We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen

We Found A Hat cover

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Yesterday I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. Today’s picture book is We Found A Hat, which is similar to Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. In both stories, a dream sequence flings the two characters into space, bringing the story to an end.

We Found A Hat is the third of Jon Klassen’s Hat Trilogy of picture books — each has a different cast of characters, but all feature a hat in some way. In all of these books, the hat is a highly desirable object. The desirability of the hat is taken to an absurd degree, and I wonder if it’s because owning a hat makes these talking animals feel more sophisticated (more human).

In We Found A Hat, Klassen makes full use of classic ‘Three Act Structure’, dividing his very short book into three parts. Dividing a picture book into parts is funny in itself, because the partitions originally existed so the audience could take a break. These days, writers often make use of three act structure when plotting a story. (I prefer the 7-part structure, as you’ll see below.)

The others in the hat series are This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back. All are equally great, though We Found A Hat is more about friendship and less violent.

In each book, the picture-text dynamic implies that the hat’s rightful owner does violence to the thief at the end. This tale is both more ambiguous and less action-oriented.

Kirkus review

STORY STRUCTURE OF WE FOUND A HAT

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Like Sam and Dave, the two tortoises* in We Found A Hat are pretty much the same. Klassen goes further: they are in fact identical, which is part of the gag. (If the hat looks good on one of them, it’ll look good on the other.)

*I have no idea if they’re turtles or tortoises. But they live in the desert. I’m calling them tortoises.

What is wrong with the tortoises?

In this minimalist, unchanging environment, the appearance of a dropped cowboy hat is a big deal. A bigger deal than it should be. They’ve both going to have to get over this hat. Klassen withholds this information until later, but it will be revealed that one tortoise has more trouble than the other suppressing his desires.

This Rogue Tortoise becomes The Main Character.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

We Found A Hat is a great example of a story in which two opponents want the same thing, when only one of them can have it. (Because there is only one to be had.)

Klassen puts an ironic distance between the pictures and the text. To us, the tortoises do not look good in the hat.

Klassen’s artwork, spare and sly, tells a different story. The hat does not look good. It looks silly, as if the turtle’s head were stuck in a plastic bucket.

Publishers Weekly review

This endears me to the tortoises. It’s super cute that they think they look good in the hat.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Since both tortoises want the one hat, they are each other’s enemy.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

At first the tortoises do the right thing. They leave the hat where they found it, because if one of them takes it, the other will be jealous. This will lead to a breakdown of their relationship.

Next, they try to not to think about the hat. They admire the sunset. (They presumably do this every evening, because there’s not much in the landscape. They probably have the same conversation, too.)

we are watching the sunset

Eventually, in Part Two, one tortoise Breaks Bad and we see him making plans to retrieve the hat while the other is asleep. In true comedic style, although the other tortoise is ‘asleep’, s/he is still able to talk coherently, about being asleep. This is an example of irony.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

what are you dreaming about

The Rogue Tortoise’s big big struggle is an entirely psychological one. In Jon Klassen picture books it’s vital to read the eyes. The eyes carry most of the information about character. When Rogue Tortoise reaches the hat, s/he feels guilty. The other tortoise has said that in her dream they are both wearing the hat. This makes Rogue Tortoise feel super guilty and he changes his mind about taking it for himself.

Many of the readers of We Found A Hat will have already read the earlier hat books. I feel like Jon Klassen deliberately subverts expectations by providing us with a gentle ending. (You expected violence, didn’t you?)

Readers who think they know what’s coming will be wrong: the conclusion doesn’t involve sharing, peacemaking, or violence. Instead, Klassen considers the instant at which a decision to act can break either way, depending on who’s tempted and whether anyone else is watching. In contrast to the first two books, which relied on a certain conspiratorial menace, this one ends with a moment of grace and a sky full of stars.

Publishers weekly review

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Rogue Tortoise learns that he can overcome strong desires if he really wants to.

This change of heart is symbolised by the dream he has, which matches his friend’s dream — they are both dreaming of a scenario in which they each have their own identical hat. They fly into the starry, desert sky, newly free of pesky desires.

All three stories are about justice. It’s just that justice doesn’t always mean the same thing.

Publishers weekly review

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

It won’t.

Which is the point.

At least, the circumstances are the same as ever. No one has a fancy new hat.

BUT! Rogue Tortoise has wrestled internally with a strong desire and overcome that desire in favour of maintaining a good relationship. So I guess that relationship is slightly stronger than before.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole Picture Book Study

Sam and Dave Dig A Hole

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole is useful as mentor text because it appears at first glance to break all the rules. This story does follow the rules of storytelling, but in an ironic way.

Jon Klassen is a favourite picture book illustrator in this house. In Sam and Dave Dig A Hole Klassen is paired with Mac Barnett, who wrote the text. I’ve previously delved into the structure of This Is Not My Hat, I Want My Hat Back and The Dark, with text written by Daniel Handler.

STORY STRUCTURE OF SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

dog with sam and dave

Sometimes stories star a cast of characters and they are all main characters. Not many stories do this, but Sam and Dave Dig A Hole happens to be one example. Sam and Dave are in the title, but the dog is also part of this cast. The dog stars equally, even though he or she doesn’t say anything.

apple tree in sam and dave dig a hole
One apple for each of the characters.

Now we’ve identified the characters, what is their big shortcoming? What are they not very good at? In a cast of characters, everyone probably has a different shortcoming.

Sam and Dave happen to be very similar. They are basically the same person in duplicate, and we can consider them in this way. Sam+Dave contrast with the dog. They may even be twins. They share the same grandfather, so they are at least cousins of about the same age.

Sam+Dave are not very good at persevering. They dig and they dig, and just before they reach their goal, they decide their plan isn’t working and try something different. But if only they’d kept going with the original plan a bit longer, everything would have been different!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Notice how it’s impossible to talk about the shortcoming of the main character(s) without also talking about the rest of the story? That’s how it should be. The shortcoming of the character/s affects how the rest of the story plays out. A character’s shortcoming affects the plans they make and how they respond to other characters.

