Pigs In Art And Children’s Literature

Pigs are shaped like little kids. Their bodies are smaller than their heads. Pigs are supposed to be intelligent, smarter than dogs, but they’re a bit awkward. Their trotters are like little kids’ arms that don’t work very well yet.

Ian Falconer

“In the second place, I am not interested in pigs. Pigs mean less than nothing to me.”
“What do you mean, less than nothing?” replied Wilbur. “I don’t think there is any such thing as less than nothing. Nothing is absolutely the limit of nothingness. It’s the lowest you can go. It’s the end of the line. How can something be less than nothing? If there were something that was less than nothing, then nothing would not be nothing, it would be something – even though it’s just a very little bit of something. But if nothing is nothing, then nothing has nothing that is less than it is.”

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Pigs without hind legs near trough, Jan Brandes, 1785
Pigs without hind legs near trough, Jan Brandes, 1785
Porcs Pigs Zwijnen, firma Joseph Scholz, 1829 - 1880
Porcs Pigs Zwijnen, firma Joseph Scholz, 1829 – 1880
'St. Anthony the Abbot' Illustrator unknown, 1920s pig
‘St. Anthony the Abbot’ Illustrator unknown, 1920s

The huge advantages I can see for an illustrator turning a child character into a pig:

  • Pigs don’t need to have skin colour. Technically, any middle-class kid could see themselves in Olivia, though it would be interesting to know if black girls consider pink pigs ‘white’, or if we need a black pig to achieve the job of self-reflection. The part where Olivia goes to the beach and turns pink (from monochrome) kind of means Olivia gets coded as white, so in this particular instance, the issue of skin-colour is perhaps not avoided after all. (Black kids don’t turn pink after a day in the sun.)
  • Falconer can depict Olivia with no clothes on at all and avoid charges of inappropriate content and censoring. Yet little kids very often do prance about with no clothes on, or just a hat, and these scenes are indeed shown in this book. Another picture book (this time Australian) in which toddlers prance around naked is Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay, but in this case the sensitive areas are always discreetly covered — an amazing achievement when depicting carefree, uninhibited body language while at the same time covering the crotch.
  • We are familiar with Olivia now, so it’s hard to remember that pigs in children’s books are typically not like Olivia in personality. They tend to be Wilbur types (from Charlotte’s Web), in which they sort of know they’re human food and have this worried aura to them, or they stand in for the messy/greedy/uncouth side of little kids. Olivia doesn’t have these aspects to her character at all — she is a young fashion-designer who attempts to be graceful but is trapped inside the limitations of her pig’s (toddler’s) body. Her exuberance means she’s the opposite of lazy.

Here’s a list of fictional pigs.

PIGS ILLUSTRATED

"Pigs" by Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Gennady Novozhilov
“Pigs” by Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Gennady Novozhilov
Vintage postcard celebrating the New Year of 1911
Vintage postcard celebrating the New Year of 1911. Pigs and gold are symbols for wishing wealth and prosperity.
From Piggly Plays Truant, 1947, illustrated by A. J. MacGregor
From Piggly Plays Truant, 1947, illustrated by A. J. MacGregor
Aunt Pettitoes and Three Piglets, ca. 1910-1913 Beatrix Potter
Aunt Pettitoes and Three Piglets, ca. 1910-1913 Beatrix Potter
An illustration for the nursery rhyme Tom, Tom the Piper's Son. From Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever A Giant Little Golden Book
An illustration for the nursery rhyme Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son. From Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever A Giant Little Golden Book
Ron-Searle-cover-for-Le-pointe-magazine-1970s
Ron-Searle’s cover for Le pointe magazine (1970s)
Vintage lithographic postcard from 1911 drunk pigs
Vintage lithographic postcard from 1911 drunk pigs

The Monster At The End Of This Book

The Monster At The End Of This Book

The Monster At The End Of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael Smolin (1971) is possibly the most successful Little Golden Book starring Sesame Street characters. I grew up with it myself, though I can’t put my hands on it right now so I’ll be talking specifically about the app, which came out decades later, soon after the first tablet computers hit the market.

Continue reading “The Monster At The End Of This Book”

Flat Black in Picture Books and Art

If you’ve ever heard advice to avoid black out of the tube when painting, this article is a good explainer for what that actually means in practice.

Below is a collection of art in which I think the black looks really great.

