Ideology In Children’s Literature: Against The Cult Of Busyness

In general, laziness in child heroes is a big no-no. But there is definitely a happy medium so far as children’s book creators are concerned. Once you become so busy that you neglect your loved ones, you’re working too hard.

Many children’s books are about grandparents and grandchildren. In many stories, only the grandparent has time to spend with the grandchild because the parents are too busy working. Perhaps, off-stage, the sandwich generation also busy looking after the grandparents themselves.

English writer William Mayne demonstrated this ideology, explained by Alison Lurie:

Several of Mayne’s books are marked by an alliance between the very young and the very old, who have clear if idiosyncratic memories of the past and speak to children as equals. Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the child characters is practical: they make rules, set tasks and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool — sometimes, indeed, [Harold] Pinteresque.

Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Heidi and Grandpapa by Gustav Tenggren
Heidi and Grandpapa by Gustav Tenggren

Sometimes it’s the animal who is the stand-in for the child, and the child is too busy for the animal.

In Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr it is implied Mog’s family is too busy, because they don’t have time to pay Mog any attention. This is seen as motivation for Mog leaving the house and going to sit on the roof in the snow. (I’m going down to the garden to eat worms…)

Sometimes the characters are too busy to ‘stop and smell the roses’ and enjoy nature. They may be punished for their lack of noticing when something they should have seen jumps out to bite them. After that they learn to pay attention to their surrounds. In children’s literature, children are thought to be better noticers than adults. This ideology can be seen in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, for instance, and also in the character development of Fern in Charlotte’s Web.

FURTHER READING

There are many apparent reasons why people engage in activity, such as to earn money, to become famous, or to advance science. In this report, however, we suggest a potentially deeper reason: People dread idleness, yet they need a reason to be busy. Accordingly, we show in two experiments that without a justification, people choose to be idle; that even a specious justification can motivate people to be busy; and that people who are busy are happier than people who are idle. Curiously, this last effect is true even if people are forced to be busy. Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.

Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness byChristopher K Hsee 1Adelle X YangLiangyan Wang.
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Mog The Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr Analysis

Mog The Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr cover

Mog The Forgetful Cat is the story that introduced Mog to young readers at the beginning of the 1970s. You’ll see from the illustrations that this is a book of its time, with 1970s fashion and a traditional nuclear family set-up, including a population that, compared to modern day London, is overwhelmingly white. If there is a spectrum of personification when it comes to animals in picturebooks, Mog is still very much cat rather than person, but Judith Kerr manages to convey the idea that she indeed knows exactly what goes on in cat’s world — what cats worry about, what they dream about and what their main concerns must be.

WHAT HAPPENS IN MOG THE FORGETFUL CAT

Perhaps the man will let me in. Perhaps he will give me my supper.
Perhaps the man will let me in. Perhaps he will give me my supper.

This story is mostly a character sketch of a mischievous cat called Mog. Mog’s mischievousness is reframed as forgetfulness. She doesn’t ‘steal’ an egg at breakfast time; she ‘forgets’ she only has eggs as treats. This lends a gentleness to the character, and allows young readers to empathise. The plot of the story takes off after Mog is shut outside for being a nuisance. It just so happens that a burglar arrives that night. Mog frightens the burglar, who makes a noise by dropping something, thus awakening the family who are able to call the police to apprehend the baddie. Mog is now a hero.

WONDERFULNESS OF MOG THE FORGETFUL CAT

The burglar in this story is an archetypical comic character dressed in a raccoon mask and striped prison uniform. He is smaller in stature than the policeman who comes to apprehend him. Rather than being locked up in handcuffs, the burglar even holds the policeman’s cup of tea while the policeman makes notes on a pad. This comic representation of intruders makes this story a perfectly safe going-to-bed book.

Burglar Holds Tea

Though this book is not an early reader, the ‘voice’ of Mog is depicted in short, simple and repetitive sentences to suggest a naivety to a creature whose thoughts are probably less complex than those of a human. In effect, this turns the Mog series into books appropriate for emergent readers.

Dream sequences are common in the work of Judith Kerr. Sometimes she mutes the colours. In this book she tells the readers: ‘Debbie had a dream. It was a bad dream. It was a dream about a tiger.’

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Judith Kerr seems to use a mixture of black line filled with vibrant ink washes, but also makes use of either crayon or coloured pencil to achieve more muted backgrounds and dream sequences. The lines of the coloured pencil give these pictures a naivety — they seem to be done with the same materials a child would own.

The faces of the characters are representational rather than serving to make them unique, with a single line for a nose, black dots for eyes and a series of lines and circles for mouths. This way of drawing characters allows a wider range of readers to see themselves in this family, and also makes Mog, who has a similarly simplistic face, to really look like one of the family. Mog’s many emotions are depicted by changing the shape of her eyes.