There is also a cat. I have no good theories about that cat, except when cats appear in stories they often indicate some kind of magic is going on in the background.

cat looks down

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

In picture books especially, the characters are often very clear about what they want. In this book, Dave tells Sam (and the reader) that they want to find something spectacular. That’s why they’re digging.

“We are on a mission,” said Dave. “We won’t stop digging until we find something spectacular.”

A word about the theme

Psychologists have found that people who set specific goals have more success achieving those goals than people who set general, unclear goals. For example, you’re better off saying, “I’m going to read 20 books this year” than “I am going to try and read more this year.” Sam and Dave have fallen into the trap of setting an unclear, general goal. They are looking for something but they’re not sure what it is. This book says something quite profound about goal-setting and perseverance.

(For more on persistence and perseverance in children’s books, I’ve written about that too.)

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

At first glance it may look like there is no opponent in this story. There is no massive monster who drops down into the hole. There is no mother calling them in for dinner just before they get what they want. Yet every story needs conflict, so every story needs an opponent.

How does this story work without one?

Sam and Dave Dig A Hole is an excellent example of why you don’t need a Big Bad Baddie to write a good story. Usually, when there’s no Big, Bad Baddie, the friends get into an argument between themselves. They argue over the best plan to take. They want the same thing (and only one can have it), or they want different things. One ends up storming off, or something like that.

But this picture book goes in the exact opposite direction. Sam and Dave never argue. They agree with each other every time. They are both tired, they both agree to go off in a different direction and they sit down and enjoy their snack. But! Their LACK of arguing is their downfall. If one of them had said, “No, let’s keep digging a little longer,” they may have had an argument, but they would also have hit upon something spectacular.

Another message in this book, apart from ‘don’t give up because you might almost be there’:

‘Sometimes disagreement can be a good thing’. When two easy-going people go on a difficult mission together, at least one of them needs to push the party forward towards the end goal, even if it means a few arguments.

Sam and Dave Dig A Hole is different from most stories, and that makes it ironic. It’s not what we expect from stories.

For more on irony, see this post.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Plans tend to change, even in stories where characters get what they want.

The irony here is that the characters don’t get what they want BECAUSE their plans change. Mac Barnett understands story structure at a deep level and this story is almost a parody of regular stories. (He’s making fun of other stories.)

I have a new idea

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

In place of a Big Battle we have a strange, unexpected and confusing event. Sam and Dave are suddenly transported out of the hole.

This reminds me of picture books where a bodily function stands in for the Big Battle. Sometimes a character does a massive sneeze or a really stinky fart (Walter The Farting Dog) or something like that. Suddenly everyone forgets what they were trying to achieve and the story ends.

This is a bit like that.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

The irony of Sam and Dave Dig A Hole is that they learn nothing.

BUT!

The READER has learned something. And that’s good enough.

Let me explain.

The reader has been able to see that big diamond all along. The fancy word for that is ‘audience superior position’. It’s a form of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is where the characters and the audience know different things. Characters can know more than we do, or they can know less. Picture book creators love to put the young reader in audience superior position. It makes little kids laugh. Also, little kids are used to being in ‘inferior position’ in their everyday lives because adults always know more than little kids know about almost everything.

What do we learn from this story? That’s connected to the themes. Keep going with your goal because you might almost be there AND sometimes friends don’t always have to agree with each other.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FOR SAM AND DAVE FROM NOW ON?

pear tree prairie

I didn’t notice this the first time I read it because I was too focused on the words and not paying close enough attention to the art, but take a really close look at the opening spread compared to the closing spread. Sam and Dave have not been transported back home. They’ve been transported into another world which looks similar to their former world, but it’s just a little bit different! Sam and Dave may have been thrown into ‘The Upside Down’ world. Think of Stranger Things. Think of Coraline. Similar trick here.

Will Sam and Dave ever work out they haven’t been transported back home? This is really freaky if you dwell on it. Their parents won’t be the same parents. Their grandfather won’t be the same grandfather.

A kid asked [Mac Barnett] if the ending was a dream, and to me at least, Mac refuted this. He said, “Look at the dog’s eyes. Always look at the eyes in Jon Klassen books. The dog never goes to sleep.” To me, while it may not completely refute the dream theory, it at least tells me that Mac doesn’t think they were dreaming.

— from I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never going to find out what really happened at the end of Sam and Dave Dig A Hole from Hope Westeer

Hope also has a post about the conspiracy theories that have popped up around what happen to Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. Which is exactly why Mac and Jon are right to keep the ‘real ending’ to themselves. They’d only pop that bubble!

We can learn that from Mac and Jon. If you write a story you don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to tie up every single little thing. If you drop the right clues, clues are enough. Many readers love to speculate about what ‘really happened’, even though we’re dealing in story, so none of it ‘really’ happened at all.

However, I’d like to add my own little conspiracy theory.

Which is not really a conspiracy theory at all. Whatever happened at the end there, the fact that Sam and Dave’s WORLD is different means that SAM AND DAVE are different. They appear to have learned nothing, but really they have. When we as people change, our world seems to change, even if the world around is remains exactly the same. The change in Sam and Dave’s psychology is symbolised by the changes in their world.

In other words, this story would not have felt complete UNLESS Mac and Jon did something dickey at the end like that. Something has to change over the course of any story.

That is a rule of storytelling that you just can’t break, but you may break it in unexpected ways.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker Novel Study

Pax Sara Pennypacker quote

Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in big struggle after swashbuckling big struggle.

MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX

Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favourite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.

publisher’s advertising copy

  • From the advertising copy we see there are orphan and part-orphan child(like) characters: Pax has no parents and Peter has no mother.The father is soon dispatched with, too.As it happens, Peter has no grandmother, either. Women have been removed from this story altogether, possibly because a feminine presence adds tenderness and care, whereas these characters are extremely vulnerable and must find their own family. However, Peter eventually meets a mother replacement, and Pax eventually meets the fox equivalent of a girlfriend. These female characters add to the character growth of the male characters, and a little vice versa as well.
  • A mean grandfather is left as Peter’s caretaker, leaving plenty of room for Peter to go off on his own adventure.
  • The toy soldier is symbolic, and features front and centre in chapter one. Toy soldiers juxtapose the innocence of childhood with the awful destruction of war. At the end of the story Peter literally throws the toy away. That’s what he thinks about war.
  • The basic setting: pre-war — the author aims for universality and doesn’t name a war, though I default to WW2.
  • We also learn from the advertising copy that this story is a classic example of mythic structure, about a boy going on a journey with a goal in mind, returning home (or to a new home) a changed person. (Or animal.) He will encounter a series of trials and opponents along his way, finding himself in greater and greater danger until he reaches his ultimate big struggle. Then he will have a anagnorisis.

Advertising copy stops before the middle of the book, not giving too much away. More of the structure is revealed as we read:

  • In the hero’s journey, at about the midpoint the main character really doubles down on their mission (plan + desire). So when Peter overextends himself with exercises at Vola’s, this is that. “It takes a healthy adult four weeks to do what you’re trying to do in one,” Vola tells him. This is evidence of Peter’s extreme determination, almost superhuman.
  • The big struggle scene features ‘mythical’ creatures, coyotes, who are not anthropomorphised at all.
  • Peter’s anagnorisis is that he is actually separate from his pet fox, but because of the bond they shared in the past, they will always be together. The problems with the ending are discussed below.

My description of this story structure sounds a little dismissive, but The Hero’s Journey is a structure that has worked for 3000 years, and continues to be popular in contemporary stories for adults and children alike.

STORYWORLD

Peter comes from a town called Hampton.

The grandfather’s village is a fairytale village north of Hampton, but a highway snaking around a long range of foothills. It is surrounded by woods. All fairytale settings need woods (or forest) on the edges of civilisation. There’s also a road, and Peter will be guided by a map. Pax has been abandoned 300 miles away beside the ruins of an old rope mill, which I guess is a factory which makes ropes. An olde worlde type establishment. 300 miles is a decent distance to put between the boy and his dog — an adult reader (at least) knows from the outset that 30 miles per day is an impossible undertaking. Peter’s going to have to be resourceful and hitchhike or something, otherwise he’ll never make it.

When Is This Story Set?

Peter has access to items of the early 20th century era: He carries a jack knife, not just uses but is reliant upon maps, and food is kept in tins rather than plastic containers. He has no access to technology that might help a modern child out. Though this is about no war in particular, it should put us in mind of the Great Wars of the 20th century. The technology lines up (mostly) with this era.

Before I realised this was set in no year in particular, I tried to do a few sums: Perhaps this is a WW2 story, and the old fox was around for the first world war. No, that’s not possible. Grey foxes live longer than red foxes, but WW1 ended 1918 and WW2 started 1939. Grey foxes live a maximum of 8 years.

It becomes clearer as the story progresses that Sara Pennypacker wants to set this this story in a ‘universal’ time and place. Though to me, a non American, it feels very American, it may not feel that way to an American audience. The baseball, the (Californian) talk therapy, the American vernacular, which I occasionally even looked up. If an American audience doesn’t see how American this is, expecting it to sound universal to everyone, that would be troubling. An interview with School Library Journal shows that Pennypacker very much meant this to sound like it was set in America:

Peter and Pax’s story is set in an undefined time and place—it could be the past or modern day or the near future. It might take place in America but not necessarily. Why did you set your story against this type of backdrop?

I didn’t want to allow readers the comfort of seeing the setting as “another”: another place or another time. My goal was to have readers feel that what happens in the book could happen in their town tomorrow. Because, sadly, it could.

SLJ

Which is great. I mean, Americans need to hear this particular message about war. But from this outsider’s point of view, this is definitely America.

Magic

Whereas ancient mythical journeys often feature real setting magic, the ‘magic’ Pennypacker describes is a feeling rather than a phenomenon:

Peter craned his head to see what [Vola] was making. A handle. She’d brought i a broken hoe, and she was giving it a new handle. A simple thing, and yet it struck him as almost magic. Like his crutches. Before he’d had them, he’d been helpless. Vola had nailed a couple of boards together, and now he could swing over miles of rough country, quick and sure. Magic.

However, Pennypacker does delve into some new age mind-meld stuff, in which Peter feels he can sense how much trouble Pax is in.

“Two but not two. Inseparable. So… a couple of nights ago, I was sure that Pax had eaten. I felt it. Last night, I saw the moon, and I knew Pax was seeing it right then, too.”

CHARACTERS IN PAX

Peter

The name Peter has a literary, old-fashioned quality to it e.g. from Peter and the Wolf and many other fables and fairytales throughout history. Peter is also fairly common as a name for contemporary(ish) boys, linking the old with the new.

Also, Peter is The Every Boy. He is basically a good child, exhibiting all of the qualities we hope children to have. He obeys his father, even though the father is asking him to do something terrible. Peter has no real distinguishing features, and his main shortcoming is naivety and vulnerability owing to basically being abandoned.

The book began with character—it was always going to be a sentient animal commenting on human war. In the beginning, though, Peter didn’t have his own narrative—he was merely going to be “the boy” who belonged to my main character. But I saw such richness in inviting him to tell his side that halfway through writing Pax, I opened the book up.

SLJ

We are shown Peter’s caring nature from chapter one, when he shows emotion at having to send his beloved pet fox back into the wild. Though he is crying, this is a rare thing for him, showing that although he is emotional, nor is he a ‘crybaby’. He cries softly and silently, which is an acceptable way for children (and especially boys) to cry, especially in the early part of last century. I argue that Peter is a good role model for caring about others and expressing emotion, which makes this male plot structure feel more feminine once you delve into it.

