doesn’t make sense to me, since I’ve never used an outhouse connected to the sewerage system — it’s always a composting set-up — but I suppose such things exist. It’s technically possible that this house is so old, the sewerage system was set up without the owner (Aunt Flo) moving the toilet into the house. I don’t know the sewerage history of Timboon.

Anyhow, Bob now wants his plate back.

Notice what Paul Jennings has done with the desire line: There’s really nothing Bob can do about getting rid of the ghost.  Bob’s deep desire is to ‘use the dunny without being scared to death’.

But this deep desire to avoid fear needs an active desire-line which functions to propel the narrative forward. So Jennings gives him a surface level desire-line — a Holy Grail type quest: To find a lost item.

OPPONENT

The ghost of Old Ned.

PLAN

Bob goes to a fantasy version of a treatment plant, where all sorts of lost things are kept in baskets. He finds his tooth and now

BIG STRUGGLE

Finally, in a Three Little Pigs scenario, the ghost blows the roof off the dunny.

ANAGNORISIS

The valuable painting is hidden in the roof of the dunny. (This information has been planted earlier in a very obvious form of Chekhov’s Gun.)

NEW SITUATION

Old Ned floats up into the sky.

He was gone. He wouldn’t be coming back.

Paul Jennings must have realised that the audience would be left with a refrigerator moment: What was a painting doing in the roof of the dunny? Chapter 10 functions as an epilogue, in which the narrator offers his theory on that.

Because epilogues are inherently boring (with closures instead of reveals — the storytelling equivalent of tidying your room), Paul Jennings makes it seem less epilogue-y by including a supernatural gag in Chapter 10: The recovered painting now contains an image of Old Ned (on the dunny).

STORY STRUCTURE OF “LUCKY LIPS”

Growing up in the 1980s my parents subjected us to a lot of Cliff Richard. I am mortified to find I know all the lyrics to “Lucky Lips”. The things the brain stores…

“Lucky Lips” (the song) is a simple wish fulfilment fantasy for the Every Man — you don’t have to be rich or good-looking (or even decent) — all you need are lucky lips and you’ll have ‘a baby in your arms’.

I resisted re-reading this Paul Jennings story by the same name. I didn’t remember the plot — I remembered I had never been comfortable with now. Now that it’s 2019, and I am older myself, I am better able to articulate what is wrong with this story: It is rapey. It is also uncomfortably heteronormative. The transgression between boy and animal would have always felt risque, which was Paul Jennings’ point. But now, that feels rapey as well.

Moreover, this story promotes the idea that being sixteen and never kissed is shameful. It turns sex into a competition and a milestone, which mutually excludes its main function for teenagers: enjoyment and excitement.

“Stuck up snobs,” he said. “I’ll teach them a lesson.” He decided to make the most popular girl in the school kiss him. That would show them all.

The adventures of Marcus fail to amuse me at all. This character is very creepily reminiscent of Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 went on a misogyny driven murder spree before ending his own life.

SHORTCOMING

Marcus doesn’t realise this about himself, but the third person narrator is able to tell us that Marcus is stuck up and unlikeable.

Because he lives in a culture which tells boys (especially) that having sex with girls is a prerequisite for manhood, the fact that he’s never been kissed goes against his sense of self. He feels entitled to girls’ attention.

After setting this up, Jennings had a chance to subvert the cultural expectation. But he doesn’t do that at all. Instead, he punishes Marcus for being stuck up and manipulative. There is no critique of the cultural forces at work.

DESIRE

On the page, Marcus wants to be kissed by girls.

His deeper desire, dangerously off the page, is that he feels entitled to girls and their bodies and their attention, and requires this attention to prove his own sense of worth. Desire and need are meant to intersect in a good story. I’m in no doubt of my own analysis. The problem is, the child reader is likely to only see the slapstick humiliation of the story.

