In 1991 an editor in the children’s department at Methuen contacted Donaldson to ask if she would be interested in turning one of her BBC songs into a book. A Squash and a Squeeze was published in 1993, when Donaldson was 44. It was not expected to be a big seller. For one thing, it was in rhyme, which publishers at the time largely avoided because of difficulties with translation. “In order for a picture book to be profitable, you more or less have to glue some foreign editions on, so you can do a bigger print run,” Donaldson said.
“It was a rule we held to be self-evident that you couldn’t afford to do rhyming books,” [Kate] Wilson, who then worked in Methuen’s rights department, told me, somewhat sheepishly. (The book has since sold more than 1.5m copies, and Donaldson’s work has been translated into more than 50 languages.) Today, a significant proportion of picture books are written in verse, somewhat to Donaldson’s bemusement. “I think there’s far too many rhyming books. And a lot of them – I don’t want to sound vain or anything – a lot of them make me cringe.”
Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.
This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.
Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.
In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)
[The Gruffalo] was in her head for a year before she sat down to write. “Normally there’s a long time between germination and the writing.”The Guardian
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO
For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.
But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.
What is she wrong about?
She thinks monsters aren’t real.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.
Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a natural stand-in for the child.
Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.
In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by having Gruffalo walk behind.
Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.
In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one big struggle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo right behind them, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.
So what’s the Big Struggle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.
Mouse has won.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.
At a deeper level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any big struggle. Pessimistically, the reader is reminded that size really does equal scary, and if you’re not big enough yourself, you can use your wits to rope in someone bigger.
At an even deeper level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, pretence will become your reality. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The final page shows Mouse eating nuts and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before.
WHAT I BRING TO THE STORY
I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now, and even when hearing scary stories, will know that scary situations can be turned to her benefit.
SETTING OF THE GRUFFALO
Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.
Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.
The Gruffalo was released in 1999, and met with immediate success. The book won the prestigious Smarties prize, which Donaldson accepted wearing a Gruffalo hand puppet. At the time she was working as a writer in residence at a school in Easterhouse, a deprived area of Glasgow. When Donaldson returned from the ceremony, the children gave her a gold star.
The Gruffalo sparked a surge of creativity and a run of bestsellers. But away from books, Donaldson’s home life was fraught with difficulty. Hamish, the eldest of her three sons, suffered from depression and psychosis, and was hospitalised. He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. In 2003, Donaldson’s nephew Gaius, who also suffered from depression, died by suicide. A month later, Hamish killed himself. He was 25.
All complete narratives feature a big struggle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal big struggle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun big struggles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.
I often feel the big struggle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a big struggle-free myth structure should more naturally be shorter.
WHAT IS THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE?
More commonly it’s known as the climax.
When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realisation. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.
Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.
The big struggle sequence can also look like not much at all. As Captain Awkward says in a post about running into family after estrangement, “anticlimax— a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated — can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.” A non-big struggle, when expected, is also a ‘big struggle scene’.
The big struggle sequence looks quite different in the big struggle-free myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.
Torture your protagonist.
The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.
THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
A child’s main shortcoming is that they are small and without power, so a lot of children’s stories have historically relied on an adult stepping in to help. The child’s main job was to find someone more powerful. Victorians preferred the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the adult male woodcutter saves the day, and alternatives of that era have basically been forgotten.
The hero or heroine of a fairy tale usually cannot kill the dragon or marry the princess without help. This, of course, is contrary to the American tradition that if you go it alone and work hard enough, you will get to the top. In fairy tales, characters who refuse help, or refuse to help others, end up covered with tar or talking frogs and snakes.
Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-up: The subversive power of children’s literature
Not all fairy tales follow this general rule, of course. That’s because the fairy tales which we read today have been edited by Victorian men who seemed to harbour their own fantasies of stepping in to save women and children. Fairy tales such as “The Gallant Tailor” and “Mollie Whuppie” feature protagonists who save themselves, but it’s unlikely you were exposed to those as a child.
In contemporary children’s fiction, children fight their own big struggles. However, they very often call in someone more powerful/older to help them in the pre-big struggle stage. That helper might be just a little bit older, or they might be eccentric (powerless in their own way).
In Monster House the children call on the help of the guy who plays computer games down at the arcade.
Or the helper might be very old e.g. a grandparent, neighbour, wizard/witch or realistic equivalent.
These days help may come from the Internet. Courage the Cowardly Dog was one of the first children’s shows to do this — back when the Internet was very new and therefore novel. Courage would regularly consult the personified PC in the Bagge family attic. 25 years on, children’s writers seem less enthused about having The Web solve children’s problems. Now writers of realistic contemporary fiction might have to contrive ways to keep phones out of their characters’ hands all the time.
The people who regularly help children in real life rarely help them in stories. Therefore, you’ll rarely see a parent or a teacher helping a fictional child in any useful way. They may try to help, but inadvertently make the situation worse. This is to do with wish fulfilment — the wish to be independent. Or rather, the first step towards independence.
WHAT DOES A BIG STRUGGLE LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN’S STORIES?
In books for the very young, you’re not going to find many guns, bows and arrows, fisticuffs and arguments (though you will sometimes). Still, picture books definitely feature ‘big struggles’.
Oftentimes, the big struggle phase seems to comprise about half the entire book.
The big struggle scene may be a ‘culmination’ of ridiculousness (followed by calm after the page turn, perhaps with more white space and calming rhythm.)
Therefore, the ‘big struggle scene’ in a picture book might also be called the ‘Culmination’.
It might also be called ‘The Fright‘.
The big struggle isn’t necessarily between the child and the main opponent. Rather, another opponent will often step in.
Obviously, the climax/low point maps onto the big struggle. (I love the term ‘wink’. For me, the broad concepts of set up and escalation aren’t quite specific enough.)