Peter is also an optimist — a naive optimist — thinking that Pax will be waiting right where they left him, and also that he can walk 300 miles in a week. At the other end of the journey, Peter plans to stay in his old home alone, with no one at all to provide food for the duration of the war. This plan is Peter’s psychological shortcoming, which has an adorable flip side.

Poetic Naming Conventions

Because Peter starts with the letter P, it’s fitting that his ‘spirit animal’ also begins with P. This symbolically links the two characters. Katherine Mansfield also does that in her short story The Garden Party, in which a family is divided by personality, and the characters who are similar in name are also similar in temperament. This is one of those literary conventions which doesn’t carry over into real life, but helps us to understand the character web in a story.

Who knew that a kid and his pet should be inseparable. Suddenly the word itself seemed an accusation. He and Pax, what were they then … separable?

They weren’t, though. Sometimes, in fact, Peter Had had the strange sensation that he and Pax merged.

Like the fox, Peter is also in touch with his full range of senses, including smell. He is impacted by the smell of his horrible grandfather’s kitchen, for instance, which ‘reeks strongly of fried onions’ and which Peter ‘figured the smell would outlive his grandfather’. He also makes good use of his ears, knowing what his grandfather is up to on the other side of the closed bedroom door. He is intuitive, knowing to stay out of the grandfather’s way. In all these ways, Peter is the human version of a fox. He thinks of his anxiety like a snake, linking him further to the animal kingdom.

Peter’s motivation to find Pax is influenced by memory of a baby rabbit killed in his yard after a trap was set up. Rabbits were eating his mother’s tulips. This dead rabbit had a huge effect on him, and though the dead mother seems at first glance like the bigger ‘ghost’/’wound‘, sometimes it’s more minor things that have a greater impact. The death of the baby rabbit to save something like tulips had a huge effect on Peter. The mother’s death, too, is obviously significant in causing Peter to fear death, and especially the death of the fox. But by transferring the death scene from the mother to that baby rabbit, Pennypacker avoids hitting child readers over the head with something completely and utterly maudlin. This is transferred grieving. (For more on this see Death In Children’s Literature.)

(Even the minor characters have their own ghosts — Bristle has a dead sister, for instance, briefly mentioned, but an explanation for why she is so cautious in general.)

In the end it is Peter’s wooden crutch that saves Pax from the coyotes. What’s the symbolism there? Perhaps it’s that loving another creature is a shortcoming, but even if love is a shortcoming, it still conquers all. It was a loving act to let Pax go, taking in a creature with greater needs.

Pax

When animals feature in children’s books, the author must decide the extent of anthropomorphism. Olivia by Ian Falconer is a little girl in a pig’s body. There’s nothing pig-like about her. At the other end of the continuum you have animals who are literally just animals — donkeys eating grass in fields. Then there’s everything in between.

The huge advantage to using a canine creature as a character is the author has good reason to make heavy use of the sense of smell, in a way not usually explored by authors writing about humans (Patrick Suskind’s Perfume is a notable exception, though the heavy emphasis on smell serves to turn the human character into an animal monster.) In Pax, Sara Pennypacker does an excellent job of describing scent, in a synesthesic kind of way, melding scent with emotions and sights and sounds.

We learn in the first chapter that Pax’s main characteristic is ‘loyal’. This is basically a  Boy and His Dog story, even though the dog is actually a fox. Foxes are wild creatures and tend to fear humans, but there are examples of some foxes bonding to humans. If they do bond, they tend to bond to human singular rather than to humans in general, which marks them as different from fully domesticated dogs, who will bond to humans in general so long as they’re properly socialised. Knowing this, it’s clear from the first chapter that Pax has bonded to Peter better than he bonded to the father. This explains why it is easier for the father to let the fox go.

Pax doesn’t talk in words, but he thinks in words. His emotions are every bit as complex as Peter’s emotions. Because Pax is abandoned in the first chapter, the reader immediately feels strong empathy for him. Because Pax doesn’t understand the world, Pennypacker describes objects rather than giving them words. This achieves two things: Pax’s naive voice, and allows the reader to work out a small puzzle What is the blue triangle? A bird. What is the long pole? A rifle (maybe). This puts the reader in reader superior position — a form of dramatic irony. When the reader knows there’s a boy with a rifle we are scared for Pax even though Pax isn’t yet scared for himself.

Pax is (almost literally) an ‘underdog‘. If only he’d been an actual dog, like Peter’s father’s beloved childhood Border Collie, then he’d be allowed to stay with his boy.

It emerges during Peter’s discussion with Vola that Pax as an ironic, symbolic name — Pax means peace (in Latin), yet this is a time of war.

Peter’s Father

The father is not a nasty character, especially when juxtaposed against his own father, who is more of a fairytale villain who emotionally, if not literally, locks his grandson inside his bedroom and provides zero emotional warmth. The father actually does what any reasonable father would do — with good intentions, he wants to return the fox to the wild, where he belongs. This in itself isn’t a terrible thing to do — modern thinking has it that wild creatures do belong in the wild. But Sara Pennypacker has picked a good moral dilemma — once a wild creature has been tamed, should we then return it to the wild, or are we obliged to keep looking after it?

This is a useful trick for writing parents in children’s literature. Quite often, parents are not ill-intentioned, but they are the opponent nonetheless, because their practical-mindedness abuts the emotional choices of the child character. When the moral dilemma genuinely has two sides to it, like this does, it’s all the more interesting.

Peter isn’t close to his father.

Besides, it wasn’t his father he was missing.

This reminds me of a Leonard Cohen line “like your father or your dog just died“, equating the bond a man can have with a dog on a par with that of his father.

For more on Fathers in Children’s Books, see this post.