OPPONENT

Marcus’s initial opponent is the witch. The witch is a fairytale outworking of the forty-year-old middle-aged ‘hag’ he’ll encounter as punishment. (This duality — women as witches — was explored masterfully in Anthony Browne’s postmodern picture book adaptation of Hansel and Gretel.)

This story is absolutely typical of the 1980s, in which ‘consent’ never once came up in sex education lessons. Paul Jennings does try to lampshade this icky aspect. ‘Consent’ wasn’t used in this context, so he talks about ‘stolen kisses’:

Marcus started to feel a bit guilty. He fingered the lipstick in his pocket. Should he use it? He remembered something about stolen kisses. Was he stealing a kiss if he used the lipstick? Not really — if he used it, Jill would be kissing him of her own free will.

But free will is a very controversial concept. Just take a listen to what philosophers and public intellectuals disagree about when they talk to each other.

So if a children’s author is going to delve into the nature of free will, it’s super risky to use sex as a means to do that.

It soon becomes clear that these girls (referred to — jokingly, I’m sure — as ‘victims’ on the page) do not have free will at all. The setting magic of the lipstick takes free will away from them. Marcus is justifying non-consensual sexual acts to himself. These girls are horrified to learn they have kissed a boy they’re not attracted to at all.

Jill jumped back as if she had been burned. She put her hand up to her mouth and went red in the face. … Jill didn’t know what to say. She was blushing. She couldn’t understand what had happened.

PLAN

As a forty year old woman myself, I’m also icked out by Paul Jennings using Fay Billings’ mother as his ‘punishment victim’. Mrs Billings is too old for Marcus — of course — and her ‘old-ladyness’ is his first punishment. He himself is non-consensually kissed, and this is the first (more minor) part of his punishment.

He realises he’ll have to be more careful if he doesn’t want to be kissed by undesirable older women. So he stops going round to girls’ houses and instead makes sure he surrounds himself only by other girls.

BIG STRUGGLE

Marcus wants to be kissed by only one type of girl, and only one at a time. But in a scene I’m sure Paul Jennings intends as ridiculously slapstick, Marcus is kissed by many at once.

The ‘catty girliness’ of these ‘females’ is underscored by the following description:

They shrieked and screamed and fought: they scratched and fought and bit.

I’m not sure if this idea is completely dead yet, but I clearly remember being told by my father in the 1980s (my father is the exact same age as Paul Jennings) that boys fight ‘fair’ and girls fight ‘dirty’. A punch in the face is ‘fair’; scratching and biting is ‘dirty’. I don’t know why I was told that, since I never relied on scratching and biting myself, and never got into physical tousles with my brothers anyway. This was common wisdom.

Leaving aside the fact that a single punch can be deadly, whereas biting and scratching tends to create surface wounds, there is no evidence to support a gender division between ‘ways of fighting’. When lives are threatened, people fight for in any way they can. When a victim is overpowered by size and strength, they will use non-muscle means of escape, whether male or female. In order to understand how and why people fight, researchers need to move away from gendered constructs. This is especially important now that women are becoming more violent, even as men become less violent. (At least, here in Australia.)

The wilfully sexist misunderstanding of gender and violence is why Paul Jennings’ description of the girls mid-Battle is so offensive to me. Also, there’s that very long history of women being compared to cats (and to birds). Scratching and biting are distinctively feline.

ANAGNORISIS

Plus, as he has done in other stories, Paul Jennings has created a scenario in which the worst thing that can happen to a boy is being laughed at by girls.

Well, almost the worst thing.

NEW SITUATION

Marcus’ final punishment is left off the page, and for good reason. It would be disturbing to watch. The reader can easily extrapolate: Marcus is kissed by the ultimate unattractive partner: an actual sow who has just eaten slops.

Women have been placed on an attractiveness continuum throughout this story as a way of building to a climax.

First we have the ‘unattractive class’, starting with the witch, leading to the forty-year-old woman, then to girls who laugh at Marcus, then to the sloppy sow.

At the top of the ‘attractive class’ we have the designated ‘popular girl’, though the new (vulnerable) girl is a better victim, so Marcus targets her first.