What form does this so-called big struggle sequence take in picture books? I’ve been breaking down the story structure of picture books for some time now. Now it’s time to take a look at the picture books on my shelf and those studied on this blog.
AN ACTUAL GUN BIG STRUGGLE
Hunters with guns are switched out for the lesser opponents (the animals residing in Thidwick’s antlers) to create a more dramatic big struggle scene.
You can see an oversized bodily function in The Three Little Pigs in which the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the houses down. However, in The Three Little Pigs, the sneezing is not the main big struggle scene. The main big struggle scene (at least in less bowdlerized versions) is the wolf falling splash into the pot.
In Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou! by Julia Donaldson all the animals in the story sneeze together and wake up a sleeping toddler.
In Yertle the Turtle by Dr Seuss, the king turtle is toppled off his perch when the turtle on the bottom of the stack burps.
TRICKSTER HERO WINS BY SAPPING THE OPPONENT’S STRENGTH/POWER
Our hero is a trickster archetype who challenges the opponent to perform things which will eventually lead to their own downfall. We see tricksters in classic tales such as The Emperor’s New Clothes.
In a mythically structured narrative our protagonist defeats a dragon as an archetypal trickster, tiring him out until he’s fast asleep by challenging him to perform tiring feats. (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch)
A SCARY CHARACTER SUDDENLY POUNCES AFTER A LONG LEAD UP
This kind of story has its origins in oral narrative such as Little Red Riding Hood. The young listener/reader KNOWS what’s going to happen — the thrill is in the waiting.
In Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett wolf has enough of performing circus tricks for three show-off little pigs and eventually bites them.
THE CULMINATION OF RIDICULOUS, ESCALATING (POSSIBLY NEAR DEATH) EXPERIENCES
This often happens in a tall tale or in a comic classic/carnivalesque plot.
In The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop a city tries to murder a man but they can’t do it because he has four brothers and each has a secret superpower. Battle scenes: an attempted drowning, an attempted execution, an attempted burning at the stake, an attempted burning in the oven.
In And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Inside a boy’s imagination, a simple horse and cart becomes an entire procession of motley scenarios. The illustration starts simple then becomes more and more detailed until nothing more will fit on the page. The big struggle scene, in other words, is extreme chaos.
In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers there are so many things stuck in a tree that it’s impossible to imagine anything bigger or more ridiculous.
THE MAIN CHARACTER HAS A TANTRUM
Most common in comedy picture books. The childlike character isn’t getting what they want so they just lose it. These stories work if the main character’s shortcoming includes impatience and treating others badly. Young readers will identify well with this particular shortcoming, as their frontal cortexes aren’t fully developed — they know exactly what it feels like to not get what you want and to lose control as a result.
THE MAIN CHARACTER GETS CAUGHT UP IN THEIR OWN TERRIBLE PLAN
This kind of big struggle happens when the character is ‘their own worst enemy’.
A brilliant example of this kind of inner big struggle occurs in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers, in which a boy on a journey literally gets entangled in the yarn he draped about precisely to help him find his way home.
In Neil Gaiman’s middle grade book Coraline, the big struggle sequence is a chapter straight out of a gothic novel, in which the main character must work her way out of her imaginary household before it morphs into such a shape that it will somehow enfold her within its clutches.
THE MAIN CHARACTER SHOWS KINDNESS AND WINS THE ENEMY OVER
During the climax of the story, your hero shows an astounding level of kindness to the enemy. It might come in the form of unconditional acceptance, unusual empathy and understanding, or an actual gift with a great deal of personal significance. The hero might even give away the very thing the villain was trying to steal. This gesture of goodwill causes a change of heart. The villain decides to stop doing harm, at least for now.In The Lego Movie, all the lego realms are terrorized by Lord Business. He plans to glue all the lego pieces permanently into place, freezing everyone exactly how he wants them. The main character, Emmet, is supposed to be a special person with the power to stop Lord Business, but toward the end, he discovers that he’s no more special than the next lego. To stop the fighting and gluing, Emmet meets with Lord Business. Emmet explains that Lord Business is also special, and that he has something unique to contribute to the world. Because of this conversation, Lord Business abandons his evil plans. The gesture of goodwill is a good match for a character-focused story. But like other character-based conflicts, it’s important to set things up ahead. You’ll want a sympathetic villain with a motivation the audience understands. However, you don’t have to tell their whole backstory in a flashback. Your hero can piece together the villain’s backstory and motivation, and then use that information in making their gesture.
If you think in terms of ‘climax’ rather than ‘big struggle’ followed by ‘anagnorisis’ and ‘new situation’ you may prefer to break climax into further parts:
The climax of a novel actually has four components:
The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions)
The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving)
The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome)
The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing).
— Writer’s Digest
Moment of truth = anagnorisis Climatic moment itself = near-death big struggle moment
Matt Bird of Cockeyed Caravan breaks down the Battle stages according to which part of the main character is being challenged. I have noticed he’s right on the money for the vast majority of stories:
In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).
The pilot of Breaking Bad is exactly like this, starting with Walt’s humiliation as a lowly car washer serving his own students, followed by the diagnosis of lung cancer, then the moral dilemma — does he follow that idea to become a drug lord or doesn’t he?
For pantsers who haven’t decided on the big struggle beforehand, here’s some tips on how to come up with one.
THREEFOLD DEATH: According to Dan Wiley’s entry in Duffy’s Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, threefold death is a motif of the early Irish aideda in which a victim is killed by three different means in rapid succession, often wounding, drowning, and burning. Examples of this motif can also be found in literature of folklore of Wales, France, and Estonia. The widespread nature of the motif makes some scholars think it began in a hypothetical Indo-European tri-functional sacrifice in which human victims were offered to a triad of divinities. Two of the best examples are found in Aided Diarnmata meic Cerbaill (The Death of Diarmait mac Cerbaill) and Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (The Death of Muirchertach mac Erca). The tales are typically set in the early Christian period between 500 and 699 CE. The narrative pattern typically is (a) a crime is committed against the church, (b) it is prophesied the offender will die a threefold death, (c) such a death does occur. See Duffy 10-11.