Continue reading “Flat Black in Picture Books and Art”

The Hare and the Tortoise

Arthur Rackham The Hare and the Tortoise from Aesop's Fables

You win some, you lose some. Aesop was an equal opportunity storyteller and the tortoise of fables sometimes gets a raw deal. But not this particular tortoise. Sometimes it’s “The Hare and the Tortoise”, sometimes it’s “The Tortoise and the Hare”. This tortoise just goes about his business and wins the day. I’ve never once heard him complain that he hasn’t been billed first in the title.

How do picture book storytellers expand this well-known fable to flesh out a 32 page story? And how are the tropes in this particular fable replicated across popular story for all ages?

Continue reading “The Hare and the Tortoise”

Interesting Ceilings In Illustration

EXPOSED BEAMS

Ward, Bryan, Bobby Brewster and the Winkers' Club H.E.Todd, 1950
Ward, Bryan, Bobby Brewster and the Winkers’ Club H.E.Todd, 1950
Monique Valdeneige
Monique Valdeneige
Jill Barklem (English, 1951-2017) - Boscodirovo ceiling
Jill Barklem (English, 1951-2017) – Boscodirovo ceiling
Cinderella and her Friends (A Little Golden Book) 1950
Cinderella and her Friends (A Little Golden Book) 1950
by Ivy L Wallace for Pookie puts the World Right (1947) ceiling
by Ivy L Wallace for Pookie Puts The World Right (1947)
Trina Schart Hyman illustration for Sleeping Beauty 1977
Omar Rayyan - Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale ceiling
Omar Rayyan – Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale ceiling
Charles Martin Hardie - Interior, Ancrum
Charles Martin Hardie – Interior, Ancrum
Christmas Eve in the Studio, 1911 Mary Fairchild Low; 1858-1909
Christmas Eve in the Studio, 1911 Mary Fairchild Low; 1858-1909
Edward Henry Corbould - Hetty Sorrel and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs Poyser's dairy 1861
Edward Henry Corbould – Hetty Sorrel and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs Poyser’s dairy 1861
From HC Andersen, The Wind's Tale; Illustrated by Edmund Dulac, 1911
From HC Andersen, The Wind’s Tale; Illustrated by Edmund Dulac, 1911
Bernie Wrightson (1948 - 2017) 1976 illustration for Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Bernie Wrightson (1948 – 2017) 1976 illustration for his own adaptation of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The beams aren’t connected properly. It’s almost Escher-like, but they’re all on skewed perspectives. However, this ceiling makes for excellent, visually interesting composition.

CATHEDRAL CEILINGS

Stanislav Plutenko, b.1961 Russian  oil and tempera on canvas painting train station
Stanislav Plutenko, b.1961 Russian oil and tempera on canvas painting
Alexandra Bukhnikashvili - Black Chicken or Underground Dwellers
Alexandra Bukhnikashvili – Black Chicken or Underground Dwellers
James Stephanoff - Buckingham House, Octagon Library 1818
James Stephanoff – Buckingham House, Octagon Library 1818
James Stephanoff - Buckingham House, East Library
James Stephanoff – Buckingham House, East Library
'Covent Garden Flower Market' (1967) by Edward Bawden
‘Covent Garden Flower Market’ (1967) by Edward Bawden
Karl Alexander Wilke (1879-1954) ceiling
Karl Alexander Wilke (1879-1954)
Jules Guerin, American artist, illustrator and muralist (1866-1946) for Egypt and its Monuments, text by Robert Hichens
Jules Guerin, American artist, illustrator and muralist (1866-1946) for Egypt and its Monuments, text by Robert Hichens

Rocks, Stones, Paving and Concrete In Art

William Heath Robinson (English, 1872-1944) Thumbelina rocks

I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, and occasionally visited The Christchurch Art Gallery. In the viewing room to the left of the entrance hall there was an especially memorable painting. Every now and then I come across a piece of art which takes my breath away, and this was one of the first.

When I say ‘memorable’, I don’t remember what this artwork was called or who painted it; the painting itself was memorable, for its hyperrealistic riverbank of greywacke. Each and every stone had been individually rendered. The entire canvas was covered in greywacke rocks, the iconic rock of New Zealand’s Canterbury plains. I couldn’t believe someone had taken the time to paint each and every stone so lovingly.

Continue reading “Rocks, Stones, Paving and Concrete In Art”

Tawny Scrawny Lion (1952) by Jackson and Tenggren

Tenggren, Gustav, Tawny Scrawny Lion by Kathryn Jackson, 1952

Tawny Scrawny Lion is a Little Golden Book first published in 1952, written by Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. The same team worked on The Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947).