Characters Met Along The Journey

Bristle

Meanwhile, Pax comes across a vixen who eyes him suspiciously. Pennypacker (ostensibly Pax) soon gives her a name — Bristle — descriptive of both her hair and her approach to him. Is this a bicker-bicker-kiss-kiss romantic subplot? I wonder this because Bristle is described as ‘bright-furred’ and ‘exotic’, the animal equivalent of commentary on a woman’s sexual appeal. She lets him stay the night, but only one night. In the morning there is a post-coital scene (MG literary animal equivalent thereof) when Pax squirms ‘in pleasure at the solid, warm weight of another’s body nestled against his’. It is therefore funny when Pax wakes up more fully and realises he’s nestled up with the vixen’s brother. ‘Pax pulled himself up sharply’. He was obviously expecting the female fox.

Then her runty brother appears, contrasting in playfulness with her ice-queen demeanour. The Female Maturity Principle kicks in as Bristle cautions Runt on the correct way of behaving around strangers.

Bristle eventually becomes Pax’s mentor, showing him how to hunt. She mirrors the character of Vola in Peter’s journey. Except this one has a romantic component — cheek to cheek they groom each other. I might interpret this as friendship, except you’d never get two male characters sitting like this in a children’s book.

Locals Suspicious Of This Outsider

The setting is peopled with thumbnail characters who exist to show Peter how much of an outsider he is.

First, Peter meets a shop owner who is suspicious of him for not being in school. A woman stares at him and he realises how unkempt he looks.

Later, Peter gazes through a fence (Jon Klassen’s addition) at a boy playing baseball, which brings back all sorts of memories. Peter has visited a therapist, which surprises me a little because I didn’t know the history of therapy was that long in America. Where I come from (New Zealand) therapy was (unfortunately) unknown during the war era. Pennypacker does what a lot of writers do when depicting therapists — apparently this therapist always has the stock standard response. Is this because writers don’t actually know what therapists would say in any given situation? Or is this how it feels to everyone visiting a therapist? That you’re being nodded at? I can’t answer that, but I’m reminded of the recent Liane Moriarty novel/limited TV series Big Little Lies, in which therapists said, “Finally! A realistic fictional depiction of therapy!”

In any case, Peter has a short interaction with a hostile boy who doesn’t like this outsider.

Grey

Pax meets an older male fox whose territory he has inadvertently entered. For all her outward hostility, Bristle has warned Pax about him. Pax calls him Grey. But it turns out this old grey wolf isn’t scary for Pax. (Disturbingly, and off the page, why is Grey scary for Bristle?) Grey turns out to be a false opponent. There’s almost some magical realism — it turns out the crows give messages to this old grey wolf. This is how the author lets us know that war is coming in from the west. This old fox spouts environmentalist messages about the destruction of humankind. It’s mostly an anti-war message.

Peter is confronted by a woman whose barn he is sleeping in. More realistically (not narratively) an adult is far more likely to be kind to a vagrant child they find sleeping in their barn, but this is a mythical journey. This kind of hostile woman plays right into a child’s fears that if they were to go out into the world, every single adult they meet would be the worst examples of human kind.  At first meeting, Vola has an inhuman, monstrous quality to her, partly evoked by the wooden leg. However, she does turn into a false opponent-ally, much as the fox has just met. The journeys mirror each other. She helps him with his foot — she happens to have medical knowledge. Like the old grey wolf, this woman has a message about how terrible it is, drafting young people into wars. There are even crows in this scene as there were in Pax’s — their journeys mirror each other’s exactly. Later, Vola turns into a fairy tale witch, offering Peter the tonic with willow bark to act as aspirin. The ‘green paste’ reminds us of witches, too, which is a trope that started with the film adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz. (Before that, they were usually red or orange.)

Eventually, though, Vola is ultimately Peter’s mentor. In a traditional mythic tale, this mentor character is male. Vola is female but apart from plying him with constant food, Vola has masculine traits — her tough attitude, her tool shed. She is a Mr Miyagi character, setting Peter a series of challenges (conditions for staying) to help him grow both spiritually and in skill. Pennypacker isn’t the least subtle about this function for Vola:

“I would have been a good teacher.”

She was right about that. He thought about hwo easily she suggested techniques in his drills without making a bit deal of anything. How she had him watch while she carved, then let him figure out things for himself. How she asked him questions about everything and didn’t answer for him.

Vola

In the initial scene with Vola, Pennypacker shows us an interesting trick MG writers do to first amp up the danger of a situation, then defuse it completely. Peter has thought that Vola might kill him. But then Vola explains that the bladed tools are for wood carving. Vola even lampshades the biases the reader shares along with Peter (since we’re seeing her through Peter’s close third person point of view). There needs to be a name for this — kind of like Chekhov’s gun but a gun which turns out to be a toy gun. Let’s call it Chekhov’s Toy Gun.

In narrative it is dangerous to be a hero’s best friend/sidekick. Grey gets attacked in place of Pax, which would be too hard for readers to bear (tragedy layered upon tragedy) and would also break an unwritten rule of mythic storytelling. The hero doesn’t die at the midpoint of the story. Not normally. When G.R.R. Martin wrote The Red Wedding, he shocked the audience because he was breaking some established norms.

Next Runt dies. These deaths signify just how close to death Pax is himself. At this point I am starting to predict the ending: Clues point to a reuniting at the end, but I’m guessing Pax will be injured. That would symbolise how they’ve both been damaged by this experience and will never be the same again.

I was so lost, I needed to find out all the true things about myself. The little things to the biggest of all: what did I believe in at my core?

— Vola

Pennypacker uses the wisdom of children to even up this relationship a little. Vola doesn’t just teach Peter about resilience — Peter challenges Vola for failing to reintegrate into society after coming back from a harrowing war in which she killed a man (Vola’s big ghost). This is a scene you’ll see in Hollywood movies too: the part where friends have an argument in front of the audience, to let the audience in on each of their motivations.

Vola eventually explains that she is part Haitian, part Italian (though if you’d looked up her favourite curse word already you’ve already worked that one out). Her name Vola is Italian for ‘fly’. The trope of comparing women to birds has a long history in literature, though the adult Vola is somewhat unbirdlike — strong and grounded and therefore an ironic moniker. She also doesn’t know how to ‘fly’ — stuck in her cabin with PTSD. For more on the symbolism of flight in literature, see here.

