Mercy Watson To The Rescue (2005) is a picture book divided into chapters for the emergent reader, written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. I love the Mercy Watson series, and have previously written about Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride and Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig and Mercy Watson Fights Crime. This installment is similar to Mercy Watson Fights Crime, because she ends up saving the day, purely by accident!Continue reading “Mercy Watson To The Rescue by DiCamillo and Van Dusen”
In literature, an object with human characteristics is called ‘personification‘.
Granting an animal human-like characteristics is called ‘anthropomorphism‘. (Anthropo = human being, as in ‘anthropology’. ‘Morph’ = change.)
Both personification and anthropomorphism are types of metaphors.
But what do you call it when it’s the other way round? i.e., when a human being is compared to an animal by virtue of animal characteristics? Reverse personification? Animalification?
Someone on Urban Dictionary notes that fantasy lovers have developed their own lexicon for these things:
An animal with human-like characteristics. A human with animal-like characteristics can also be called an anthro, but technically they are not. An anthro is, technically, an animal that can: a) walk upright, b) talk, or talk somewhat (AKA has human vocal chords), c) has human features (i.e. a centaur, half human, half horse), d) has the bone structure of a human, with some of its animal counterpart (i.e. a cat-anthro that although looks like a human, can jump like a cat). These characteristics separate anthros from humans with cat ears and tail (or something like that).
It’s common in literature to give a human character animal characteristics, even when the genre is not speculative. For instance, in S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now, one of the main characters is depicted as a lion in preparation for his eventual fate.
We are used to animal idioms in daily life e.g.
- picky eaters as birds
- greedy people as pigs
- thin people as stick insects
- night owls
In literature, the metaphor may be short-lived e.g. a single observation.
e.g. ‘I love your dress,’ she purred. (Women as cats and birds is cliche in literature.)
As children we get used to picture books where the people are ostensibly animals — they have the heads and bodies of animals but essentially behave like humans. Often there’s no metaphorical reason for this — it’s the ‘hat on a dog’ type humour that children love. Why is Olivia a pig? I have no idea, but it gives Ian Falconer’s illustrations a childlike interest which may not otherwise be there given his limited colour palette and style.
Authors of adult work also make use of people as animals, and can continue animal metaphors across an entire story. It might be limited to a character sketch. Alternatively, character-as-animal may comprise the beef of the story and function as integral to the plot.
EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE DESCRIBED AS ANIMALS
The following examples persist throughout the story and are integral to the story as a whole:
- “The Ratcatcher” by Roald Dahl (short story)
- Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman (horror picture book)
- Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig — ironically it is the Animal Catcher who thinks like a pig. Here we have a double layer of animalification, because Francine Poulet is also described as a chicken (the big clue is in her symbolic name).
- Mercy Watson Fights Crime — Kate diCamillo and Chris Van Dusen do enjoy designing opponents with an animal in mind — in this one the cowboy-wannabe burglar is depicted as a weasel. (I know this from listening to Kate diCamillo talk about the character design in an interview — it’s not over-the-top obvious.)
- “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“, a short story by Katherine Mansfield takes the vanity symbolism of the peacock and applies it to a singing teacher.
OLDER WOMAN COMPARED TO GREY FIELD MOUSE
Roald Dahl uses a rat in “The Ratcatcher” but mice are considered really quite different from rats. Rats are sinister; mice are more often harmless, vulnerable due to their size, cute. The idiomatic expression ‘timid as a mouse’ doesn’t represent the reality of mice — whenever I’ve had them in the house I’ve been struck by how brazen they are.
Robin Black opens her short story “Tableau Vivant” with real mice, which have come into a house. She then focuses on one (actual) bolshy mouse who won’t leave the house even though it’s no longer winter. Next, we get a thumbnail sketch of the woman who lives in this house. The focus is on her physical resemblance:
Jean Kurek looked a bit like a field mouse herself, with her close-cut gray hair, in her shapeless gray dress—no zippers, no buttons. Stroke clothes. Her appearance was no more or less distinguished than it had been all her sixty-eight years, the most likely description of her a string of negatives. Not really tall or short, you wouldn’t say she’s heavy but she isn’t particularly thin, not ugly, not at all, but not pretty either, her hair is that color that isn’t blond or brown. Arguably, her most striking feature was the absence of any striking feature—though her hair had finally claimed a color, gray.