The Tawny Scrawny Lion 1952 Gustaf Tenngren
The Tawny Scrawny Lion 1952 Gustaf Tenngren

This picture book is an interesting example indeed, the peak example of how storytellers for children must cast aside certain unpleasant food chain facts when anthropomorphising animals.

Specifically: lions cannot live on carrots. Carrot soup does not provide nearly enough calories required to live as a lion. Even when made with fish, a lion would need a hell of a lot of it.

Nor do rabbits eat fish. The fish in this story are not considered live, empathetic creatures. Unlike the land animals, their eyes are dots. (The lions and rabbits have human-like eyes, with ‘whites’ (yellows) indicating where they are looking.

Why is the tawny lion so scrawny even though he catches everything he chases? There is no realworld biochemical reason. This is classic fairytale physics, in line with the nonscientific cooling rates of the three differently sized bowls of porridge in Goldilocks And The Three Bears.

SETTING OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION

At first I assumed Tawny Scrawny Lion is set in a utopian, picture book jungle, looked harder at the pictures and realised it was probably a savannah, then saw a Golden Book Video Classic called ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’s Jungle Tales’ and realised the setting is meant to be a coded as a jungle. Compared to other picture book jungles, there is comparatively little typical jungle imagery. (Compare to The Saggy, Baggy Elephant, full of classic jungle imagery.)

The social world of Tawny Scrawny Lion starts out more like a real savannah/jungle (where larger carnivores eat smaller ones) and ends in a place completely divorced from a real world place. In any picture book starring animals, those animals will be anthropomorphised to some degree. Normally the storytellers pick a spot on that continuum and stay there, though animals in the same story are frequently positioned at different points on the anthropomorphising continuum.

The rabbits in this particular story are more civilised than the lion, who must become equally anthropomorphised before any of them can live in harmony. (The rabbits have access to bowls, spoons and a cauldron for cooking their carrot soup. They also have access to fishing lines and, most importantly, wear clothes, which are gendered.) Becoming more civilised (more like a human) is the lion’s main character arc. Tawny Scrawny Lion moves from wild animal to gentrified patriarch.

The poor old fish remain as foodstuffs. It’s clearly more difficult for humans to empathise with fish than with land mammals.

Tenggren’s illustrations are appropriately folk arty for this fantasy picture book world, with just the suggestion of savannah, and shapes placed on the page without an attempt at real world perspective.

The implicit ideology is clear; if animals could live more like (vegetarian) humans, the savannah would be a kinder, less brutal place.

This is what dates the book. Mindfully leaving vegetarian ideology aside, we now know how vital large animals are to an ecosystem. Taking wolves as an example, the reestablishment of just one pack of previously eradicatedwolves to an ecosystem can do an amazing amount of good… precisely because they hunt and kill. Lions are equally important.

STORY STRUCTURE OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION

PARATEXT

Tawny Scrawny Lion cover

Once there was a tawny scrawny lion who chased monkeys on Monday—kangaroos on Tuesday—zebras on Wednesday—bears on Thursday—camels on Friday—and on Saturday, elephants!

So begins the funny, classic Golden story of a family of ten fat rabbits that teaches the hungry lion to eat carrot stew—so that he doesn’t eat them!

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

The Tawny Scrawny Lion has a fantasy medical condition where the more animals he catches the scrawnier he becomes.

DESIRE

The lion seems content enough continuing to chase animals, probably never understanding what satiety feels like. The rabbits seem to understand that if they can persuade the lion to eat carrot soup, the benefits will be two-fold: The lion will feel more vigour and the rabbits will have saved all the animals further down the food chain (including themselves) from getting eaten.

OPPONENT

Since lions eat rabbits, they are natural opponents.

PLAN

Though this is left off the page, I imagine a belling the cat scenario in which the rabbits have a meeting, make a plan to invite the lion to change his diet, then invite him around to eat carrot soup.

But we only see the plan being carried out.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Anyone who knows anything about lions will be expecting disaster, but anyone who knows anything about Little Golden Books from the mid 20th century will know that this is a cosy story and the animal characters will be friends by the end.

The prose contains plenty of suspense. When the little rabbit stops to catch some fish ‘this is almost too much for the hungry lion’. The illustrations support the reader’s fear that the lion will lose control and gobble the little rabbits up.