One convention of picturebooks — utilised often throughout Judith Kerr’s books — is the convention of placing multiple scenes on a single page where there is much action, versus a single scene covering an entire page or double spread when the pacing of the story takes on a more contemplative mood. Below, many things happen in quick succession. There is a little ground colour to suggest ‘grounded’ characters (rather than floating through space), but other than that, the background is white.

Mog The Forgetful Cat Action Pages

STORY SPECS OF MOG THE FORGETFUL CAT

This is the first of the Mog series of books, of which there are 17.

Published  in 1970, the next in the series didn’t come out for another six years. (Mog’s Christmas.) The rest of the series came out more regularly all through the 1980s and 1990s. The last of the series (Goodbye, Mog) came out in 2002.

Judith Kerr based the house/setting/family characters very much upon her own family.

In 2012, HarperCollins released Mog The Forgetful Cat as a universal app on the iTunes store. But they seem to have stopped adapting the Mog series as book apps, and perhaps released this one as a marketing experiment. The app allows readers to record their own narration.

Mog App

Judith Kerr’s Wikipedia page

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH MOG THE FORGETFUL CAT

Another story in which a family pet is rejected, then saves the day by ‘catching’ a robber is Walter The Farting Dog. This time, the dog gases the burglars out with his rancid flatulence.

published 2001
published 2001

WRITE YOUR OWN

This is an cosy home intruder book. Can you think of other examples and see what they all have in common?

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The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr Analysis

The Tiger Who Came To Tea (1968) is a picture book written and illustrated by British storyteller Judith Kerr.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA

A tiger comes to tea. Or, a mother and daughter are at home waiting for father to get home from work. An unexpected visitor arrives. It’s a tiger. Mother invites him inside to drink tea and eat buns, but the tiger eats every morsel of food in the house, and ‘all the water from the tap’. He then leaves. When father arrives home he takes the mother and daughter to a cafe for dinner, since there is nothing to eat at home. The following day, mother and daughter buy more food at the supermarket, and a can of tiger food in case the tiger comes back. It is revealed on the final page that he never does come back.

Man Vs Pink humorously reads a deeper meaning into The Tiger Who Came To Tea:

After a bad day of parenting, who hasn’t wanted to blame the tiger for all the things you haven’t done around the house.

A Peep At The Circus
The visual gag and ridiculousness of the jungle animal arriving to drink tea was a fairly common one during the second golden age of children’s literature.

WONDERFULNESS OF THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA

The humour in this story comes from its typically ‘picturebook world’ irony: The young reader expects the little girl to be terrified when she opens the front door only to be met with the sight of a ferocious tiger. Instead, the mother and daughter are delighted. They treat him as a guest.

The humour continues as the tiger breaks social norms by eating far more than he is offered. It is funny that he drinks all the water in the tap, since this is a technical impossibility. The irony of non-surprise is repeated when father comes home and finds no food in the house, but instead of being angry about the tiger, decides to turn the event into a special occasion, and treats mother and daughter to a trip to the cafe.

The Tiger Who Comes To Tea is therefore an example of a ‘carnivalesque’ text.  A ‘carnivalesque’ text is a kind of book form children in which the child characters interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames. Carnival in children’s literature:

  • is playful
  • is non-conforming
  • opposes authoritarianism and seriousness
  • is often manifested as a parody of prevailing literary forms and genres
  • often has idiomatic discourse
  • is often rich in language which mocks authority
  • often stars a hero who is a bit of a clown or a fool

When a little girl sits down to tea with her mother in 1960s England, she is being trained in ladylike behaviour. I noticed the page one illustration of Sophie shows her sitting with her legs splayed out in ladylike manner. There is nothing sexualised about this as she is wearing tights, but it’s interesting that she sits like an uncultured little girl, but only under the table, where she cannot be corrected by her mother.

Perhaps it’s significant that Judith Kerr herself only came to England at the age of ten. It’s quite possible that she found the culture of drinking tea at a table quite stifling. Let’s imagine there is another text going on in tandem, one in which Sophie sits nicely at the table with her mother, drinking tea without slurping, eating buns without dropping crumbs. In this story, the story about the tiger either happens entirely in her imagination in order to provide some childlike entertainment in a very adult tradition, or the story about the tiger is simply an illustration of how Sophie would like to behave if she were given free rein.

In picture books the climax of the story tends to happen a bit earlier than in other kinds of stories. In this case, the denouement allows the child reader to relax back into normality; we see that order has been fully restored only after all the food in the house has been replaced.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA

Notice how on the front cover illustration the eyes of the girl are mere dots with a line to suggest the upper eyelid, whereas the eyes of the tiger are quite a bit more detailed and human-like.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr cover

(The almond-shaped, comical eyes remind me quite a lot of the eyes on the zebra in the much more modern Z Is For Moose.)

