Eric by Shaun Tan Picture Book

Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.

shaun-tan-eric-cover

NOTES ON THE COVER OF ERIC

Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further.
A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:
judy-moody
Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks:
that-pesky-rat-lauren-child
For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s usually because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.

THE MINIATURE

Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.

Why is the exchange student in this story small? As explained by John Truby in Anatomy of Story:

Whenever a character shrinks, he regresses to a small child. Negatively, he experiences a sudden loss of power and may even be terrified by his now massive and domineering surroundings. Positively, the character and the audience have the amazing feeling of seeing the world anew. “The man with the magnifying glass is … youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of the child … . Thus the minuscule, the narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”

Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?

Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is just a symbol.

Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.

Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:

The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them,and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.

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Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:

  1. The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
  2. It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
  3. The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
  4. The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
  5. The creature in this story is interested in small things whereas the boy in The Lost Thing is the one who is the noticer. (Noticing this creature is a noticer is itself a form of noticing…)
  6. Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
  7. The narrator is left wondering what it all means.

ERIC AS A POSTMODERN PICTUREBOOK

What is a postmodern picturebook?

Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picturebook. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural differenceGrigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.

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STORY STRUCTURE OF ERIC

The main character is the storyteller narrator.

WEAKNESS/NEED

This kid (I assumed it was a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl)  She is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer.

DESIRE

She is looking forward to teaching an exchange student everything about her local environs. This will make her feel like an expert.

OPPONENT

Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore.

eric-illustration

Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.

PLAN

Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:

I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excusions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.

Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. At the casino he gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.

BATTLE

I might have found this a little exasperating, but I kept thinking about what Mum had said, about the cultural thing. Then I didn’t mind so much.

The battle is with herself — between the self that wants to show Eric everything she knows, and the self that’s open to learning from the foreigner.

We see more of this psychological battle at the dinner table when ‘There was much speculation over dinner later that evening. Did Eric seem upset?’ and so on.

SELF-REVELATION

In Shaun Tan’s work, self-revelations are often accompanied by images of doors and windows.

In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.

It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.

The window, however, comes before the battle scene.

Here we have a door: the pantry door.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again.

This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.

Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.

Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t by Lauren Child

Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t is my favourite Lauren Child picture book. I can see it being used in the classroom to teach the concept of the leitmotif, among other things.

Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don't cover
If you run your finger over the dog’s body you’ll find it’s printed in some kind of textured paste. There is also a diamante used for the dog’s collar, but make no mistake — this isn’t a crappy mass-market story made with no love under the assumption that girls have been conditioned to read anything pink and sparkly.

This is a picture book written and illustrated by British kid-lit master, Lauren Child of Charlie and Lola fame.

The story might be used in the older classroom or with a child reader to discuss sound devices and alliteration, for starters.

P alliteration

In particular, Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t is a wonderful example of the leitmotif, in which sound devices are used to tell us more about a character.

This story — like many picture books — is a wonderful example of how character names can say a lot in fiction. Why is Mademoiselle Verity Brulée named as such? In the Anglo world, what connotations are associated with the French? Since crème brûlée is a kind of sweet dessert, what might we surmise about this character?

Crème brûlée…is a dessert consisting of a rich custard base topped with a contrasting layer of hard caramel.

— Wikipedia

Perhaps Verity has both soft and hard edges to her personality. Perhaps the contrast of textures in this particular dish is symbolic of how two characters living together as one family can have such different temperaments that they are like chalk and cheese. However, it is precisely the contrast in textures of the crème brûlée that make it work so well as a dessert. If only Trixie and Verity can learn to live with each other they’ll make a great team.

Ideology Of Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t

“Dogs should be left to be dogs, not treated as toys to be groomed and molly-coddled.”

Since, in children’s stories, animals are stand-ins for children, the ideology is therefore also that children should be allowed to be children, free to run around parks and get themselves dirty.

Notes On The Illustration Of Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t

This book is illustrated in a similar style to the Charlie and Lola series, though Charlie and Lola books make quite heavy use of collage, in which photographs appear to have been cut out and stuck on. This book retains the feel of collage but doesn’t employ that exact technique. Instead, I’m reminded more of the Japanese kimono, with its distinctive admixture of highly detailed patterns. I’m sure this is intended, since Verity is seen at one point wearing a kimono inspired dressing gown. (I believe they’re just called ‘kimonos’ in the West.)

Japanese fashion

The setting might be in Paris or in England or America — the era feels a bit 1920s, but we do see a retro style TV, which places it more squarely in the 1950s — before the Aristocracy had died, in any case.

The scribbly/collage illustration style of Lauren Child, in which the rules of perspective are thrown out the window, lends a childlike, playful feel to everything she writes, and encourages us to poke fun at the characters and to look for humour which we may have to dig just a little deeper for. These characters are ‘off-kilter’ and ‘quirky’, like the illustration itself. The childlike nature of the story is evident even in the punctuation (or lack thereof) on the cover: The title is a run on sentence and lauren child does not capitalise her name on book covers.

The text in this book requires advanced decoding skills, which is an interesting development in picturebooks since ‘type text to path’ became so easy in Photoshop. Illustrators and book designers can now design pages with any sort of shape to their words. In this book we have the text fully integrated with the pictures, and the reader is challenged at times to find the book text among the intratext, to slide down the page then defy the rules of reading and read up the page and even to read in circles. Coupled with the advanced language in this book, I’d say it’s a picture book designed to be read to children by an experienced older reader (rather than as an independent scaffolded exercise).