The title suggests this may be a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk but it’s not really — it’s an original tale based on mythic structure with elements of Little Red Riding Hood (the sick grandma) and pirate adventures (the big seas, the small boat). Like any good fairytale, this story makes use of the rule of threes.
This is also a carnivalesque story, in which the opponents are friendly, easily distracted, and very happy to join the children in their hi-jinks.
This picturebook has the usual problems found right throughout the kidlit world. This is another story about a white boy. He has two sidekicks. One of the sidekicks is a girl dressed in pink. The other is a black boy. Two boys and one girl consistently comes back in educational research as the ratio at which boys feel comfortable — 1:1 boy-girl teacher attention in the classroom will give boys the impression that girls are dominating. So it is in children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Monster House.
Is this in the illustrator’s wheelhouse? If so, a call to illustrators — why not make Jack the black kid for a change, with a white boy as his sidekick? And to writers: Why not write some more trios of two girls and one boy?
Well, we know why.
How does everyone feel about the phrase ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist?’ which is repeated as a refrain throughout the story?
In this book both the boy and the girl are assumed to be wearing ‘knickers’, but in my dialect of English — and I assume most modern dialects — knickers refer specifically to female underpants. The assumption is therefore that getting (unnecessarily) shitty about something is a specifically feminine trait, and when the instruction is dished out to a male character the effect is to feminise him and strip him of his power. The phrase has always grated with me.
Jack needs to go on a long journey without adult supervision in order to mature.
He wants to save his granny from her purple spots disease by finding her fruit that grows on the rare and distant Flumflum tree.
Nature is against them — the ocean, mainly, and everything in it: namely sharks, leaks and man overboard.
But nature isn’t a very satisfying opponent. A ‘humanesque’ opponent appears once they get to the island in the form of a mischievous monkey who steals the precious Flumflum fruit.
At each of the three calamities at sea Jack works out a use for each of the items granny provided in the patchwork sack.
Jack turns into a trickster with the monkey, giving him or her some wooden spoons. The monkey can’t resist playing the drums with them on the tom-tom drum, so the children are able to retrieve the stolen Flumflum.
Each of the items in the bag had a use. That’s what the young reader will learn at the end of the story.
As for Jack, he has learned that he is quite capable of saving the day.
A Squash and a Squeeze is a picture book written by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Sheffler.
A Squash and a Squeeze was published in 1993, when Donaldson was 44. It was not expected to be a big seller. For one thing, it was in rhyme, which publishers at the time largely avoided because of difficulties with translation. “In order for a picture book to be profitable, you more or less have to glue some foreign editions on, so you can do a bigger print run,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson’s great gift is two-fold: weaving old folktale tropes into contemporary stories, and with beautiful, read-aloud prose. This particular story is a retelling of an old Yiddish tale and, to be honest, I wish there were more acknowledgement of this heritage in editions and reviews of A Squash and a Squeeze. Even the tentpole authors are heavily reliant upon a long tradition of storyteller and storytellers.
There are other picture book retellings of this story. Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern, with illustrations by Simms Taback (1967) has fallen into obscurity, though I picked up a copy for free when our local library was having a throw out. (This sort of proves its obscurity.)
Another example is A Big Quiet House by Heather Forest and illustrated by Susan Greenstein (1996).
You’ll find many folktale tropes here: Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype. Then there’s a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!) The older Yiddish tales are about a man who lives alone in a house, so Donaldson has inverted the gender. (At first this may look like an act of feminism, but I don’t believe Donaldson is a feminist storyteller.) In the Yiddish tale the man goes to a woman for help; now we have a woman going to a man for help. This is an inversion, not a subversion. (There’s a difference.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE
There have been various editions of A Squash And A Squeeze in its 20+ year history of reprints.
Here is a slightly more ominous sky:
With the help of an old man and all of her animals, an old lady realises that her house is not as small as she thought it was.
“a bit of a classic … A goat on the bed and a cow on the table tapping out a jig? My readers collapsed in heaps, and then had to have it read again. And again.”
The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.
Picture books are easy to read – Donaldson’s usually run at just 32 pages, and under 1,000 words – which can give the mistaken impression that they are easy to write. This myth has been reinforced by the publishing industry’s penchant for indulging celebrity authors, who are seen as a guarantee of press coverage and sales, though the books themselves are often ghost-written or heavily edited, and few are unqualified successes. Donaldson has repeatedly complained that picture book authors do not receive “the recognition they deserve”, lamenting at the 2019 Hay festival that “everything has to be the next big thing or else just go out of print”.
Similar charges, meanwhile, have been levelled at Donaldson, whose dominance of the picture book genre is seen by some as crowding out the market for new titles. “Some authors are a bit sniffy about her, but I think that’s just pure and simple jealousy because she’s so successful and she gets all that shelf space,” the author and illustrator Rob Biddulph told me. “But there’s a reason for it: she’s a genius.”
Julia Donaldson is indeed a rhyming genius, and like many geniuses, Donaldson occasionally rewrites formerly published stories, sometimes without changing the plot at all. How many of us have a copy of A Squash And A Squeeze on our shelves, but have never heard of Too Much Noise or A Big Quiet House? Perhaps this is what the ‘sniffy’ authors are talking about.
In Stick Man, an anthropomorphised stick ends up far away from his family tree when he is fetched by a dog, thrown by a child, used as a snowman’s arm, and even put on a fire, but finally, Santa Claus steps in to make sure that Stick Man and his family have a joyous Christmas.