Peak danger: four little rabbits ‘plumped themselves down in the lion’s lap’. Don’t you love the author’s use of ‘plump’? And the illustrator’s depiction of a wide open lion mouth, with those tiny, crazed pupils…

Tawny Scrawny Lion rabbits in lap
Tawny Scrawny Lion with plump rabbits in lap

Turn the page and we learn that the carrot soup has worked as a magic potion to quell the lion of hunger. ‘And somehow, even when it was time to say goodnight, that lion wasn’t one bit hungry!’

ANAGNORISIS

The lion realises he feels much better eating carrot stew, albeit made with fish stock. He will give up hunting and from now on live the more civilised life of a stew eater…

NEW SITUATION

… so long as the rabbits keep making it for him.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

It’s true that large cats (or any wild animal) won’t hunt unless they are hungry. Humans are the only species who kill more than we need for our own sustenance.

So long as the rabbits keep feeding the lion that soup, and so long as it contains plenty of fish, maybe I can believe this happy scenario will continue forever.

RESONANCE

It could be argued that this storybook world is so far removed from reality that young readers wouldn’t draw any connection between morality and diet. But that’s not how children’s stories work at all. The surface interpretation is clearly fantasy. Covert ideology carries a story’s resonance; in this case, that animals who eat animals further down the food chain are morally wrong, and until they mend their ways, they will lead an unhappy life.

Adults love a story for children in which enemies become friends. Over the second half of the 20th century The Tawny Scrawny Lion stood the test of time a popular picture book character and sequels followed. ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’ was now ‘THE Tawny Scrawny Lion’.

The Tawny Scrawny Lion and the Clever Monkey
The Tawny Scrawny Lion and the Clever Monkey

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

For more on Gustaf Tenngren, see the article on him at Animation Resources.

The Storybook Police Archetype

Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1943

Australia has a uniquely trusting relationship with its police force. We might say the image of police here in Australia is based on a storybook image, one which is cultivated in white kids from the time we start reading children’s books.

Today I’ll look at some of the main ways writers and gatekeepers protect the image of the police officer as a patriarchal protector above reproach. This archetype is common in utopian stories for very young children and was especially prevalent in earlier Golden Ages of children’s literature.

The Storybook Policeman is just that — he is a man. Female officers are rarely seen in children’s stories. The trend towards avoiding police officers as saviours coincided with the reality of more female officers, which probably accounts for that. The number of female police officers in Australia has doubled over the last 20 years, but in America remains where Australia, New Zealand and England were back in the 1990s.

The real-world percentage of female officers is irrelevant to the Storybook Image, just as it was irrelevant in America in the wake of September 11, 2001. Susan Faludi writes about this extensively in her book The Terror Dream, but media outlets exclusively chose images of men saving women, even though a significant proportion of the first responders that day were women.

I don’t think there was any task that was performed down there by men that were not performed by women.

Terri Tobin, Deputy Inspector of the New York Police Department

Another significant proportion of the public does not want to see women saving men, and won’t believe it even if they do see it. Faludi talks about ‘the myth of cowboy bluster and feminine frailty’, which must exist as a duo in order to make sense.

Not surprisingly, we see this dynamic play out in children’s books from earlier ages of children’s literature, in which children seek the help of kindly and trustworthy police men in times of need. These men stand omnisciently over proceedings and the children are free to roam, knowing that a strong man, the huntsman in Red Riding Hood’s woods, is only a scream away.

When we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only increase itself against a mythical female weakness — we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction

Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream

In books for children, the policeman is never far away. Roald Dahl deals with this fact knowingly in Danny The Champion Of The World, while at the same time fully utilising the trope:

At this point, pedalling grandly towards us on his bicycle, came the arm of the law in the shape of Sergeant Enoch Samways, resplendent in his blue uniform and his shiny silver buttons. It was always a mystery to me how Sergeant Samways could sniff out trouble wherever it was.

Roald Dahl, Danny The Champion Of The World

The police car always at the ready is not limited to literature for the youngest audience. It’s a trope we see across all forms of storytelling. There are many police related tropes, and you can find them beautifully catalogued over at TV Tropes. In adult story we more often see the inversion — the useless or very human cop. Yet elements of the effective police force are there nonetheless — the willingness for cops to put rape tests forward for testing, the rapidity at which paperwork gets processed, calls returned. Though evil is rife in fictional adult policing, sheer ineptitude is vanishingly rare. Audiences do not enjoy watching ineptitude. We like our heroes and our villains to be agentic, to be motivated, to have a plan. We like to see them carry plans out.

It’s often said that the best cops would make the best criminals — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.

Carl Barks c.1948-1954.