Plot Structure

Who is the main character in this story — Verity Brulée or her miniature poodle Trixie Twinkle Toes Trot-a-lot Delight? The answer to that question is always: Which character changes the most? In which case, the dog and the woman are one and the same character. Trixie Twinkle Toes is a canine manifestation of the part of Verity who feels the social pressure to be ‘perfect’: ladylike and manicured and everything ‘just so’.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Verity Brulée is inflexible and has perfectionist tendencies, preferencing image over practicality. Her dog Twinkle Toes is a dog, and therefore needs to do doglike things in order to be happy. These two characters are trapped together in the same place, which is a requirement for any kind of significant narrative conflict.

Verity introduction

Trixie Twinkle Toes does not like her name or any of the rituals that go with being an upper-class dog.

Trixie introduction

DESIRE

Verity wants to own a dog who is pretty and well-behaved while looking rich and well-groomed. She wants to perfume, powder and pom-pom her poodle and dress her in pink ribbons. She wants to keep her little dog happy and healthy — constantly wrapping Trixie up at the first sign of a cold — but she misunderstands her pet due to communication difficulties. (The dog can’t speak English.)

Trixie wants to  step in puddles. She wants a different name. She wants to brave and adventurous. She wants to do something rather than seem something.

Trixie’s dissatisfaction comes to a head at the point in the story which switches from ‘iterative’ to ‘singulative‘. The first part of the book is about how things always are, and describes how they (often) go to the park and how Verity (often) dresses Trixie up. Now:

One night Trixie Twinkle Toes was lying in her room listening to the real dogs howling at the moon.

This is the event that instigates Trixie’s self-revelation: “I hate being a poooooodle”.

OPPONENT

Verity and Trixie are each others’ opponents, symbolising the internal conflict between being free and being self-restrained. So when Trixie complains that she hates being a poodle, Verity completely misunderstands why she is crying and takes her to the vet, where very cleverly, the vet finds nothing but a sore throat. This is masterful because the young reader is left to fill in a gap: That Trixie’s sore throat is due not to having a cold but to howling.

Opponent

This story is a good example of a pair of fictional opponents who have each other’s best interests in mind but end up standing in each other’s way due to communication difficulties, separate agendas and poor empathy. We often see this dynamic in husband/wife stories, or between parent and child in young adult fiction. Opponents are often members of one’s own family.

PLAN

 

At the dog salon Trixie sees a before and after picture of a scruffy to well-groomed dog and realises that it can work both ways. Her plan is to become a scruffy dog. She plans to (and does) catch some fleas after chasing a cat and chew Mr Chomley’s newspaper.

Verity foils this plan to become scruffy by telephoning her pet psychic. When the psychic sees nothing in Verity’s cup but ‘two lonely tea leaves’ this provides for obvious and humorous symbolism, showing the young reader that although Verity and Trixie live together, they are each lonely.

BATTLE

The battle between Verity and Trixie is a constant swing between Trixie getting herself messed up and Verity putting it ‘right’ with visits to the pet salon and extra grooming sessions and eventually a pooch psychologist. This part of the battle conforms to the law of threes in storytelling:

  1. The poodle parlour
  2. The psychic
  3. The pooch psychiatrist

Notice, too, all of that wonderful alliteration with the plosive ‘p’ — basically a ‘b’ sound which is bursting to escape. (Psychiatrist is technically a sibilant, but we’ll go with what’s on the page.)

All this to-ing and fro-ing aside, in a memorable story we need some sort of climactic battle. In a novel we might get a lot of time spent on the psychological turmoil of the main character and not need a set piece, but picturebooks are more like films in this regard. The set piece (big budget scene arranged to maximum effect) in this story is the part where Trixie gets the chance to save another little dog by diving into a puddle. Again with the ‘p’ (puddle).

battle scene

SELF-REVELATION

Even more masterfully, the alliteration during the puddle scene changes to ‘d’: ‘dazzling’, ‘daring’ and ‘dangerous’. The careful reader will notice (or at least sense) that Trixie is less ‘poodle’, more ‘d’ for ‘dog’! The transformation in the puddle has happened. In case we missed the way the alliteration is related to the story we have it reinforced on the following spread:

Verity Brulée looked at Trixie Twinkle Toes and saw not a little pompommed toy poodle but instead a DAZZLINGLY DANGEROUS DARING dog.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The thing about picturebooks is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and authors are free to signpost their plot points with phrases such as ‘From that day on…’ which is where we find the bit with the mandatory new equilibrium. (All stories require a new-equilibrium — it’s just usually more subtle in stories for adults.)

From that day on, Mademoiselle Verity Brulée and Trixie Twinkle Toes eagerly read the weather pages — and if it was raining … they went out … with all the other dogs.

In an earlier age, children’s stories were often tied up a bit too nicely, resulting in a twee conclusion. Modern readers have less tolerance for this, perhaps because we can no longer buy anyone’s version of a ‘perfect world’, so we are told on the final page that Twinkle Toes and Verity are still not fully eye-to-eye — after all, Verity still calls Trixie’s very embarrassing full name at the public park.