“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This
But Black doesn’t stop at the physical resemblance:
Jean had spent a lifetime trying to be inconspicuous, appreciating that nature had given her a good start. As she stepped out from the kitchen now and crunched her way over the garden’s gravel pathways, even the briskness of her pace seemed designed to make her presence as little disruptive as possible, and the arm hanging loose by her side, like something she would soon remember to gather up. [She has lost the use of one arm due to a stroke.]
“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This
Note that not every aspect of the human character needs to resemble the chosen animal. Mice don’t ‘crunch’ when they walk across gravel, for instance, but they do walk like that, just in their miniature way.
Header photo by Caitlyn Wilson
Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson series are genius examples of funny, endearing, broad-audience picture books. There’s so much to learn. Today I take a deep dive into Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig.
Eugenia and Baby Lincoln may live next door to a pig, but that doesn’t stop them from living a gracious life. And the amiable Mercy Watson is equally determined to follow the delightful scent (and delicious taste) of the pansies her thoughtful neighbours are planting to beautify their yard. “Where have all the flowers gone?” shouts Eugenia, who is finally ready to take extreme measures — and dial Animal Control! Has Mercy’s swine song come at last? Or will her well-pampered instincts keep her in buttered toast?
Mercy’s appetite has got her into trouble again. When Eugenia Lincoln’s pansies go missing, Animal Control Officer Francine Poulet arrives on the scene. But as she soon discovers, not just anyone can think like a pig. Especially when that pig is porcine wonder Mercy Watson!
In common with Mercy Watson Fights Crime, the marketing copy centres Mercy’s opponent, Eugenia Lincoln. The educational notes centre the story-specific opponent. Either way, this story is about Mercy’s opposition, and I believe this is key to making these stories work. Mercy is too pig-like to make a sufficiently interesting character in her own right. Her Desires are basic; her Plan is always the same — to follow the joy. A character like this exists for her cute-appeal, but must be surrounded by very interesting opposition, and the opposition must make plans sufficient for a story.
NARRATION IN THE MERCY SERIES
This aspect of Mercy influences the narration, as well. The Mercy books are split into very short chapters (about 2000 words divided into 15 chapters = 133 words per chapter). Focal character changes with the chapter:
Chapter 1: Mercy and the Watsons sit happily at home doing something cosy together. In this case, they are drinking lemonade on the patio. There will be something not quite right in the world. In this case, Mrs Watson has put a lot of lemons in the lemonade and this makes Mr Watson’s lips pucker. This ‘something not quite right’ is comical but also foreshadows conflict to come.
Chapter 2: Switches to Eugenia and Baby Lincoln next door. Eugenia isn’t happy that she’s living next door to a pig. They’re all outside on this hot day, and the pig is very evident. To counteract the fact of living next door to a pig, Eugenia decides they will plant pansies. Each chapter is a gag in its own right, with set-up and punch.
A joke has two parts: setup and punch. The setup raises the tension in the audience, if only for a moment, through danger, sex, the scatological–a host of taboos–then the punch explodes laughter.
— Robert McKee, Story
In this chapter, the set-up is that Eugenia will plant petunias. The punch is that she will make Baby do the hard work of digging.
Chapter 3: We follow Mercy through a hole in the hedge into Eugenia’s yard. Mercy eats three pansies (The Rule of Three In Storytelling), with the full understanding that she goes on to eat every single pansy.
Mercy is depicted as happy and oblivious, with her eyes closed for most of it. Mercy is more animal than human, akin to a very small child. She wants whatever good thing appears before her. First it is the violets. (Next it is the prospect of food at a children’s party.)