The Storybook Policeman is also white. This trope is yet another way in which picture books serve white people and their children. A Black parent cannot afford to teach their children that police are the benevolent patriarchs to call in any emergency.

I’m reminded of the episode of British TV cartoon Peppa Pig about spiders. The message: Don’t be scared of spiders. Spiders won’t hurt you. This reassurance served its purpose for children who wouldn’t leave Britain, but did not serve Australian kids at all. Australian kids need to be scared of spiders. The episode was not aired on Australian television. Likewise, the Storybook Police Archetype only works for some kids and remains actively detrimental to others.

When the Storybook Police is made into an animal, we see the identifying features: The hat and the baton.

“The trial of the shrike”, illustrations by Maginel Wright Enright 1877-1966. From the book Policeman Bluejay or Babes in Birdland, a children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum. Pub. 1907
“The trial of the shrike”, illustrations by Maginel Wright Enright 1877-1966. From the book Policeman Bluejay or Babes in Birdland, a children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum. Pub. 1907

White parents have been heavily invested in protecting the image of the Storybook Police Archetype. At times, in America, it has reached ridiculous levels. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg depicts police as pigs. For this reason the picture book has been banned intermittently.

HADDON HUBBARD SUNDBLOM (American, 1899-1976) The Man Next Door
HADDON HUBBARD SUNDBLOM (American, 1899-1976) The Man Next Door
Marius van Dokkum
Marius van Dokkum
DRURY HILL, NOTTINGHAM, a nostalgic look back to post WWII Britain by Rob Rowland police
DRURY HILL, NOTTINGHAM, a nostalgic look back to post WWII Britain by Rob Rowland police
Illustration from James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (Macmillan, 1912), a comic novel concerning a philosopher’s quest to find the most beautiful woman in the world and deliver her from the gods Pan and Aengus Óg. It was illustrated by Thomas Mackenzie (English, 1887–1944)
Illustration from James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (Macmillan, 1912), a comic novel concerning a philosopher’s quest to find the most beautiful woman in the world and deliver her from the gods Pan and Aengus Óg. It was illustrated by Thomas Mackenzie (English, 1887–1944).

How Do Contemporary Authors Deal With Police?

Apart from the very real political issues, there are some storytelling pitfalls to avoid when storytellers bring police into a children’s story which, by definition, should be about kids, with the action driven by kids, and problems solved by kids.

“Why don’t they just call the police?” That’s exactly what a children’s writer does not want the reader to think. Police therefore create a problem for writers similar to the problem of parents and caring adults in general: Why don’t these children tell a parent?

It’s easy enough to get parents out of the way, but aren’t police meant to be on call 24/7? Enid Blyton included numerous policemen in her stories and used them where it was convenient. But sometimes she tried to get rid of them.

Barney was previously was in a circus but now he’s traveling Great Britain with his monkey Miranda looking for his father. Roger & Diana, brother and sister, and their cousin Snubby, are sent to a quiet little village called Ring ‘O Bells to recover from the flu. There they discover that something suspicious is going on in the ancient hall there.

Although Blyton tried to get rid of the police, leaving it up to Julian to lead the other children to victory, she didn’t always manage this successfully:

The plot has some small holes, as often happens in these children adventures. For example, once they discover the kidnapped person, the children do not go straight to the police. A reason is given for that, but it did not seem very convincing.

from a consumer review of the Ring o Bells Mystery

Enid Blyton can hardly be called contemporary, so let’s take a look at how Kate DiCamillo deals with police in her Mercy Watson series. The Mercy Watson series is set in 1950s-esque suburbia, functioning as a spoof of domestic bliss. Kate DiCamillo avoids problematic police altogether, but she does it by replacing them with firefighters.

These two firefighters function identically to the policemen duos of Enid Blyton’s era and are called at the end of a story to finish off what has already been set in motion by the child and childlike characters.

To bring rescue teams too early to a children’s story would function unsuccessfully as deus ex machina, and agency removed from the child heroes. For various other examples of how police officers have been used in children’s stories see the following:

  • Walter The Farting Dog in which a dog farts really stinkily and knocks out two Storybook Burglars. The police arrive immediately to deal with the burglars.
  • The Tale of Pigling Bland or The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. In the first example the police officer is roaming the country roads waiting for crime to happen. In the second example, the police officer is a creepy doll.
  • “A Good Tip For Ghosts” by Paul Jennings uses the police officer as storyteller.
  • Junie B. Jones And The Stupid Smelly Bus, in which Junie gets a lecture from the police officer
  • “Lamb To The Slaughter” by Roald Dahl is regularly studied in high schools. In this story, the trickster murderer fools police officers, who are guided by their bellies. Though there are hints of bumbling policemen in children’s literature, by the time readers have hit the teenage years, their storybook cops are no longer the trustworthy archetypes who always know what’s what. Even in his children’s books, Dahl avoided the Storybook Police Archetype. See Matilda for an example in which police play a peripheral part — they exist to be avoided. Dahl had a mistrust of authority of all kinds, and was a large part of the movement towards subversive, darker middle grade fiction.