Julia Donaldson is expert in several distinct areas: This is a writer with an excellent feel for and broad knowledge of folk and fairytale, myth and lore. In common in J.K. Rowling, she knows how to take bits from one well-known tale and mix it up to make an entirely new, popular creation. With elements from The Gingerbread Man, The Night Before Christmas and the structure of a classic myth, we have here a secular Christmas story, hence the snowy cover and high Christmas sales numbers.
Donaldson is also an expert rhymester (and performer). New writers are advised to avoid changing the natural order of modern English in order to squeeze lines into a rhyming scheme, but Donaldson gets away with using old-fashioned poetry techniques because she is creating a story-quilt from timeless stories. So it works.
Along with many of Donaldson’s stories, this one is a bestseller which has been turned into a play and a short film.
The whole world is against Stick man. Every possible use for a stick is explored as Donaldson takes our Stick man on a perilous journey: opponents are dogs, children, a dad, and anyone else who can think of something to do with a stick.
Stickman is a reactionary character, flailing about from one perilous situation to the next even worse one, until finally he is thrown onto a fireplace as kindling. Later, when Santa struggles to come down the chimney, Stick Man helps out. This isn’t so much to get himself out of strife, it’s because he is a helpful stick.
When the Stick Man is washed out to sea we think this is the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone who wants to go home to their tree, but when he ends up on a fire, that’s even worse! That’s the masterful thing about this sequence of events; Donaldson really puts her hero through the wringer and we really do feel for the guy.
The passing of time is shown succinctly with a montage of seasonal stills:
The anagnorisis happens for the young reader, who receives a conservative and popular message: If you are nice to people even when you, yourself, are in the most dire of circumstances, people will be nice to you in return.
Stickman is reunited with his family and we assume they spend an enjoyable Christmas together.
STORY SPECS OF STICK MAN
At 731 words, this is a slightly higher word count than your average modern picturebook. (I figure if Julia Donaldson can’t persuade publishers to allow more than 500 words for the K-3 audience, no one can.)
Dragons have always evoked a mixture of fear and attraction.
They’re everywhere in The Bestiaries.
Folkloric dragons always talk. They are semi-human and have wily intelligence. Sometimes they’re regal, sometimes cowardly.
Dragons Around The World
Alexandra the Rock-eater: An Old Rumanian Tale retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom (1978)
An underdog main character convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)
The same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are is used by Julia Donaldson in The Gruffalo.
Eastern dragons are magical, influence the weather, are godlike and maternal. Sometimes they’re wizards in disguise.
Northern dragons love jewels. They have fiery or poisonous breath. They’re often curiously merry or sardonic because they consider themselves invincible. But they can be beaten or more often outwitted via some weak spot. They’re long-lived, unhappy and their hoarded wealth brings them no joy.
Beowulf and SigurdThe Dragonslayer gain nothing except fame from their dragon conquests. Eustace Scrubb (Chronicles of Narnia) and Bilbo Baggins (Lord of the Rings) also found out that it’s best to keep one’s mitts off a dragon’s things. It’s easier for a modern audience to identify with the likes of Scrubb and Bilbo rather than Bewulf; Bilbo is just like us, only a little more determined, which is a great recipe for a popular hero.
In Britain, dragons are associated with Cornwall. See King Arthur.
Dragons And The Quest Story
Stories about dragons are traditionally about the men who defeat the dragons, in your archetypal Quest Story. (The hero is always a man.)
There are a few ways of inverting that trope.
1. You can make the hero a girl. (Preferably very small and cute — the human equivalent of a mouse.)
Trouble With Dragons by Oliver G. Selfridge and Shirley Hughes (1978)
Here’s an old routine in storytelling:
A prince comes
Prince falls in love with princess
Prince goes off to earn her hand in marriage
Prince is eaten by dragon.
But in Selfridge and Hughes’s retelling the gender is inverted. This book is now hard to find, but Babette Cole has done a very similar thing in Princess Smartypants, though it’s not so morbid. In Selfridge’s story two of the sisters die. The picturebook buying public don’t tend to go for that.
2. Either that, or the dragon is not actually scary at all, perhaps denatured in some way: weak, small, friendly.
We see these kinds of dragons in modern children’s literature. Kenneth Grahame was the inventor of this kind of benign dragon in The Reluctant Dragon (1899). His was the first dragon humans could live alongside. Grahame’s dragon is the trope of an Edwardian dilettante who likes company and composing verse. He leaves fighting to all the other dragons.
Dragons and Castles
There are certain things one expects to find when we encounter castles in stories:
Bats in belfries
Servants and attendants
Frogs on lily pads
Bows and arrows
Books for children such as Creepy Castle by John S. Goodall make use of all of these things, often to comic effect. Experienced readers know that a comedy set in a gothic setting is ironic, and it therefore holds more interest.
Dragons In Human Form
When describing humans, dragon is a gendered term. Human dragons are often aunts, in children’s literature. Why? The aunt is often a maiden as well. In traditional society this means that she cannot have children, and the societal pressure on women to have children is so strong that it is assumed when a woman does not have children than she must therefore not like them. Hence, she is a dragon.
In The Aunt and Annabel, a short story from E. Nesbit’s collection The Magic World, a child is isolated in a room as punishment for having tried — and failed — to do an adult a good turn. The aunt is a grim, misunderstanding tyrant and the child is an innocent little saint.
A canine version of this dragon aunt trope is also used in Wolves of the Beyond: Lone Wolf, in which the story opens with a slightly deformed pup being born into a clan who takes such pups away and abandons them, to die alone. The job of dispatching is left to an infertile female wolf. It’s impossible to consider this fictional wolf clan in isolation, without considering how child free women are treated in human societies:
The Obea was the female wolf in each clan designated to carry deformed pups out of the whelping den to a place of abandonment. Only barren she-wolves were eligible, since such wolves were assumed not to have developed maternal instincts. With no blood offspring, Obeas were devoted entirely to the well-being of the clan, which could not be healthy and strong if defective wolves were born into it. The rules were precise. The deformed or sick pup was to be removed by the Obea and carried to a remote spot where it would be left to die of starvation or be eaten by another animal.