“Lucky Lips” is a gross-out narrative at its most damaging. Give me the poo jokes any day.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “COW DUNG CUSTARD”

As a kid, whenever I asked what was for dinner, the answer was ‘horseshit and rhubarb’, or ‘a big potato with a little one’. The title of “Cow Dung Custard” reminds me of the first (non-)answer. I’m sure I’m not the only child of the 80s who got this response. (My child doesn’t even need to ask — it’ll be one of my three rotating dishes.)

“Cow Dung Custard” is a rags to riches plot with a surprising ending.

I imagine this short story was inspired by the terrible stink of hair removal cream, which has gotten less offensive in recent years, but still smells like hell.

SHORTCOMING

A boy has no social prestige because his father makes him collect dung for his prize-winning vegetable garden.

DESIRE

The Cow Dung kid, along with his mad-scientist archetype father, want enough money to buy a farm where their smelly cottage industry bothers no one.

OPPONENT

The rest of the townsfolk are up in arms over the stink, especially after the father invents Cow Dung Custard, which smells so bad it attracts a massive swarm of flies.

The flies themselves are an environmental opponent, in a comical variation of a cyclone movie such as Twister.

PLAN

Father and son must get rid of the flies and appease the townsfolk. They plan to mix a batch of Cow Dung Custard so strong it kills the flies.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is against the flies but also against the stench of their own invention.

ANAGNORISIS

They realise it smells so bad it makes hair fall out.

NEW SITUATION

In an epilogue paragraph, we learn that cow dung custard has been rebranded as hair-removal cream and has made father and so so rich that they have moved out to the farm. Now, only the characters and the readers of this book know that hair removal cream is really made of cow dung.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “LIGHTHOUSE BLUES”

I read the first section of this story when I was reminded of a film which really took off for a long time in my hometown of Christchurch. It played at one of the Arts Centre cinemas and was called Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod). I went away and found the tune to Gloomy Sunday. I’ve played it heaps over the last 24 hours.

I don’t know why I’m listening to it, because it really is gloomy. At least, I think so.

Not everybody experiences chills when listening to music. Those people are called ‘musical anhedonics’. Between 1 and 5 percent of people experience “specific musical anhedonia”.

Not all emotions associated with music are good emotions. This is in line with my usual response to classical music: I usually feel bittersweet. I feel like I just watched a film with a pyrrhic victory for an ending:

In a study involving more than 1,000 people, Swedish music psychologist Alf Gabrielsson showed that only a little over half of strong experiences with music involve positive emotions.

Many involved “mixed emotions” (think nostalgic or bittersweet love songs), and about one in ten involve negative emotions.

Inverse

But the vast majority of readers have experienced emotional reactions to music.

In “Lighthouse Blues”, Paul Jennings extends this feeling and uses the same trope used in the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday: A song which affects a character so deeply has an effect not only their emotions but on their fate.

The affective music Jennings chose for this story is “Stranger On The Shore”. I’m pretty sure Paul Jennings’ CD tower looks the same as my parents’ CD tower. I grew up with the clarinet tunes of Acker Bilk, and now associate it with long car trips. I also associate it with elevator/waiting room music.

I’m not familiar with Stay Away From Me Baby, but I’m guessing it’s this one, by Larry Bryant:

But Paul Jennings has chosen these ‘grandpa’ tunes for a reason. The third song is a childlike tune, and juxtaposed against those first two, creates humour. Do kids still know this song? I’d say all kids of the 1980s know it.

STORYWORLD OF “LIGHTHOUSE BLUES”

Both setting and era-of-publication are important for “Lighthouse Blues”.

Paul Jennings grew up in an era with lighthouse keepers, or ‘wickies’, as they were often known. Here in Australia, the majority of lighthouse keepers became redundant in the early 1980s, just a few years before Jennings published this short story.