Header illustration by Mary Petty (1899-1976), 1943

Boredom and Storytelling

"Baseball Player Mowing the Lawn," Stevan Dohanos, Saturday Evening Post, July 20, 1946

Why do fictional characters leave the house? Sometimes it’s because they face a crisis and are pushed into action. Melodramatic stories work like that. Sometimes characters are lonely, wanting friends or romance. Sometimes it’s because they’re curious and there’s a mystery to be solved. And sometimes boredom is the motivator. Stories can begin because characters are bored.

Boredom drives all of us and can therefore be found in all types of stories, for adults and children alike:

  • Claude Goes To The Country by Alex T. Smith — a dog is bored at home while his owners are away at work, so he bumbles out of the house with the main goal of ‘avoiding boredom’, only to find himself in one hilarious situation after another.
  • Coraline — Coraline’s parents are both busy working from home and it is boredom rather than curiosity which drives her to discover fantastical parts of her new house, a fantasy which taps into her darkest psychology of being too much, and of her parents being inadequate.
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier — The mischief is driven by the wish to spice up school life.
  • A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever — Marla Frazee takes the boredom trope and plays with it. The adults go out of their way to give two young boys a marvellous holiday but the boys only learn to rely on their own imaginations once the adults wear themselves out and organised fun leaves a gap. (I think this picture book has a message for adults rather than kids.)
  • “Carnation” by Katherine Mansfield — Mansfield does a wonderful job of evoking the boredom of a classroom, especially on a very hot day. The main character looks out the window and daydreams. This would not be happening if she weren’t bored.
  • There’s A Crocodile Under My Bed — Many carnivalesque picture books featuring an animal that appears out of nowhere derive from a place of boredom, or at least from a place where the child has room to think, for example trying to get to sleep by yourself in your own room.
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry — Pretty much the entirety of Chapter 2 details how slow and dull it is living in the sleepy little settlement of Lonesome Dove. This explains why Call and McCrae start out on another big adventure rather than settling down to the quiet life they might enjoy in their later years.

Rain and Boredom

In books for the youngest children, a rainy day will often lead to boredom, on the assumption that being outside is always more fun than being inside. (This trope is starting to show its age.)

It was a drizzly gray day on Sesame Street. Ernie listened to the dreary sound of the rain against the window. “There’s nothing to do!” he groaned.

What’s Up In The Attic? A Sesame Street Little Golden Book, 1987

There’s a whole category of 20th century children’s books instructing how to have fun even when it’s raining outside.

If fictional characters are bored, this is probably at the opening of a story, before the Opponent appears, before the Mystery tantalises. The boredom may function as ‘The Call To Adventure’ at the Desire stage of plotting. In storytelling terms, boredom is basically the negative inverse of curiosity as Call To Adventure.

Italian illustrator Walter Mill
Italian illustrator Walter Mill

Outside fiction, boredom is seldom so unbearable that we set off to save the world.

Most jobs involve an element of monotony. Edward Gorey, famous American illustrator, said he hated the monotony of drawing his patterned wallpapers. He found this so tortuous that he’d often leave a piece for months on end before he could stand finishing it off. If I’m working on a big project I always need an extended break at the midway point, so this makes me feel better. As Seth Godin says, it’s not about how long your work takes to make. Audiences only care about their own experience of the piece at their end.

Edward Gorey (American,1925-2000) – Cover illustration for “Mistresses Of Mystery- Two Centuries Of Suspense Stories By The Gentle Sex”.

There’s not much research around boredom. This emotion has received scant attention because of the heavy focus on positive psychology over the past 30-40 years, but now the focus is shifting towards negative emotions. Despite our more stimluting world, we are more bored now than ever.

Here’s what psychologists do know:

  • Young people are more boredom-prone than older people
  • Extraverts are more boredom-prone than introverts
  • Men are more boredom-prone than women

The first two feel intuitive. The gender difference is yet to be explained, and without getting too binary about things, I wonder if this boredom difference correlates to why masculine story structures traditionally feature a male character setting out on an adventure, apropos of nothing. From an evolutionary perspective, the discomfort of boredom can be motivating.