Wolves of the Beyond: Lone Wolf by Kathryn Lasky
By the end of Lord of the Flies, Roger becomes the dragon to Jack, with shades of Dragon-in-Chief and Dragon with an Agenda.
The Hunger Games: Clove to Cato
Luke Castellan to Kronos in Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
In Eclipse(Twilight series) Victoria uses Riley as her dragon and also has him making all of the moves for her.
Dragons And Weather
In Colie Thiele’s book February Dragon (1976), the threat of an Australian bush fire is the “dragon” of February. In this story, the Pine family and neighbours lose their farm, crops, home and most of their pets.
But in this book, too, the human dragon is the Aunt, who indeed is the one to accidentally start the fire while on a picnic. Like the mythical Northern dragon, it is Aunt Hester’s arrogance that is the cause of the downfall.
Dragons As General Villain
Henry Allen’s dog is missing – and he thinks it’s been eaten by a dragon! On the night the dog disappeared, Mr. Allen swears he saw a huge dragon slither into the sea caves beneath his cliff-top house. Could Mr. Allen really have seen a dragon? The Three Investigators doubt it, but they’re determined to find the missing dog. That means exploring those dark, dangerous caves.
And whether or not Mr. Allen’s dragon is real, something terrifying and deadly is lurking there!
Dragons In Other Form
In Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of Nimh, the Fitzgibbon’s cat acts as the dragon to the various animals on the farm, terrorizing and killing many of them including Jonathan, Mrs. Frisby’s husband. The cat is quite appropriately named Dragon.
The only dragon in Narnia is actually a boy who has been turned into a dragon. But he has a human soul.
Dragons became much more tame with the advent of Christianity, and they’ve been getting tamer and tamer since, with a few exceptions.
In picture books, which are most often read right before bed, dragons tend to be benign inversions of the mythical, fearsome monster. For example, in There’s No Such Thing As A Dragonby Jack Kent (1975), the dragon beams and wags its tail and loves to cuddle.
These cutesy dragons have been around for a while. They seem to be variations on the boy/dog buddy story, in which the dragon is a companion much like a beloved pet dog would be.
In 1937 there was My Friend Mr Leakey in which the dragon was a dangerous but comical dog.
Poo Poo And The Dragons by C.S. Forester was published in 1942, illustrated by Robert Lawson. Interestingly, there weren’t many of these types of stories published between the wars, but they came back afterwards. In this story, Harold Heaviside Brown meets his dragons by the simple but perfect method of ‘wandering up’ inside one of the fuchsia flowers on a bush in the garden. Inside he finds a dragon on a vacant piece of land. Doglike, it follows him home, wagging its tail, squirming and wriggling. Later, it brings a friend and they both make themselves useful, mowing the lawn, polishing the floor, and laughing at jokes.
They sleep in the garden with their heads in Harold’s bedroom.
Another, modern, story featuring a creature that can’t fit into a boy’s bedroom is the whale in Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex.
The story structure of Poo Poo reminds me a lot of Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair books, in which a pixie called Chinky (like Poo-Poo, another cutesy name) lives in the playroom at the bottom of the garden (where adults won’t notice him). In both stories the child and mythical creature companions go off on various adventures together. In both stories, the garden features heavily. Harold Heaviside gets into the magic world via that fuchsia. The dragons go to school with him during the day, however, and comedy comes out of the dragons needing to learn to read and write. Like pet dogs, they have recognisable but simplified emotions: joy, disappointment, laughter, tears. They are accepted by the neighbours but are a bit of a nuisance.
Rosemary Weir’s Albert The Dragon (1973) lives in Cornwall, but apart from that he’s nothing like a traditional dragon. He’s even vegetarian and likes seaweed. He’s also helpful around the house. His psychological shortcoming is that he is lonely. Taking in an ungrateful baby centaur is meant to help with that, and leads to many adventures. It’s not an especially successful plot, and is now out of print.
Dragons In Modern Children’s Literature
This fantastical, whimsical series about the very resourceful Elmer Elevator, who sets off to rescue a baby dragon after a stray cat suggests it, was one of our favourites as children. Plus, it has the reboot built right in — all the stories are about the narrator’s father’s dragon, but maybe it’s time for him to find one for himself. On to Blueland!
Some of the best selling kid lit over the past few decades has featured dragons.
We have Lord Voldemort’s dragons in the Harry Potter series, among others.
There’s the humanised dragon relationship in Twilight, mentioned above.
The Spiderwick Chronicles has its own Bestiary.
How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell is very popular.
It’s safe to say, dragons are here to stay.
Header painting: Odilon Redon (France, 1840 -1916), Roger and Angelique (Saint George and the Dragon or Andromeda saved), after 1908, oil on canvas
Poetic justice — or the punishment of characters who do wrong might be one solid difference between stories ‘for children’ versus ‘for adults’. Some adult gatekeepers are squeamish about the possibility of young readers siding with naughty characters who go unpunished.
Children’s storytellers from the first and second Golden Ages of Children’s Literature had no problem with didactic stories in which bad behaviour goes punished. Take the preface of Timmy Tiptoes (1893) , in which a child tortures animals then has nightmares about the animals torturing him:
Next, compare this story with a more modern picture book with the same plot: Monster Pet. The didacticism and just desserts is still there, but not stated in words, only via the plot.