When they get to town, Pennypacker is very obvious about what their outing means for Vola’s character development:

[Peter] looked behind him at the four crude pine creates the marionettes were packed in, strapped to the back. Peter hoped they didn’t remind Vola of coffins. Her amazing puppets were going to live now. Really live, out in the real world, not just exist to perform as some kind of penance.

This is Pennypacker talking about Vola, using her puppets as proxy.

The Coyotes

The coyotes are the mythical monster, not at all anthropomorphised — the evil that descends upon a village threatening friend and foe alike. The coyotes are used for the big big struggle scene in which Peter reunites with Pax.

Other Obstacles Met Along The Journey

Opponents aren’t always human — in a mythical journey a lot of them will be environmental and plain bad luck.

Peter

  • The fact that Peter forgot to pack a torch and can’t see in the dark
  • Blisters on his heels
  • Stepping in cold swamp water because he doesn’t want to risk turning on the torch (an obstacle also used by R.L. Stine in How I Got My Shrunken Head)
  • A broken bone in his foot

Pax

  • a thunderstorm (this is beautifully written)
  • lack of drinking water
  • lack of food
  • war — the road where he needs to wait has been blocked by war vehicles

IDEOLOGY OF PAX

In Love, Two Characters Become One

The bond between a boy and his canine pet cannot be broken, under any circumstance. A boy’s dog/fox is like the flipside of himself — like a spirit animal — and this bond can be so strong that they are basically the same being. Pennypacker emphasises this time and again, with a near-magical telepathy between Peter and Pax. When Peter confides this telepathy to Vola she doesn’t laugh at him — she congratulates him, telling him how lucky he is. So one message in this story is that if you love someone a real lot, you meld into the same creature. That is true love. This makes Pax a love story, not much different from love stories for adults between two humans.

(Note that love is different from romance.)

War Is Terrible

This runs throughout the book and is not at all novel as an idea in literature. It is the only idea about war running through modern Western literature.

You’re In Charge Of Your Own Destiny

Pennypacker makes use of the symbolism of miniatures with the scenes about the marionette and other puppetry. This is using Peter as god, putting him in charge of his own destiny, which is the reason Vola made him do this task in the first place — he needs to learn to ‘take control of his own life’ rather than letting things happen to him.

Each Person Has A True Self

And it’s just a matter of finding it. This juxtaposes against another psychological theory in which humans are a product of their environment and rather than there being ‘one true self’, there are multiple versions of the self. We change according to circumstance, and we change a lot more over the course of our lifetimes than we realise, moulded by our particular circumstances. This latter view is the more popular in modern psychology, but literary, classic-sounding children’s books such as this one are more inclined to stick with the older view.

CHAPTER ENDINGS

Take a look at any Goosebumps novel and you’ll see each chapter ends in an obvious cliffhanger.  In a literary novel like this one, the cliffhangers are not so obvious but they’re there all the same, making the reader anxious for the characters’ safety. For instance, Chapter 31 ends with the non-climactic sounding ‘He turned back for the clearing’. But the reader knows that Pax is in danger of being shot even though Pax doesn’t realise this himself. The cliffhanger is there but more subtle. And it requires a little work on the part of the reader.

THE ENDING

I was slightly wrong about the ending — Pax himself is physically well — it’s his replacement, Bristle, who has the big bleeding gash and the missing leg.

Which leads to another ideological concern, as explained by this Goodreads reviewer:

[I WANTED PETER TO GET HIS FREAKING FOX BACK. But no. He decides Pax is better off in the wild and instead Peter takes home Runt to care for him since Runt got his back legs blown off. But I. am. so. mad. It’s like saying that a bond between pet-and-human is replaceable. WHEN IT’S NOT. I would lose a piece of my soul if my precious pup died or got lost or just wasn’t there for me anymore. So all I can think of is losing my dog as Peter lost Pax for the 2nd time at the end of the book. AND IT’S NOT OKAY. It wasn’t one of those “bittersweet” endings. It downright BROKE ME and I’m not okay. Sure Pax didn’t die (small miracles) but he kind of died in my heart and I don’t I don’t I don’t like this. I FEEL LIKE CRYING.

Paper Fury

There are many picture books in which a dog dies and the story ends with a kid getting a new one. These are not considered the best of the best of the Dead Dog books. I’m not sure why the same ending is so well accepted in this case. Perhaps because Pennypacker isn’t obvious about what happened. At first I wondered which dog was which. Or perhaps we accept this story because in general it’s very well written.

Here’s Sara Pennypacker talking to School Library Journal about writing the ending. As in many children’s books, mirroring the end with the beginning affords readers a sense of closure. Bear in mind, there are two types of closure.

It does something else, too — it gives some circularity to what is otherwise a very linear story. This boy is going to bond with this other animal and the cycle will continue, over and over, throughout the ages.

The ending was set early on. I was walking in the woods, and it just came to me in a bolt: the ending image needed to be the same as the image that set the plot in motion—although it would have a completely different meaning for both Pax and Peter the second time and would show how each character had grown.

SLJ

But because Pax has Bristle, this is a happy ending love story for Pax.

Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

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

light and shadow

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

Supernatural Intervention

Spiritual beings intervene on the side of the heroes, or sometimes against them.

cinderella-fairy-godmother-ruth-ives-1954
Cinderella and her fairy godmother by Ruth Ives 1954

Fire and Ice

Fire represents knowledge, light, life, and rebirth.

If we watch fire in the fireplace, which is a source of pleasure and comfort, it is expressive of a mood of aliveness, warmth, and pleasure. But if we see a building or forest on fire, it conveys to us an experience of threat or terror, of the powerlessness of man against the elements of nature. Fire, then, can be the symbolic representation of inner aliveness and happiness as well as of fear, powerlessness, or of one’s own destructive tendencies.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

Ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.