With the advent of satellite navigation and automation of many functions, lighthouses were deactivated in 1983 and no more keepers were employed.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Life, ABC Radio, Perth

Even when lighthouse keepers existed, we have long associated lighthouses with loneliness:

While the image of the lonesome keeper, trudging the stairs up the light tower all through the long wind-swept nights is partially true, many keepers had families who lived with them. They moved from lighthouse to lighthouse around the coast. Together the families worked, played, taught their kids, grew their own food and even made their own homebrew.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Life, ABC Radio, Perth

Because there’s a super long history of stories set on islands.

Apart from the symbolism, islands remain very useful to storytellers because a character stuck on an island cannot easily escape. Oppositional characters are thrown together, and this creates an extra layer of conflict. Not all islands are actual, literal islands, in the ocean. A small town in the middle of nowhere can also function as an island. A hotel in the middle of a massive blizzard is an island. Various kinds of heterotopias (or ‘heterotopies’) can be used as symbolic islands. The island itself is a heterotopia (Foucault’s terminology) because the rules there are different. The island is therefore a perfect setting for a ghost story. Anything might happen.

SHORTCOMING

Anton’s problem is that he can hear ghosts but can’t see them. His ‘problem’ is initially more of a mystery to be solved.

Notice that in stories, opposition is introduced at the same time (or instead of) a mystery.

DESIRE

Anton wants to find out why he’s hearing music.

When Anton learns the lighthouse will be unmanned, he wants to fight to keep it manned.

OPPONENT

The ghosts are the supernatural opposition, for frightening Anton.

But the big, bad outside opposition is the unseen, unnamed ‘they’ who want to shut down the lighthouse and turn it into an unmanned one.

PLAN

Anton points out to the ghosts that playing music isn’t going to help them keep the lighthouse manned. This is a comic spin on the usual scary ghost story, because it contains logic. Ghost stories are about atmosphere, not logic. So humour derives from the juxtaposition of logic and a generally inexplicable scenario.

Playing music on Friday nights won’t stop them. We have to think of something else.

The ghosts can’t talk so they can’t formulate a plan together. But they start playing a well-known protest song.

(Pete Seeger’s version is quite moving. He sings ‘straight and gay together’, which was radical for 1966.)

Anton teaches the ghosts to come out during the day so that they can scare the wreckers. Jennings might have made the decision to keep their practice behind the scenes, and simply show the reader the scare.

But because the scare itself doesn’t have a twist, he made the decision to show us the ironic scene of a boy teaching ghosts as if he’s the teacher and they are his students. This is a hierarchy flip, and is therefore satisfying itself, especially for a young reader.

BIG STRUGGLE

The wreckers are terrified when they see the floating instruments and hear their music.

We’ll Meet Again is a classic wartime tune. When you consider how many young men hearing this song never saw their loved ones again, it’s very sad. (Yep, I also grew up listening to The Very Best of Vera Lynn.)

ANAGNORISIS

Well, that is just about the end of the story.

This marks a kind of epilogue. The story is not finished. A child and ghosts save the day. There’s a pyrrhic victory with Stan dead. But it’s not a complete story, yet.

In part 10 we learn that Anton has been made lighthouse keeper.

NEW SITUATION

And Stan has joined his father and grandfather as a third ghost.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SMART ICE CREAM”

Smart Ice Cream is an example of a very short story.

SHORTCOMING

The story starts in the iterative and our narrator explains that he is smart and handsome. We deduce that he is full of himself.

The switch to the singulative starts with:

Last week something bad happened.

His problem is that another boy is getting the same high score as him at school and this affects his inflated self-esteem.

Later, he is revealed to be rude and vindictive.

DESIRE

He wants to solve a mystery: How did Jerome Dadian get so smart? He’s sure he cheated.

OPPONENT

Jerome Dadian.

The ice-cream man, Mr Peppi.

PLAN

The narrator plans to look inside Mr Peppi’s ice cream van to find out what’s going on. Legend has it, his green ice creams cure all sorts of ills. The hypothesis is that Jerome has been given ice cream to make him super smart.