Chapter 4: As fully expected, Eugenia discovers Mercy has eaten all her pansies. The evidence is clear, as Mercy has pansy petals on her chin. This chapter ends with a chase scene. The look on Mercy’s face indicates Mercy thinks this is a game of chase. Eugenia’s hands are posed to look like she wants to strangle the pig.
Chapter 5: Mr and Mrs Watson wonder where Mercy has gone. Interestingly, Baby pops up to add something to the conversation. Previously she was witness to Eugenia’s chasing Mercy. Baby is very much ‘the reader’ — she turns up when the narration needs her to be there. She says what the reader would like to tell the other characters. And she appears to ‘float’ from one scene to another. The gag in this chapter is that Mr and Mrs Watson also believe Eugenia and Mercy are playing a game of tag. “They look so happy!” Baby gently tells them that Eugenia is not happy. (The reader already knows this, too.)
The point of view continues to switch like this. Then a new character comes into the fold — the wonderful Francine Poulet.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON THINKS LIKE A PIG
Mercy doesn’t have much in the way of executive functioning, so when Eugenia next door plants violets — with the express purpose of making her forget they are living next door to a pig — Mercy can’t help but eat them. But this isn’t all that interesting, so for the purposes of this story, the main character is the chicken-bodied Francine Poulet (whose last name means chicken in French.)
Francine is comically single-minded. She has grandiose notions, and she fancies herself a superhero. Her single-mindedness will be her downfall (literally).
Francine relishes the challenge of locating a pig. She exclaims that this is a ‘career expanding opportunity’.
A NOTE ON LANGUAGE
Notice how Kate diCamillo uses these multisyllabic words within very simple sentence structures. It’s important that she’s able to use the words she would like to — otherwise much of the humour would be sacrificed. Note, too, that there’s nothing in ‘career expanding opportunity’ that can’t be sounded out.
A note on Mercy’s series-long opposition:
Eugenia Lincoln calls Animal Control on Mercy. Eugenia functions as the long-term nemesis of Mercy, though Mercy remains blissfully unaware of this. Eugenia’s sister Baby is constantly trying to talk Eugenia down. She functions as the child reader, trying to persuade Eugenia that Mercy isn’t so bad. Unfortunately for Mercy, but fortunately for the plot, Baby fails in this mission every time because she is lacking in fortitude, assertiveness and is inclined to self-doubt. So the two sisters next door are an Opponent/Ally combo. This makes them especially useful.
After Eugenia calls Animal Control, Francine Poulet steps in as the main ‘Opponent’. But unlike Eugenia, Francine is a likeable character, and she is now The Main Character.
diCamillo establishes Francine’s likeability first during the phone conversation, in which Francine plays a guessing game with Eugenia. Francine is thereby set up as someone who enjoys fun.
For Francine, everyone on Deckawoo Drive is opposition, because nobody helps her locate the pig:
- The Watsons are so distraught they’re not making any sense.
- The Lincoln sisters disappear — they were only involved in the inciting incident of calling Francine in the first place.
- Stella is opposition because she has insisted Mercy wears a hat. This is the comedy mask trope, and prevents Francine from realising that Mercy is not a person (at first).
Francine is depicted as the human version of a chicken, but her plan in this story is to ‘Think like a pig.’ This is Francine’s catch phrase. She repeats it to herself over and over.
Repetition is a basic building block of comedy. Lines which in themselves are not all that funny can become funny if repeated as part of a comedy. Stand-up comedians have lines/reactions that, when repeated, become even funnier.
Seinfeld’s Kramer — how he always has a dramatic way of coming through the door
The I.T. Crowd’s Roy — “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” (both repetition and mechanical behaviour)
We see Francine look increasingly animalistic v she really does look like a chicken as she leaps over the hedge. Next she’s down on her hands and knees sniffing about. Then her beaked-shape nose is in the air. Finally she is up a tree, like a roosting chook. Normally in stories, a human character is presented as a single animal. In Mercy Watson Fights Crime, the burglar is depicted as a weasel. Here we have an extra layer — a human depicted as a chicken pretending to be a pig. A veritable turducken.