The Snow Queen

Snow in 101 Dalmatians increases the tension. Being lost and in danger is bad enough, but when snow cascades down… even worse. Especially when your paw prints can be tracked by Cruella de Vil.

101 Dalmatians snowy scene

Nature vs. Mechanistic World

Nature is good; technology is evil.

Shaun Tan subverts this archetype in The Lost Thing. The weak, vulnerable ‘character’ is a machine who no one notices.

The Threshold

Thresholds are symbolised by a gateway to a new world which the hero must enter to change and grow. Fantasy portals take many forms.

Eric, by Shaun Tan, features a fantasy gateway which neither the narrator nor the audience fully understands.

eric-cupboard-shaun-tan

The Underworld

The underworld is a place of death or a metaphorical encounter with the dark side of the self. Entering an underworld is a form of facing a fear of death.

Hilda Bewildered, Slap Happy Larry, 2015.

hilda-bewildered-underfoot-jungle_800x600

I used a subway in our book app, but an overland tunnel achieves a similar thing. The 101 Dalmatians film is basically a long chase scene. A tunnel is used at some point to heighten the feeling that we’re on a journey and there’s nowhere to go but forward.

In fairytales, the forest can stand in for the underworld. (See below)

Haven vs. Wilderness

Places of safety contrast sharply against dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources.

This describes all fairytale worlds in which there is a forest right next to a town or village.

the-chase

See here for Symbolism of the Forest in Storytelling.

See also The Symbolism of Windows, in which a pane of glass often separates these two settings.

Water vs. Desert

Because water is necessary to life it commonly appears as a birth symbol. In religious ceremony, we have baptism. This symbolises spiritual birth and commonly involves water. There may be a strong psychological/physiological reason for this link — a lot of swimmers will tell you there’s nothing like a bracing dip in the ocean to completely clear the mind.

Rainfalls, rivers, oceans, etc. function the same way.

adventures-of-raggedy-ann-river
Adventures Of Raggedy Ann, falling into the river in a ‘baptism’ scene

In visual media like film, a dip in the water often accompanies the character’s Anagnorisis. A great example of that is the film American Honey.

The Desert suggests the inverse.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

— Howard Suber

Heaven vs. Hell

Parts of the universe not accessible to us = the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern our world. Gods live in the skies and mountaintops. The bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces.

See also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

The Maze

The maze represents a puzzling dilemma or great uncertainty. The maze can be part of mythic structure, symbolising the  search for the dangerous monster inside oneself, or a journey into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t have to be a literal maze, but might instead be getting lost in an urban jungle.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is an example of an urban jungle maze.

The Cat Returns features a darkly humorous maze scene full of meta-humour and slapstick.

The maze is often a microcosm of the mythic journey, which is usually ‘epic’.

The Castle

The castle is a fortified place of safety which protects treasure or princess. The castle may be enchanted or bewitched, especially in the Gothic tradition.

Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954
Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954

Castle Motif on StorySearch

The Tower

A tower is similar to a castle but represents the isolation of self. Bluebeard’s castle was probably a tower.

Rapunzel is the archetypal tower.

Tower motif on StorySearch

The Magic Weapon

In a traditional mythic story, the hero needs a weapon to complete his or her quest (but mostly still his, because most heroes are males and when heroes are female they often don’t fight). In a big struggle-free myth, the characters don’t fight — instead they think and feel themselves out of a tight fix. In that case, the hero probably needs a mentor, or a library book or a magic spell (as in Brave). Interestingly, there is archery (weaponry) in Brave, but it’s not actually used for fighting. It’s more of a prop, and aids as a symbol for fate and the passing of time.

Weapon Motif on StorySearch

Mountains And Valleys

See here for the symbolism of altitude.

The valley enclosed between mountains can arouse in us the feeling of security and comfort, of protection against all dangers from the outside. But the protecting mountains can also mean isolating walls which do not permit us to get out of the valley and thus the valley can become a symbol of imprisonment. The particular meaning of the symbol in any given place can only be determined from the whole context in which the symbol appears, and in terms of the predominant experiences of the person using the symbol.

— Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

The River

See here for all the different symbolic uses of the river in children’s literature.

new-equilibrium

Whirlpools

The whirlpool generally symbolises the destructive power of nature or fate.

In A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer (first wife of Dr Seuss), the whirlpool stands for something mysterious happening below.

failed-magic

Whirlpool Motif on StorySearch

Fog

See here for more about fog symbolism in literature.

Fog was once thought to be caused by demons/magic. In other stories fog is an ogre who has drunk until he has burst. Fog can be dispelled by a saint. Fog is a representation of soul.

A picture book example is Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Fog Motif On StorySearch

Colors

Red: blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder, autumn, women, hatred, death

Green: growth, hope, fertility

Blue: highly positive, security, tranquility, spiritual purity

Black: darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy

White: light, purity, innocence, timelessness (negatives: death, horror, supernatural)

Yellow: enlightenment, wisdom

Numbers

3—light, spiritual awareness, unity (holy trinity), male principle

Children’s books are all about the Rule Of Three.

4—associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons, female principle, earth, nature, elements

5 — Freemasons (like Pythagoras) regard the number five as sacred, hence they call the pentagram the Blazing Star. (Five points.)

Children’s books for girls tend to be circular in plot, following the seasons. (Books for boys, in contrast, are linear.)

7—the most potent of all symbolic numbers, signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number, a religious symbol

Snow White And The Seven Dwarves

12

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

light and shadow

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

Supernatural Intervention

Spiritual beings intervene on the side of the heroes, or sometimes against them.

cinderella-fairy-godmother-ruth-ives-1954
Cinderella and her fairy godmother by Ruth Ives 1954

Fire and Ice

Fire represents knowledge, light, life, and rebirth.

If we watch fire in the fireplace, which is a source of pleasure and comfort, it is expressive of a mood of aliveness, warmth, and pleasure. But if we see a building or forest on fire, it conveys to us an experience of threat or terror, of the powerlessness of man against the elements of nature. Fire, then, can be the symbolic representation of inner aliveness and happiness as well as of fear, powerlessness, or of one’s own destructive tendencies.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

Ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.