How do I know the wish for punishment hasn’t entirely died? Well, if you enjoy spending your one precious life reading one-star reviews of picturebooks on Goodreads, say, you may have noticed a few similarities in the types of books that get parents all riled up. One common crticism goes like this:
The baddie does not get punished. He gets away scot free! This is a very bad example to children, who will learn from this story that doing bad things is okay.
from an actual consumer review of a picture book on Goodreads
Award winning modern picturebooks such as This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen get multiple reviews of this kind. An Australian example is Millie by John Marsden and Sally Rippin.
Parents only have a problem with unpunished heroes, however. If the storyteller sets up a character who is clearly, clearly the hate-sink baddie, then punishment is expected.
Given that the readers of picturebooks are very young, and that picturebooks are very often read right before bed, children’s authors do not have the extensive fallbacks we might see in the punishment typically meted out to the villains of adult stories:
Torture followed by death
But what if picture book authors would like to somehow punish their baddies, in this culture where retribution feels increasingly outdated? (Scandinavian prisons are not about retribution; they’re about care and reform, and we all know we should by running the world like the Scandinavians.)
If you’re a writer creating narrative for an adult audience you have the option of exploring the true nature of (in) justice — how it is not always poetic; bad behaviour is more often rewarded than punished, and how does that change the world? How are we supposed to live with that fact?
Here is the creator of BoJack Horseman, a cartoon for adults, on the concept of punishment in storytelling:
[We are conditioned by narrative to believe] that if we are good we will be rewarded, and if we have good intentions, that will lead to good actions. And if we are true and brave and loyal and kind, then things will work out.
I’m interested in the ramifications of believing in that. And I think that’s another reason why Hollywood is interesting, certainly for me because the show is about how the people who create these stories are the people who are affected by these stories.
Another common punishment from earlier times: Withholding food.
JUSTICE AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT
The idea of retributive justice is a concept learned very early by children, though we probably shouldn’t call it that. I remember my own daughter at about two or three years old, banging her own knee on a table, then crying with some fury. She believed the table had done that to her out of spite.
Psychologist Paul Bloom has shown that retributive thinking appears very early in the lives of infants, even before they begin to use language. Infants are delighted when they see the “bad person”—a puppet who has snatched something from another puppet—beaten with a stick. Bloom calls this an early sense of justice. I prefer to call it the internal Furies that inhabit us all, and that are not securely linked to real justice. The infants’ idea looks like a version of the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, pain for pain. It’s not hard to imagine that the crude idea of proportional payback has an early, perhaps an evolutionary, origin. It is a leap to call this an idea of justice, and I think we should not make this leap.
CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUNISHMENT FOR CHILDREN
In the 1800s, children who behaved badly in stories were punished for that exact behaviour, which always got found out. This has started to change by the time Beatrix Potter wrote Peter Rabbit. Oh yes, Peter is punished all right, but this is still a subversive tale because Peter is not punished for his actual transgression. Sure, he’s punished for losing his coat, but his mother never realises the true adventure he’s been up to, stealing carrots from Mr McGregor’s garden. Peter Rabbit gets away with his transgression. Also, he probably didn’t even need dinner anyway. Surely he was full of veges.
In recent years educators and parenting experts have started telling us that punishment doesn’t work when it comes to modifying children’s behaviour. Techniques around behaviour modification change from one generation to the next and is of course mirrored in children’s literature.
Take parents and children. Parents often feel that children have acted wrongfully, and they are outraged. They want to protest the wrong, and somehow to hold the child accountable. But they usually avoid retributive payback. They rarely think (today at least), “now you have to suffer for what you have done,” as if that by itself was a fitting response. Instead, they ask themselves what sort of reaction will produce future improvement in the child. Usually this will not be a painful payback, and it certainly won’t obey the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye.” If their child hits a playmate, parents do not hit their child as if that were “what you deserve.” Instead, they choose strategies that are firm enough to get the child’s attention, and that express clearly that and how what the child did was wrong. And they give positive suggestions for the future, how to do things differently. So, loving parents typically have the outrage part of anger without the payback part—where their children are concerned. This will be a clue to my positive proposal for democratic society.
John Yorke reminds us that there really is no distinction between a real person and a fictional person when it comes to reader opinions on how ‘avatars’ should be treated:
[Characters] are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us.John Yorke, Into The Woods
Jeff Kinney created a very popular character who is basically an asshole a lot of the time, and although Greg Heffley is not actively punished by retributive parents and Trunchbull-archetype teachers, natural consequences tend to kick in for him. Here’s Kinney’s philosophy on punishment in children’s fiction. Like all popular contemporary authors, he’s wary of writing ‘morality tales’:
I think [readers] like to see somebody behaving badly because [they] know you can’t really do that. And you also like to see somebody punished for behaving badly,” he says. “My books are not morality tales but they allow kids to see their own lives through this character; what could happen if they made certain choices.”
Jeff Kinney, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid
Kinney uses natural consequences and an unreliable narrator to great effect. But what about all those other stories with clear, unambiguous baddies? How are we meant to tie those off nicely, if punishment doesn’t work, and is more and more often seen as unfair?
Here are a few case studies in poetic justice, from picture books which have sold really well. It would be worth looking at the most recent picture books too, because these are a few years old now, and this part of culture is changing rapidly.
SOLUTION ONE: FORCE AN EVIL CHARACTER TO EAT SOMETHING DISGUSTING
Julia Donaldson knows just how to punish her baddies, avoiding the criticism of immorality, but without going too far. Donaldson is indeed a master of knowing what appeals to the broadest possible consumer base.
The Highway Rat ends up being lured into a cave where, in a plot similar to that in the classic Chicken Licken. Emerging on the other side of the cave, somehow unable to return to his hunting ground, this baddie is forced to spend the rest of his life sweeping up the floor of a bakery, eating nothing but crumbs off the floor.
If this were a human character, this would perhaps seem over the top, because it’s basically indentured labour, after all. But for a rat, that’s a kind of heaven, isn’t it? The ick factor comes from the fact that the rat is forced to eat leftovers, and the real punishment is that he has dropped in the social hierarchy.