In contrast, the feminine melodramatic form correlates to female characters and their families reacting to externally imposed crises.

Boredom isn’t always considered an ’emotion’, rather lack thereof. That said, boredom is often experienced negatively because when people feel bored we tend to feel other negative emotions alongside, such as anger and frustration that we are required to perform a monotonous task.

We are reluctant to admit to boredom, influenced by the maxim that only boring people get bored, and only unskilled people do boring jobs. We seem a little afraid of it, and will competitively say that we are never bored, yet are often happy to admit how stressed we are. This attitude has influenced modern parenting. Parents want to stimulate our children and feel that if they aren’t doing enough then we, as parents, are wasting their learning windows.

However, boredom is a necessary emotion and part of the human experience. We shouldn’t strive to banish it. Boredom helps us to be totally focused on new experiences rather than perpetually fascinated by leaves, rain etc., like toddlers. If we lived our entire lives with toddler-levels of enthusiasm for the mundane we’d never get anything done.

Esbjorn Doing His Homework Carl Larsson Sweden Art Nouveau
Esbjorn Doing His Homework by Carl Larsson, Sweden (Art Nouveau).

WHAT IS BOREDOM?

Sandi Mann wrote The Science of Boredom: Why Boredom Is Good, and regards boredom as an emotion. She describes boredom as the experience of searching for neural stimulation and not getting it. Repetitive tasks, queuing, things like this are antecedents for boredom.

Others argue that boredom is an absence meaningful things to do.

Boredom can be slightly stimulating because it provides us with an unease, providing a push to do something.

While bored we feel time is frozen. Professor Thomas Götz describes boredom as a ‘silent emotion’. On its own it isn’t too bad, but we experience it as negative when accompanied by something like anxiety.

Students are bored about 30% of their time at school, or 50% if we count ‘slightly bored’. There are many antecedents to boredom, mostly to do with value and control. We feel bored when we don’t attach value to what we are doing, if we don’t see the point, and we feel bored when we have little control over what we are doing. When we are under-challenged or over-challenged we also experience boredom.

Jessie Wilcox Smith child sitting on floor while adults sit on chair
Jessie Wilcox Smith

TYPES OF BOREDOM

Niksen

Niksen is a Dutch word which means to do nothing. The closest we have in English is daydreaming. This can be pleasant if not practised for too long. We have creative moments during this kind of doing nothing. We might spontaneously find the solution for something on our mind. When people who worry about screentime, they worry that we are losing Niksen in our lives, because instead of letting ourselves think we are filling our minds with our phones. We might call Niksen or daydreaming a pleasant variety of boredom.

THE FIVE TYPES OF BOREDOM ACCORDING TO PROFESSOR Thomas Götz

Some types of boredom are stimulating, some are not.

  1. INDIFFERENT BOREDOM — The kind of boredom you feel sitting in a lecture you’re not especially interested in. Not too bad.
  2. CALIBRATING BOREDOM — When you stay longer in this lecture it becomes more unpleasant. Our mind and bodies are ‘calibrating’.
  3. SEARCHING BOREDOM — Now you’re actively searching for new input.
  4. REACTANT BOREDOM — High arousal, negative emotion.
  5. APATHETIC BOREDOM — Very low arousal, very negative emotion. Possibly related to learned helplessness and depression.

When Coraline explores her new house, she is at level 3 boredom. A character at level 5 will require an Opponent to spur them into action, e.g. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore.

Cutaway Houses In Picture Books

Cutaway illustrations are described by engineers and architects as ‘sectional axonometric’ drawings. They exist to show the viewer the inside of an object, with emphasis on its parts. In picture books for children, the cutaway illustration is quite often educational in its intent, for example to show the reader the inside of an object of building.

For example, the image below is a cutaway image of an insect nest, designed to show the viewer what it looks like on the inside — novel exposure of an otherwise secret space.

There was a time when cutaway illustrations were very popular for child consumption, and I guess that’s because they were so new and therefore impressive. You see them a lot in early to mid 20th century advertisements.