And that’s why I love the titles of the Mercy series. The titles are especially apt — of course Mercy thinks like a pig. She IS a pig, and she’s a very piggy pig, too (unlike Olivia, for instance). It is actually the Animal Control woman who ends up thinking like a pig. The title both describes Mercy and subverts our expectations. (Too many titles ruin some of the fun by spoiling the plot.)
The comedy mask comes off when Francine realises Mercy is wearing the blue hat. The reader has already realised this, if not from the preceding chapter, from the curly tail sticking out.
In lieu of a Anagnorisis we have the set-up and ‘punch’ — the big narrative punch is that Francine has caught Mercy after realising it was a pig wearing that hat.
The books in the Mercy series always end in the same way — the characters come together on stage for a bow — they sit down and eat toast.
“Mercy Watson Fights Crime” is book number three in the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo, first published 2006. This series is beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.
SETTING OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME
Where in America is this series set? Based only on fictional representations, this feels Southern to me. (Do Americans get that? I have to guess.)
This is archetypal, mythical 1950s America, in which happiness consists of a wife at home wearing an apron making everyone lots of delicious food. The houses are large, the gardens manicured.
What do I mean by ‘archetypal, mythical 1950s’? Picture books are not exact depictions of real homes. When it comes to picture books, illustrations will likely include:
- wooden beds with sturdy bed beads and foot boards
- a chair in the bedroom
- a glass of water next to the bed, and a conically shaped bedside lamp
- a large, warm kitchen with 1950s appliances (e.g. the chrome toaster, which has since come back into fashion, but has a retro feel)
It has become clear in 2019, with the publication of Mercy’s origin story, that this is not literally 1950s America. Chris Van Dusen was charged with the task of drawing a cute, young, highly loveable pig, and in one interview admits that he initially forgot to age-down Mr and Mrs Watson. He subsequently put sideburns on Mr Watson and gave Mrs Watson a fringe. This suggests it was the 1970s when Mercy was young, which actually makes this 1980s America. (How long do pigs live? This is getting depressing… Okay, I looked it up: 15-20 years. Could be the 1990s.)
Apart from all that, the following image is reminiscent of American TV shows from the 1950s and 60s, which made use of split screen. We rarely see split screen used today unless the filmmaker is deliberately evoking a mid-20th century vibe. (More correctly, the split screen has evolved. You could say we’re living in the age of the split screen — so often we are watching TV while simultaneously on the Internet.)
Even the cartoon convention of ‘screech’ zig-zags emerging from the toaster is reminiscent of Superhero comics from the Cold War era.
A GENUINE UTOPIA
How does Kate diCamillo achieve that? First, she opens with a cosy goodnight scene. You can’t get much more reassuring than this:
Mr. Watson and Mrs. Watson have a pig named Mercy.the opening to Mercy Watson Fights Crime
Each night, they sing the pig to sleep.
Then they go to bed.
“Good night, my dear,” says Mr. Watson.
“Good night, my darling,” says Mrs. Watson.
“Oink,” says Mercy.
Chris Van Dusen’s illustration reinforces the love that the Watsons feel for their pig — they’ve even had Mercy’s initial inscribed into her bed head. But look again. Look at the shadows. You could argue that, well, of course the shadows must be there — if the illustration contains a light source, then there must be shadows. But every single thing in an illustration is on purpose. Nothing existed here before the blank page. That strong shadow which falls across the bed? That’s ‘The Other Parents’ a la Coraline. A shadow that strong and defined gives the illustration an exciting, menacing vibe. Van Dusen could easily have made that bedspread light orange and it would’ve looked fine. The addition of that shadow is a master stroke.
Compare with the next bedroom scene — a simple one-point perspective, which is a useful layout when the illustrator wants to avoid any scary art noir associations. In the illustration below, Mercy has heard a noise from downstairs. She’s not scared at all because she hears the toaster screech and thinks someone is making toast.