Carolyn Daniels describes a different rat in a different story — Templeton, a character in Charlotte’s Web, in which E.B. White describes the food at the fair in such a way as to sound both appetizing to the rat character but nevertheless disgusting to the child reader:
In human culture…leftover partially eaten food scraps are generally classed as non-food. Charlotte’s Web contains a range of eaters, two of whom eat leftovers. However, because of the way these particular leftovers are classified, the eaters are characterized very differently.
Templeton, the rat, is a self-confessed “glutton” who loves leftovers. He is lured to the fair (where his services in fetching and carrying “words” for Charlotte to weave into her web are required) by the promise of rich pickings. The old sheep temptingly describes the fair as “a rat’s paradise”.
Everybody spills food at a fair…you will find old discarded lunch boxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of doughnuts, and particles of cheese…a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops. Everywhere is loot for a rat…why, a fair has enough disgusting left-over food to satisfy a whole army of rats.
Here there are repeated inferences of impurity, suggestions of dirt and pollution, of excess, and even of abject body fluids. In particular the image of “candied apples abandoned by tired children” suggests something is half-eaten, excessively handled, with the grubby residue of a satiated child adhering to its sticky surface.
Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Daniels explains that when characters eat dropped/disgusting/leftover/contaminated food, this means that they themselves embody those things. A character who eats something disgusting becomes disgusting. This sequence is basically carnivalesque, where Bakhtin’s bodily principle often comes into its own.
In The Highway Rat, you’ve therefore got a character who becomes bad because he does bad things. Bad is as bad does, kinda thing.
You may have noticed that Wilbur the pig also eats disgusting human leftovers, but he’s a good guy. The difference is, Wilbur is eating things that have been coded as ‘slops’. He is supposed to eat those things. Wilbur’s goodness is underscored when he refuses food because he’s too upset to eat. Baddie rats, on the other hand, take food even when they’ve been gorging. Indeed, this is the set-up in The Highway Rat, where we have a baddie who steals even the food he himself cannot digest (e.g. clover).
Much later, Mo Willems and his writing team wrote an Elephant and Piggie picture book called I Really Like Slop, which makes use of the same story elements to comic effect.
SOLUTION TWO: GIVE THE BADDY A BIG FRIGHT
Using a clever, setting-specific variation on the totem-pole trench trope, the empathetic characters in this story all gang up work together to defeat the baddie, who is sent running.
SOLUTION THREE: A NON-INJURIOUS CALAMITY
It’s not enough to just give the baddie a minor injury and call it a day. The masterful thing about the plot in Pig the Pug is that the mountain of toys Pig piles up to avoid sharing with Trevor is a metaphor for his greed. When the pile of toys collapses, so does his status as top dog of the household. On the final page we see Pig so fully covered in bandages that it’s comical rather than tragic (much like a certain scene in Office Space). ‘The pile of toys collapsing’ is, of course, an example of natural consequences kicking in. Trevor did nothing to ‘get him back’. Trevor is not into retributive justice.
Also noteworth: you can injure your picture book baddie, as long as it’s comical, and as long as the injury is not caused by the empathetic character.
SOLUTION FOUR: KILL THE BADDY OFF
Think you can’t murder your picture book baddie and still win a big award and many adoring readers? Think again! Once again we have an example of ‘natural consequences kicking in’. Like Pig the Pug, the baddie’s own actions lead to a kind of collapse which comes down upon the character, in a highly metaphorical form of poetic justice.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a prime example of a baddie who ends up dead. Not only dead, but eaten by his friends. In modern literature, it is common to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in their own trap.
How does one get away with this, as a picture book creator? The following tricks help:
Make the baddie an easily recognised trope of evil. In this case we have a posh wolf whose only mission in life is to eat our empathetic characters.
The calamity is of the baddie’s own doing. His own evil leads to his own downfall.
The horrible death happens off the page.
In this book, we are very cleverly left to surmise what happened. Don’t spell it out for the reader. In this way, readers who aren’t up to the task of surmising won’t have to deal with a conclusion they may not be ready for.
Works best in a generally hilarious story, full of hyperbole, good-natured fun and illustrations which invite play, such as ‘Where’s Wally’ type details.
A much different story in which the baddy ‘dies’ is The Cheeky Crow by Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson. The children enjoy setting this crow up as the villain, but when they think it’s dead they are forced to confront their unexpected bad feelings. But as it turns out, the crow is simply stunned, and eventually flies off. The baddy is no longer a baddy, but a real, live creature and the young characters (and the young readers) have developed empathy for it, which I suppose is the aim of the story. Nilsson temporarily killed a creature, made use of the emotions, then ‘brought it back to life’. (If every author did this it would get old pretty quickly.)
SOLUTION FIVE: TURN THE TABLES WITH WITS
Readers really warm to a character who can outsmart the baddie, aka tricksters. For an example of this, see Joy Cowley’s Nickety-Nackety-Noo-Noo-Noo. In this case we have a rather feminist tale in which a patriarchal husband-type troll wants to steal a wee woman to keep as prisoner (wife). The wee woman escapes by making stew made of glue. When the baddie gets caught up in the gluey stew she is able to make her escape.
In this modern fairytale, she has outwitted the baddie. This is a repeat of what’s already been done in many classic tales such as Hansel and Gretel, in which brother and sister work together to 1. convince the witch that Hansel is not yet fat enough to be eaten and 2. to coax her close enough to the oven so as to push her inside.
A variation on this sort of comeuppance can be found in Rosie’s Walk (and all the copycat plotlines that came afterwards) in which the naive empathetic character has no wits whatsoever — rather, gets out of trouble due to dumb luck.