'Lancia Ardea' Poster by Giorgio Alisi, 1939 cutaway car
‘Lancia Ardea’ Poster by Giorgio Alisi, 1939 cutaway car
Factory cutaway illustration of an 18 size 'Veritas' 23 ruby-jewel pocket watch, displaying its astonishing intricacy, circa 1903. That year, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company
Factory cutaway illustration of an 18 size ‘Veritas’ 23 ruby-jewel pocket watch, displaying its astonishing intricacy, circa 1903. That year, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company

Popular computer games are all about the cutaway, normalising it, removing the ‘wow’. The Sims is all about the cutaway houses.

Sims cutaway house
from Mod The Sims

I also associate ‘cutaway’ views in games as necessary but bug-like features, for example when a character in a first person game approaches a wall, then partially enters the wall. This also happens in 3D architectural software when moving the camera about. It’s called ‘glitching through walls’. This game phenomenon is visually unappealing and I think it removes some of the romance of the cutaway house.

Though the golden age of the picture book cutaway seems to have passed (for now), it’s much easier for illustrators to create these images, even with no formal design training. A familiarity with popular 3D design software affords anyone the reference material to go to town with cutaways. But perhaps this is precisely why the cutaway is less utilised now; because it is less special? Or perhaps the proliferation of images in our culture has stripped away the feeling that we are afforded a glimpse into a secret world.

In any case, I remain in awe of a good cutaway illustration. The most simple and therefore the most suited to a retro style are these one point perspective dollhouse cutaways:

The illustration below is created in two point perspective, which lends a modern complexity.

This is a sectional axonometric comic by American cartoonist Chris Ware. Frames on a page are depicted as rooms in a brownstone building, a fusion of comic book design and architecture.

Modern software allows designers to create the ‘exploded axon‘. In these exploded diagrams, not only do we get a cutaway, detailed and 3D view, but each item is separated out. In the fascinating image below, Chris Ware has taken elements of exploded axons and applied a comic book style. These images are from a graphic novel called Building Stories (2012).

exploded axon by Chris Ware
Chris Ware

And here is a three point perspective example.

1974 printing of 1960's book Let's give a PARTY, pictures by Joanne Nigro
1974 printing of 1960’s book Let’s give a PARTY, illustrated by Joanne Nigro

Various “Picture Book” Cutaway Houses

It’s not easy to find the original creators of the images below, but each of them might easily appear in a children’s book. Some of them might just as easily have appeared in 20th century advertisements.

Victorians loved to make miniatures, and rich houses often commissioned miniature replicas of their own homes. These now look like ‘doll houses’ though they were not used for play.

The intrigue for miniature houses has not gone away. Though they have a retro vibe — or precisely because of this — look on any craft website and you’ll soon find embroidery patterns of cutaway houses (a.k.a dollhouses).

Paul Zelinsky - Rumpelstiltskin
Paul Zelinsky – Rumpelstiltskin
George Zacharie (1906–1985) illustration for advertisement for Northern California Electrical Bureau,  December 1948 issue of Sunset magazine
George Zacharie (1906–1985) illustration for advertisement for Northern California Electrical Bureau, December 1948 issue of Sunset magazine

THE LIVING CITY EXHIBITION

Below is a well-known image of a cutaway building. Aerial perspective is achieved by rendering the background in sepia tones, and the people outside the building as grey silhouettes. This image is my favourite cutaway illustration.

Image by Andres Marin Jarque for the Valencian Museum of Ethnology’s permanent exhibition “The Living City”. Depicts the interior of a city apartment block at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Littles and Their Friends with illustrations by Roberta Carter Clark
Brian Paterson, cutaway caravan
Brian Paterson, cutaway caravan
George Hughes, "Early Guests" 1957; used on the Saturday Evening Post cover November 23rd
George Hughes, “Early Guests” 1957; used on the Saturday Evening Post cover November 23rd. This illustration is not ‘cutaway’ in the usual sense, but the composition intrigues.
Les Roses bleuâtres l’oubliette dans la cuisine by Edward Gorey
Les Roses bleuâtres l’oubliette dans la cuisine by Edward Gorey
Arthur Rackham ~ Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen,1932 "When night was come and the shop shut up."
Arthur Rackham ~ Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen,1932 “When night was come and the shop shut up.”

There is apparently an Inn like this the Siebel illustration below located in upstate New York. It’s called “The Bull and Garland“.

Dinning Out by Frederick Siebel (1913-1991) cutaway house
Dinning Out by Frederick Siebel (1913-1991)

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

The Lost Art Of The Cutaway

A Slice of Spitlefields by Ben Rea

Adam Simpson has made updated posters for Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. By using the cutaway technique reminiscent of yesteryear, these new posters take the audience right back to the 20th century. The designs are beautiful.

The See Inside series of Usborne books