Notice how Van Dusen has avoided casting the bedroom in darkness. Yet no one has switched the light on. The brightly-lit bedroom is an outworking of Mercy’s state of mind ie. not worried one bit. And if Mercy’s not worried, readers needn’t worry either.
The shadow which does exist is of Mercy’s own head —comical rather than menacing.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME
Leroy Ninker is a small man with a big dream: he wants to be a cowboy. But for now he’s just a thief. In fact, Leroy is robbing the Watsons’ kitchen right this minute! As he drags the toaster across the counter—screeeeeech—and drops it into his bag—clannngggg—little does he know that a certain large pig who loves toast with a great deal of butter is stirring from sleep. Soon a comedy of errors (not to mention the buttery sweets in his pocket) will lead this little man on the wild and raucous rodeo ride he’s always dreamed of!from the Teacher’s Guide issued by Candlewick Press
I believe Leroy is the main character of this story, so will break down the structure accordingly. This is also a carnivalesque story, which has its own specific structure.
Importantly, Leroy is not very smart. (Not sure how much he thinks toasters fetch on the black market.) He personifies objects and can’t work out how to get out of the house without disturbing a sleeping pig. More than that, he’s burgling someone’s house and doesn’t seem to realise he should leave the scene afterwards rather than ride around on a pig!
Leroy is also endearing because of his imaginative capacity. While riding Mercy, we are told he imagines riding a dangerous bucking horse. He’s a Walter Mitty character — harmless, with big ideas about himself. This ability to sink into a paracosm is also his downfall.
Ostensibly, Leroy wants to steal items from other people’s houses. This is the outworking of a deeper desire, which is to imagine himself a fearsome, respected and tough bandit, reminiscent of the fantasy of the Wild West.
Let’s consider Leroy as Opponent here for a moment.
Leroy Ninker is introduced in an ominously tinted scene. This is the archetypal robber, with the eye mask, the sack flung over his back. These would make him generic, much like the robbers in Walter The Farting Dog, in which generic robbers are useful. But diCamillo is turning the robber himself into a comedic character, and a comedic character requires a distinguishing feature or two. Kate diCamillo has made use of a mash-up of archetypes to arrive at a unique man:
- archetypal robber
- archetypal child who wants to grow up to be a cowboy.
Leroy is basically a Cat In The Hat character, who turns up when he isn’t meant to and wreaks havoc. While wreaking havoc, the child viewpoint character (Mercy) has a lot of fun.
Before she lets Mercy have fun, diCamillo reveals Leroy as an unthreatening character, despite his sticky fingered ways. He contains several layers of comic irony:
- A small man with a big hat (in which the hat symbolises his self-importance)
- He makes plenty of noise himself while telling the toaster to be quiet
- He has sticky fingers both literally and metaphorically, because his favourite food is butterscotch.
But what about the enduring opponent of Eugenia Lincoln next door? It’s a rule of this setting that the sisters must appear at one point, in which the narration switches point of view. It’s also necessary for the plot to work, because Leroy turns out to be Mercy’s comrade in fun.
Leroy will break into Mercy’s house and see if he can get away with stealing things. He will wear his cowboy costume because this is basically cosplay.
His Plan looks set to fail when Mercy trots downstairs thinking someone is making toast. Instead, expectations are foiled, because Mercy doesn’t realise this guy is a burglar. How does diCamillo turn this into a comedic situation? First there’s the comedic obliviousness — characters who don’t realise what we realise are always laughable (dramatic irony). But on top of that, diCamillo slows the pacing right down. Narratologists would say the story is set to ‘pause’.
One way a writer can achieve that is by saying what is not happening. This was pointed out to by by Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Mercy sees that there is no toaster, no bread and no butter. But she wholly fails to see what IS there; she is single-mindedly fixated on buttered toast.
In a carnivalesque story, the ‘Battle’ is an episode of extreme fun. Here it is the comedic sight of a tiny bandit cowboy riding a pig, all the while thinking he’s an actual cowboy.