BIG STRUGGLE

There are some minor big struggles leading to the Anagnorisis. Those are the insults the narrator dishes out to his less fortunate classmates.

The Battle scene itself is a quiet one, in which the narrator breaks into the ice-cream van with a crow bar, then gets into the forbidden special ice creams.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator has the following revelation:

I think I have made a mistake. I don’t think Dadian did get any Smart Ice Cream.

Meanwhile, the reader knows that ‘smart alec’ does not mean ‘smart’. I laugh in recognition at that, because when my daughter was very young I called her a smart alec and she took it as a great compliment.

NEW SITUATION

The final paragraph is written in a dumbed-down style full of obvious spelling errors. The narrator is no longer smart. He’s not a smart alec, either. The truth is, he was probably never smart, just a braggart.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “WUNDERPANTS”

Though this story doesn’t include girls with speaking part, “Wunderpants” is a case study in how to foment disrespect for girls. Short answer: With femme phobia. There’s possibly a bit of homophobia too, though it’s subtle for a child audience:

The underpants felt strange. They made me tingle all over. And my head felt light. There was something not quite right about those underpants — and I am not talking about the fairies.

Aside from all that, this is a disjointed story. I suspect it was positioned last in the book because it is the least successful as a narrative.

SHORTCOMING

David’s main problem is that he’s a victim in a hierarchy power play between boys. They all live in a macho system whereby the worst thing you can be is weak and girly.

But of course, that’s my take on it.

DESIRE

David wants to watch Mad Max 2 with ‘all the other kids’ but his mean dad won’t let him. He especially won’t let him after it’s revealed the narrator used his father’s toothbrush to brush his pet mouse.

After this, the desire line seems to change. The desire to go to the movies is a MacGuffin. Section one exists to introduce the mouse in a funny way, and to set up a bit of family context and empathy for the narrator, who gets up to funny pranks and hi-jinx.

This is really a story about a race, which symbolises the hierarchy between a community of boys.

So the overwhelming desire of David is to win a mouse race, in which he’ll earn a substantial amount of money.

OPPONENT

David’s father is his first opponent for standing in the way of him going to see Mad Max 2.

Scrag Murphy is the child opponent. “The meanest kid in town”, literally. (Jennings makes use of the cliche to draw a quick character sketch.) We’re told he’s carrying too much weight to run in the race (though he does manage to run away with the underpants). The fat kid bully is a common character from the 1980s. Now it seems fat phobic. But it did convey something important, perhaps — that bullying is a network of transferred abuses, and the fat kid bully has no doubt been bullied himself. Scrag is likely to beat the narrator in the mouse race because he has the fastest mouse. He speeds his mouse a special diet.

Now the mother becomes the opponent. She’s made a pair of pink underpants from fairy fabric and insists David wear them. (I do find myself thinking “Why doesn’t he just… take them off without his mother knowing. The last thing you want is for the reader to think “Why doesn’t the character just”.)

Pete, the best friend, becomes a temporary opponent by laughing his head off at David’s pink underwear.

PLAN

There’s no real plan — David remembers it’s cross country day. On the way to school he discovers the pink pants give him super strength. This  is supposed to be funny because pink means girly, and girly is the opposite of strong. But it only works as a joke if you believe that about girls in the first place.

David is winning the race by a long shot, so in a Hare and the Tortoise scene, he decides to have a swim in the lake, waiting for the others to catch up.

In a slapstick farce, David’s clothes are stolen by Scrag. He is forced to make his way home naked. On his way, his nakedness disgusts an old lady. (Girls’ naked bodies = appealing; boys’ naked bodies = disgusting in this kind of humour.)

David gets into trouble and also prepares his mouse for the big day.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is the mouse race itself, in which mice behave like greyhounds or horses (rather than actual mice).

ANAGNORISIS

The reader learns in the last sentence that David’s mouse is wearing the little underpants. That’s what gives the mouse strength.

NEW SITUATION

For David, this is a victory. He has won against his main opponent.