That Is Not A Good Idea by Mo Willems is another example of this kind of plot. The wonderful thing about this book is that it’s a spoof of a B-grade horror flick — you know the kind — the beautiful female is sent into all sorts of ridiculous situations and you want to yell, ‘Don’t go in there!’ It’s pretty insulting actually, that women are used in that way, so to have the female duck turn the tables on the fox is a satisfying experience.
SOLUTION SIX: EXPOSE THE BADDY’S GREAT WEAKNESS
Scarface Claw is the wonderful villain of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary series but the reader soon learns that, despite his formiddable appearance, Scarface is actually a scaredy-cat. That may explain why my own daughter called him ‘Scarfy Claw’ when she was a toddler — she saw right through his tough exterior.
With this type of ‘baddie’, simply exposing the baddie for what he is is often sufficient as a conclusion. Scarface Claw finds himself stuck up a tree in need of rescue in Caterwaul Caper. In Scarface Claw (the book named after him), he ends up frightened by his own reflection in a mirror. This is a wonderful comment on how Scarface’s appearance is the source of (indeed, the beginning and end of), his scariness.
Of course, in order to expose a baddy’s shortcoming you must first establish one. Don’t forget to do that at the beginning of the story! (Or as a characteristic running right through the series.)
In picturebooks, this seems to work really well when you start with a baddy who looks formidable. In fact, it seems to be a requirement. In the It’s The Bear! series by Jez Albrough, we have a usually cute character as possible baddie (the teddy bear) and because of its enormity we are surprised when we find that it’s basically a teddy-bear version of the empathetic main character, and just as scared.
SOLUTION SEVEN: BANISH TO FOREIGN LANDS FOREVER
You may argue that the main punishment suffered by the Highway Rat is removal from his home. But the visual we’re left with is that of the bakery, so we’re inclined to forget the main part of the punishment. Another classic book in which the baddie is ostricized, ‘taken somewhere/from the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows’ is The Lorax, of course. Like the Highway Rat, the Lorax was basically causing a community great strife, upsetting the order in the same way an uncaptured serial murderer might.
Of course, the difference in The Lorax, is that the guy causing all the upset to the community is a goodie by the modern reader’s estimation. The story is therefore a tragedy rather than a comedy. Dr Seuss conveys his environmental message by inverting the usual way of things — he ostracizes the baddy rather than the goodie, making use of the old Western trope, in which the hero rides into town then leaves, unhappily, to presumably try and save the day somewhere else.
SOLUTION EIGHT: THE BADDY DOES NOT EXIST
In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting And Nearly Catch A Woozle
This is a chapter rather than a stand-alone picturebook, but this is the one in which our naive main characters are foiled by their own footsteps.
Julia Donaldson uses this trope for the first part of The Gruffalo, in which the mouse manages to persuade all sorts of scary animals that he is off to have lunch with a so-called Gruffalo. But the story turns again when it turns out the Gruffalo is a real thing. I feel this story owes a lot to A.A. Milne.
With an imaginary villain, sometimes the main character realises their mistake but at other times only the young reader does, creating dramatic irony and humour and the feeling that one is very smart.
SOLUTION NINE: BADDY TURNS OUT TO BE BENIGN
There are many many go-to-bed picture books in which the feared monster turns out to be nothing scary at all. There are so many examples I can’t even think of a single one.
You’ve also got stories in which the feared-thing is not a monster but an everyday thing. For example, I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato by lauren child, in which Charlie tricks his little sister into overcoming her fear of certain healthy foods. The baddy tomato turns out to be good, and doesn’t quite fit into this category because there is no punishment needed in the end.
SOLUTION TEN: BADDY GETS A SECOND CHANCE
I’ve never come across an evil person. Have you? I write about what people really eat, and where they really live. I write about what people are really like, and in my experience most people are very kind to most people.’
‘I do have stupid and arrogant people in my books…’
‘You draw the slightly iffy characters in. Like David.’
‘I loved David! He’s one of my favourites.’
‘Instead of kicking them out, letting something dreadful happen to them.’
‘Oh, that’s a very simplistic thing to do. I don’t think that’s how real life works.’
‘It’s so sweet. The Cassons; they keep collecting people, don’t they?’
‘They would be very boring, just one family and no outsiders, so you have to give them friends or they wouldn’t be normal people. And their friends are going to be a mixture. David was a… he wasn’t really a bully, but he was led into bullying, by someone with a weak nature. There are people like that, and I think a lot of people who are going the wrong way are all too glad to see a way out of it, to be honest.’
‘They want to be given a chance.’
‘Yes, it is a world of second chances. I do believe that very strongly. I’m writing for a very young age group, and I think if I wrote adult books… I would like to write adult books,’ Hilary sighs but sounds quite determined, ‘actually, I might do that, and then you could go darker… I’m not very good at writing people off completely, because it always seems like a “what if?” possibility.’
‘Yes, that’s why I prefer children’s books. You don’t have to be quite as dark as people are in adult books.’
I have so far focused on punishments in stories for young readers, but young adult literature is a different thing entirely. In this category, characters die at an alarming rate.
Nicole Galante argues that death as punishment too often strips young readers of power they may otherwise grasp in the here and now:
In order to begin to restore power to adolescents, YA must stop doing two things. Firstly, it must stop relying so heavily on the future that the present is forgotten, and young adult readers are consequently are rendered powerless. Secondly, it must stop killing off “rule-breaking” characters. There are a million and one ways to punish characters for breaking the rules that don’t involve killing them—and nearly every single one of those ways is more ethical than death. Of course, there are benefits of discussing the future and including death. It would be irresponsible of the genre to never look forward in time, just as it would be to paint a picture of the world that ignores the reality of premature deaths. However, mention of the future should never be so overbearing that the Spectacular Now is erased of all meaning, and death should be represented realistically rather than with exaggerated frequency.