Comedy is heightened when we are shown other characters enjoying the spectacle with us. Eugenia and Baby come in handy for that — they are functioning not so much as Opponents but as the two old men from The Muppet Show who make sardonic comments about everyone else in their vicinity.
The characters experience no anagnorisis because this is a comedic story in which the characters remain less knowledgeable about their situation than the readers, who have seen a broader picture. We’ve seen Mercy going to bed, the inside of Eugenia and Baby’s home, the arrival of the robber and the conversations between the police officers. This is true omniscient narration, and keeps the reader in audience superior position, feeling smart.
The revelation is simply a conclusion of fun. If we haven’t realised immediately we now know that Leroy’s penchant for butterscotch is going to be his downfall, because Mercy will accost him for it. Significantly, diCamillo made sure to ‘casually’ mention (twice) that Leroy enjoys butterscotch. (I was very slow on the uptake and didn’t even connect butterscotch sweets to Mercy’s love of buttered toast.) By the time we see Mercy on top of Leroy we’re wondering what she’s after. Then all is revealed: She’s sniffed out the treats!
We might assume Leroy is taken to prison, though subsequent tales in the off-shoot series reveal that Leroy finds gainful employ at the cinema. The rule of this series is that everyone sits down to enjoy buttered toast. Order has been restored.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Some people enjoy wine and food pairing — I enjoy pairing children’s stories with stories for adults. Compare Mercy Watson Fights Crime with “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever.
Like Father Like Son – this one is called a ‘supertrope’ because of all its subcategories.
Like Father, Unlike Son – In How to Train Your Dragon, Stoick the Vast is a big bearded man who is every bit a typical Viking warrior whose main defining feature is his strength.
Luke, You Are My Father – when a character in a story finds out who their real parent is. An Arthurian trope. In some versions of Arthurian mythology, Mordred is the son of Arthur and his sister, who was sent away to die as an infant, as he was destined to kill Arthur later on. Which he did when he showed up as an adult. In Northern Lights, Lyra finds out that the man she thought was her uncle is actually her father.
I Am Not Your Father – There will be a reveal that a child’s parents are not the real parents after years of Oblivious Adoption. After a long time, the adoptive parents finally tell him.
Tell Me About My Father – We see the female version of this in Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.
Sins Of Our Fathers – This describes the act of exacting revenge upon the descendants of the one who originally did the wrong.
Standard 50s Father – Mr Dursley from Harry Potter, the father from Freaks and Geeks (though it’s set in 1980). In Tom’s Midnight Garden we have a father figure rather than the father (Tom’s uncle) who is literally a 1950s father because this book was written in the early 1950s.
Mother Nature, Father Science – If a show has men and women both from an academic background, the man will typically have a degree in science, math, or engineering, while the woman will have one in arts or literature. (This may be why so many mad scientists are male.) Even if both characters are scientists, expect the man to research physics or mathematics and the woman to research psychology or biology. This reflects real life, but children’s literature both reflects real life AND influences it, so children do need to see more STEM mums and nurturing dads. (We are starting to see the nurturing dads, usually when the mother has been disappeared in some way.)
Lineage Comes From The Father – This can be a sexist trope: a great deal of the time characters in the Heir Club for Men who insist on having a boy are men, that when a character has a legacy of royalty, villainy or heroics it comes from the father. Even for female characters. The implicit assumption is that if a character is going to inherit something of relevance from their bloodline, it’s going to be from their father’s side, never their mother’s. However, writers can imbue a story with far more nuance than that. Children can turn out like their fathers even when it’s not a good thing. Bill of Big Love was kicked out of home as a young teen and has since appeared to make it okay in regular Utah, middle-class society. But he will never shake his background or his core beliefs learned while growing up within a cult of polygamy. He is more like his horrible birth father than he realises, and pays for it. It seems for a while that his eldest son is following in his footsteps. The audience realises that there is no real ‘supernatural’ type religious calling but that the son is instead influenced by an influx of teenage hormones, and that is the main reason he can see himself with multiple wives. A picture book example of this is Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough. It’s out of print but you can listen to the author read it on YouTube.