The advantage to drawing child characters in basic form (dots for eyes, single lines for noses) is that the child can then stand in for ‘children in general’ rather than ‘a specific child’, and the child reader is therefore more likely to see themselves in the depiction. The fact that the eyes of the tiger who comes to tea are so human-like add to the humour that derives from his anthropomorphism: Tigers do not come to tea. Nor do tigers look human. The reader’s expectations are constantly foiled throughout this story. First we see a tiger who behaves surprisingly like a human, so we accept him as a human stand-in. He then foils our expectation by behaving badly, eating everything in sight, just as you’d expect of a wild creature.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea drinking from tap Judith Kerr
The Tiger Who Came To Tea drinking from tap Judith Kerr

Is the tiger the mother? Or is the tiger Sophie? I argue that the tiger is both. The cover depicts Sophie with the tiger, whereas page one depicts Sophie with the mother, suggesting the tiger is the mother. But the carnivalesque tradition of picture books suggests that this wild animal is a fantasy that Sophie herself would like to embody: drinking tea from the spout, gobbling as much food as she would like to eat.

Notice too, that while the tiger is present, she breaks a few tea-time traditions by standing on her chair to offer the tiger some buns, with the chair-cushion pushed onto the floor. Sophie looks adoringly at the tiger as he rummages through the pantry cupboard. Meanwhile, the tiger smiles knowingly at the child reader; the reader knows very well that the tiger is up to mischief, and children are encouraged to revel in his bucking against social norms.

Sophie smiles at the reader on a later page when it’s discovered she can’t have a (dreaded?) bath; the tiger has drunk all the water from the tap. Sophie continues to buck social norms a little when she wears a coat over top of a nightgown with gumboots to a cafe.

The excitement of being out at night is evoked with a double spread full of colour and a dark blue that contrasts with the white space of the previous pages. Notice also, the cat. This is a cat with stripy, tiger-like markings.

Sophie and her parents have just walked past it. Has Sophie perhaps seen this cat before on her outings, and been inspired by him? The cat has certainly been positioned on the page so that the reader will notice him; he is flanked by the family and a man in a coat heading the other way, hunched over and not noticing anything. The posture of this man seems to say: Are you like this man, or are you noticing, really noticing, the illustrations?

night scene
So they went out in the dark, and all the street lamps were lit, and all the cars had their lights on, and they walked down the road to a cafe.

In a more literal reading of the story, this cat (with its knowing smile and off-page gaze) is that this cat is the tiger in disguise, and that he’s off to make mischief at someone else’s house… perhaps yours!

STORY SPECS

Between 28 and 32 pages, depending on the various publishers

499 words

First published in 1968, the family dynamics are typical for this era of England: Mother is a housewife who is concerned about preparing Daddy’s dinner. This is a story in which the female members of a family are shut inside. It is the father who leads them into the outside world by ‘taking them’ to a cafe. Notice how the mother is surprisingly small in stature next to the father, perspective aside. The mother as well as Sophie have been involved in this imaginary tale — both can be seen as children for this one afternoon:

The Tiger Who Came To Tea Dad

This was Judith Kerr’s first book. She followed The Tiger Who Came To Tea with the hugely popular Mog series, about a pet cat rather than a tiger.

The Englishness of this story is apparent from the title. (Tea.) The parents are called ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. Regular visitors to the door are the milkman and the grocer boy on his bike. Everyone is still wearing a hat when venturing outside.

Here is an earlier, Picture Lions version of a cover, this time showing the mother as well as Sophie and her tiger:

The Tiger Who Came To Tea has also been adapted into a stage play for children.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA

This story reminds me of Gorilla by Anthony Browne. In both of these stories, a child imagines (though the imagining isn’t mentioned) a wild animal who comes to the house because the father is not there as a protective figure. The loneliness of Hannah is far more pronounced than the simple playfulness of Sophie. The Tiger Who Comes To Tea is a warm story, in which everything that happens is good; even the tiger’s mischief is great fun for Sophie to watch.

Another childhood classic in which a cat comes to the door is and makes mischief, of course, the famous Cat In The Hat. The Tiger Who Came To Tea is more similar in tone to that of Dr Seuss than to Gorilla. First published in 1957, it’s likely Judith Kerr was influenced by the Dr Seuss classic.

Then there is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, in which Max leaves his bedroom to visit monsters in their own environment. This story is perhaps more similar to Gorilla in that the internal conflict of the child protagonist is resolved by the invention of a wild creature.

Perhaps the most similar to The Tiger Who Came To Tea, however, is May I Bring A Friend, a carnivalesque tea time adventure from 1964.

May I Bring A Friend book
Kate Greenaway Marigold Garden The Cats Have Come To Tea
Kate Greenaway Marigold Garden The Cats Have Come To Tea

WRITE YOUR OWN

If a child encountered a wild animal what would the wild animal naturally do? Now, what’s the inverse of that? How might this wild animal slip up and down the scale of anthropomorphism in order to surprise and delight young readers?

from St Nicholas Magazine for boys and girls 1938 September

SEE ALSO

The Tiger who Came to Tea: Owp! from We Read It Like This

Tigers and other big cats in illustration

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