The Snow Queen

Snow in 101 Dalmatians increases the tension. Being lost and in danger is bad enough, but when snow cascades down… even worse. Especially when your paw prints can be tracked by Cruella de Vil.

101 Dalmatians snowy scene

Nature vs. Mechanistic World

Nature is good; technology is evil.

Shaun Tan subverts this archetype in The Lost Thing. The weak, vulnerable ‘character’ is a machine who no one notices.

The Threshold

Thresholds are symbolised by a gateway to a new world which the hero must enter to change and grow. Fantasy portals take many forms.

Eric, by Shaun Tan, features a fantasy gateway which neither the narrator nor the audience fully understands.

eric-cupboard-shaun-tan

The Underworld

The underworld is a place of death or a metaphorical encounter with the dark side of the self. Entering an underworld is a form of facing a fear of death.

Hilda Bewildered, Slap Happy Larry, 2015.

hilda-bewildered-underfoot-jungle_800x600

I used a subway in our book app, but an overland tunnel achieves a similar thing. The 101 Dalmatians film is basically a long chase scene. A tunnel is used at some point to heighten the feeling that we’re on a journey and there’s nowhere to go but forward.

In fairytales, the forest can stand in for the underworld. (See below)

Haven vs. Wilderness

Places of safety contrast sharply against dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources.

This describes all fairytale worlds in which there is a forest right next to a town or village.

the-chase

See here for Symbolism of the Forest in Storytelling.

See also The Symbolism of Windows, in which a pane of glass often separates these two settings.

Water vs. Desert

Because water is necessary to life it commonly appears as a birth symbol. In religious ceremony, we have baptism. This symbolises spiritual birth and commonly involves water. There may be a strong psychological/physiological reason for this link — a lot of swimmers will tell you there’s nothing like a bracing dip in the ocean to completely clear the mind.

Rainfalls, rivers, oceans, etc. function the same way.

adventures-of-raggedy-ann-river
Adventures Of Raggedy Ann, falling into the river in a ‘baptism’ scene

In visual media like film, a dip in the water often accompanies the character’s Anagnorisis. A great example of that is the film American Honey.

The Desert suggests the inverse.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

— Howard Suber

Heaven vs. Hell

Parts of the universe not accessible to us = the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern our world. Gods live in the skies and mountaintops. The bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces.

See also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

The Maze

The maze represents a puzzling dilemma or great uncertainty. The maze can be part of mythic structure, symbolising the  search for the dangerous monster inside oneself, or a journey into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t have to be a literal maze, but might instead be getting lost in an urban jungle.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is an example of an urban jungle maze.

The Cat Returns features a darkly humorous maze scene full of meta-humour and slapstick.

The maze is often a microcosm of the mythic journey, which is usually ‘epic’.

The Castle

The castle is a fortified place of safety which protects treasure or princess. The castle may be enchanted or bewitched, especially in the Gothic tradition.

Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954
Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954

Castle Motif on StorySearch

The Tower

A tower is similar to a castle but represents the isolation of self. Bluebeard’s castle was probably a tower.

Rapunzel is the archetypal tower.

Tower motif on StorySearch

The Magic Weapon

In a traditional mythic story, the hero needs a weapon to complete his or her quest (but mostly still his, because most heroes are males and when heroes are female they often don’t fight). In a big struggle-free myth, the characters don’t fight — instead they think and feel themselves out of a tight fix. In that case, the hero probably needs a mentor, or a library book or a magic spell (as in Brave). Interestingly, there is archery (weaponry) in Brave, but it’s not actually used for fighting. It’s more of a prop, and aids as a symbol for fate and the passing of time.

Weapon Motif on StorySearch

Mountains And Valleys

See here for the symbolism of altitude.

The valley enclosed between mountains can arouse in us the feeling of security and comfort, of protection against all dangers from the outside. But the protecting mountains can also mean isolating walls which do not permit us to get out of the valley and thus the valley can become a symbol of imprisonment. The particular meaning of the symbol in any given place can only be determined from the whole context in which the symbol appears, and in terms of the predominant experiences of the person using the symbol.

— Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

The River

See here for all the different symbolic uses of the river in children’s literature.

new-equilibrium

Whirlpools

The whirlpool generally symbolises the destructive power of nature or fate.

In A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer (first wife of Dr Seuss), the whirlpool stands for something mysterious happening below.

failed-magic

Whirlpool Motif on StorySearch

Fog

See here for more about fog symbolism in literature.

Fog was once thought to be caused by demons/magic. In other stories fog is an ogre who has drunk until he has burst. Fog can be dispelled by a saint. Fog is a representation of soul.

A picture book example is Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Fog Motif On StorySearch

Colors

Red: blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder, autumn, women, hatred, death

Green: growth, hope, fertility

Blue: highly positive, security, tranquility, spiritual purity

Black: darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy

White: light, purity, innocence, timelessness (negatives: death, horror, supernatural)

Yellow: enlightenment, wisdom

Numbers

3—light, spiritual awareness, unity (holy trinity), male principle

Children’s books are all about the Rule Of Three.

4—associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons, female principle, earth, nature, elements

5 — Freemasons (like Pythagoras) regard the number five as sacred, hence they call the pentagram the Blazing Star. (Five points.)

Children’s books for girls tend to be circular in plot, following the seasons. (Books for boys, in contrast, are linear.)

7—the most potent of all symbolic numbers, signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number, a religious symbol.

  • In the Bible, the number 7 can refer to the Sabbath (seventh day), holiness, or completion.
  • It’s also the number of the universe since the 7th day brought completion and peace to the creative act of God.
  • The number 70 (7×10=70) is often used by Jews to describe the universal (Catholic) fulness of the Gentiles.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarves

12 — In the Bible, the number 12 almost always refers to the 12 tribes of Israel. It is the national number of the People of God.