Fantasy-Forbidding Father – A father, mother, or guardian (these last two are less common) disapproves of their child or ward reading “fairy stories”, playing fantasy or SF games, sports, and even such “useless” hobbies as astronomy, boxing and being literate. In extreme cases, anything the child likes that isn’t directly and concretely tied to whatever it is their dad does for a living (or that he wants them to do for a living) is seen as an utter waste. The dad may even break, burn or sell anything of this nature their child owns, possibly even punishing or locking them up. In Freaks and Geeks Nick Andopolis has one of these dads — a military Dad who does not approve of his son’s playing the drums. The audience may be able to see both sides in this case, because Nick is genuinely terrible at the drums and doesn’t practice. Many a heroine of a Pony Tale was saddled with parents like these, when they weren’t obstructive in some other way to her dream of becoming an equestrian.
Supernatural-Proof Father – Usually, when a household starts experiencing supernatural events the whole family experiences them.Well, almost everybody. The father, as the head of the family and the most “sensible and grounded” member, is the last person to encounter (or admit encountering) these bizarre events. We have this kind of father in the horror film Insidious, though it turns out that technically he was the first to see the ghosts and has simply repressed his trauma.
Disappeared Dad – Children’s literature is full of Dads who are absent, either because they have left the family unit or because they’re too busy with their work. Bella Swan’s father grants her sufficient space for her to get mixed up in all sorts of supernatural happenings.
Action Dad – This is the father who realizes something is happening, and isn’t going to stand for it, particularly if it poses any kind of threat to his family. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Papa Smurf.
Archnemesis Dad – aloof, remote, and offer scant praise for their children’s achievements. Some expect their kids to act like adults from an early age and offer no guidance. Lord Tywin Lannister, the dwarf’s dad from A Song of Fire and Ice.
Bumbling Dad – Born out of the Sitcom Dysfunctional Family, he’s a deliberate subversion of theStandard ’50s Father. Now so ubiquitous the older trope is nearly forgotten. Homer Simpson, Papa Bear of the Berenstain Bears, Frank Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, maybe Ron Weasley’s dad in Harry Potter.
Human Mother, Non-Human Dad – In the Japanese comic book (and movie) Wolf Children, the mother is fully human, but the father is a werewolf. His children inherit his werewolfishness.
Jock Dad, Nerd Son – Bill, from Freaks and Geeks (in relation to his mother’s boyfriend, who is also his P.E. teacher.
Overprotective Dad – Kat’s father from 10 Things I Hate About You.
Papa Wolf – when bumbling Dad turns into action Dad. The dad on The River Wild, in which the last line is given to the young son: something along the lines of “My mother is really brave but my father saved the day”, just to remind a conservative audience that the character arc really belongs to the man, even though the film ostensibly follows the path (“river”) of the mother.
Parent Ex Machina – This is when a mother or fatherly figure swoops in to save the day, much as a god did in old dramas. This is an absolute no-no in writing fiction for children. Cheryl Klein advises in her book Second Sight, if you find yourself with a plot that a child wouldn’t be able to solve because of their age, you can do something to fix it: Turn the unsolvable plot into a subplot while giving the child protagonist more autonomy in the main plot. Children must be the fully fledged protagonists of their own stories.
Team Dad – More often than not the disciplinarian, lead-by-example-kind of character in contrast to the warm, nurturing tendencies of a Team Mom. The Team Dad is almost always the oldest member of The Team and if he isn’t The Leader, then he’s definitely The Mentor, and in family-based teams, he is the father (or at least the big brother) of at least one member. This character doesn’t have to be an actual Dad and doesn’t actually have to be male — though usually is. A good example from kidlit is Julian from the Famous Five series, or Dick from The Faraway Tree series — Enid Blyton loved Team Dad boys. Open page one of The Wishing Chair and highlight the mansplaining dished out to Molly from her brother, who looks the same age as she is.
Veteran Dad – Park’s father from Eleanor & Park. The gay dad across the road in American Beauty.
If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, the Mercy Watson series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.
STORYWORLD OF MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE
1960s American suburbia.
Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.
The pink cadillac convertible seems to be a 1959 model. This is an iconic car that you would’ve seen in the movie Grease. And Elvis had one.
The breakfast spread prepared by Mrs Watson includes a coconut bunny cake, from Betty Crocker. In sum, this is a Betty Crocker (General Mills) version of utopia.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE
Mercy is a hedonist who enjoys good food and simple things in life, such as driving at high speed with the wind in her ears. But, like Mr Watson, she needs adventure outside the domesticity of a suburban house.
Mercy wants to drive the convertible.
Mr Watson is in love with his convertible and won’t let her drive it.
Mr Watson’s opponent is the policeman who wants to give him a ticket for speeding, and for letting a pig drive a car.
Baby’s opponent is her older sister, who has babied her her whole life. This relationship is well-understood simply from the fact that her name is Baby.
Since Mercy is an impulsive pig, and simply plonks herself on Mr Watson’s lap when she wants a go at the wheel, diCamillo created a personified Mercy in the form of the old maid Baby, from next door. Henpecked by her elderly older sister, Eugenia, Baby craves freedom and adventure herself, so she plans to stowaway in the back seat one Saturday so she can go on a ride in the convertible with Mr Watson and the pig.
When Mercy takes over the wheel we have a high-speed chase scene. It ends with Mercy flying into the air and landing hard on the ground.
Mr Watson gives Mercy a lecture about pigs driving. “Mercy sighed. She was glad the ride was over. She felt a tiny bit dizzy. And a little bit dazed. She wanted, very much, to go home.” Mercy has had enough adventure, for one day at least. But because this is a series, we don’t want Mercy to stop having adventures altogether!
Baby, perhaps for the first time in her life, saves the day by stepping in and taking action. “Hooray!” said Baby. “She is fine!” But I’m sure she’s pleased at the discovery of her own cool headedness, too.
After Mrs Watson offers Officer Tomilello hot buttered toast he decides not to issue any tickets. The pig and the policeman look at each other as if they are now firm friends.
Eugenia has softened just a little towards Baby and admits that the toast has been ‘expertly buttered’, and so they stay for supper at the neighbours’.
PIGS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
There are 4 main types of animals found in children’s literature:
- Those portraying animals in their natural environment and only partially allowing them human-like abilities
- Those portraying anthropomorphic animals–talking, wearing clothes, thinking and behaving like humans–in separate communities, with or without contact with humans
- Those portraying anthropomorphic animals living among humans, as friends or intelligent pets
- Those which are humanized or semi-humanized
LET’S NOT MENTION THIS BUT…
One enduring problems with pigs as characters is that many humans eat pig meat. A Saturday morning feast for Kate diCamillo’s semi-humanized pig, Mercy Watson, does not include bacon and eggs.
Charlotte’s Web is a different matter. From the first chapter the young reader is keenly aware that the lovable pig is for it. The Arables are eating bacon. The reader is aware that this book will be about death.
If the story is a funny one, it’s highly likely that at some stage the pig character will end up airborne, making use of the English idiomatic expression: “And pigs might fly!”
POLICEMEN AND PIGS
There are a number of dual audience jokes going on in this book but one of them is the ‘pig = policeman‘. You can often tell when a policeman is going to be kind/lenient in a children’s book — he’ll be plump. (Another example is the policeman in Make Way For Ducklings, who has an enormous pot belly and a pocket full of peanuts.) Like Mercy, the policeman here can be won over with hot buttered toast. On the final page we see a mirror image of the pair — the policeman’s blue uniform reflects off Mercy’s ears, and Mercy’s plate is blue. They both have the same rosy cheeks. These are kindred spirits.