Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea is a Little Golden Book first published 1983. The illustrations are by Lucinda McQueen. There is a series of stories about Theodore the Mouse.
I find this particular picture book an unremarkable read, and since I took a close look at The Sailor Dog earlier in the week, it’s worth examining what makes the ‘animal goes to sea’ story by Margaret Wise Brown so much more effective.
Like a lot of children’s stories, Theodore Mouse starts from a place of boredom. He goes to sea because he wakes up and every day is the same. The only thing that changes is the sea. We infer from that, as does the mouse, that the sea holds great adventure.
The symbolism of altitude is utilised here, with Theodore sitting in a high place (on the roof), gazing as far as his eyes can see, contemplating his adventure. Windows are used in the same way.
Unlike Wise Brown’s story, Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea is a more classically mythic structure, in which both the environment (the storm) and the ‘human’ pirates form joint opposition. Wise Brown’s story is a parody of the Robinsonnade; this is a straight sea adventure for the preschool set. I’m sure the preschool set doesn’t know that Wise Brown’s book is a parody, which probably makes these two Little Golden Books equal in their eyes. The difference is that the adult co-reader gets more out of Wise Brown’s book.
First, Theodore uses his bed and sheets to make a bed and go out to sea.
The bed as ship trope is fairly common in children’s literature (I’ve used it myself, in The Artifacts). Perhaps most famously, it’s used by Margaret Wild and Jane Tanner in There’s A Sea In My Bedroom.
When he comes up against the pirates his plan is to beat the baddies with his pillows.
The unintended consequence of beating the pirates with pillows is that the burst open and the baddies become covered in feathers, which humiliates them by making them look like chickens. (Whoever decided ‘chicken’ meant ‘coward’ didn’t once meet a live chicken, methinks. Chickens are the bolshiest animal I know.)
The ‘feather as weapon’ has been utilised since by Australian children’s band The Wiggles. Captain Feathersword has a sword made of feathers. This is acceptable to any gatekeeper of children’s media because no one could possibly be hurt with a feather. The feather as weapon is therefore at the extreme ‘benign’ end of the Chekhov’s Toy Gun continuum.
We’re never told what that revelation is, because I don’t think there is one. This is more of a carnivalesque adventure, in which a child character goes off on an unlikely, fantasy adventure away from authority figures, overcomes adversity, then returns to safety. The entire point of such stories is to have fun.
One of the main human desires/needs is to be taken seriously by our peers. Theodores is richly rewarded in this regard. He sits on the roof with all his mousy peers, who listen wrapt as he tells his tales of adventures at sea.
The mythic structure of this tale, as well as this particular ending, make this a typically masculine story, though the mice friends do help him to put his bed back in his bedroom, which lends a co-operative (traditionally feminine) vibe. Wise Brown’s book is masculine in some ways — Sailor Dog is a ‘real’ sailor only once he’s wearing the masculine sailor uniform. But Wise Brown hasn’t used a masculine story structure — her big struggle scene is not the point.
The illustrations in Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea are very functional but otherwise unremarkable. There is an unnamed little friend who accompanies Theodore — the bird — a common illustrator trick to add extra narrative to the story. Apart from that, these illustrations are completely hygge, which is probably why they were chosen — a scary illustrator would turn the pirate rampage into something terrifying.
The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown is a Little Golden Book classic, first published 1953. After the success of Mister Dog, Wise Brown and Garth Williams were paired by the publisher the following year.
The Sailor Dog is basically a Robinsonnade for the preschool set. The Robinsonnade is an adventure story which takes place in a static place, like an island. For more on that, see this post. And for more about the role of islands in storytelling see this one.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE SAILOR DOG
Kirkus Reviews described Garth Williams‘ illustrations as ‘sagacious’: having or showing keen mental discernment and good judgement; wise or shrewd.
What is it about Williams’ illustrations that made them so wise?
As many illustrators have emulated since, he includes little side stories, including characters who aren’t mentioned in the text. The snail on the frontispiece illustration is crawling towards the viewer. There’s another identical snail behind, though the body of that one is concealed. This seems to be a deserted island, but is actually teeming with life, though to the newcomer it is hidden.
The second illustration, of the dogs in the car, reminds me very much of the work of Richard Scarry — both men lived at almost exactly the same time. Williams and Scarry both had the knack of drawing detailed illustrations in an era before photographic reference material was so readily available. It is therefore all the more impressive that Williams is able to draw a submarine, sailboat, lighthouse and whatnot. All the same, these are ‘storybook’ versions of such things. The submarine has an American flag waving on the front — the same gag used by The Beatles when they recorded Yellow Submarine in 1966. (Why the subterfuge when you plan to announce your presence?)
Other little ironies include a duck holding a red umbrella and sitting near the water (don’t ducks like water?). On the ship, Scuppers has a bed pan under his bed. Not sure if this is such a great idea for a ship. (We don’t find out what happened to its presumable contents after Scuppers got all caught up in that storm!)
Scuppers himself looks very cute sleeping in his bed, and again later, across pine branches, more like a man than a dog this time. Scuppers becomes increasingly human-like as the story progresses, which was a point not lost on Williams at all — this is part of his arc, culminating in the illustration below, when he puts on clothes:
I write more about this particular image in a post Still Images In Picture Books, in which characters seem to pose for the camera. Most often, this is because the reader is introduced to the character, but this image performs a different function.
Interestingly, Garth Williams doesn’t care too much about continuity — not in the way modern illustrators do. The snails at the beginning are not the same colour as the snails on top of the treasure chest. That’s fine — they’re simply different snails. The lighthouse at the beginning is not the same lighthouse as the one on the closing image — again, fine — they’re different light houses. All the same, I think the modern trend is to maintain a smaller setting within a picture book. Certainly my own instinct would be to illustrate the same snails, the same lighthouse.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE SAILOR DOG
Scuppers the dog has an irresistible urge to sail the sea. His little gaff-rigged sailing boat hardly looks seaworthy, with colorful patches on its sails. Though not a luxurious boat, Scuppers keeps it neat and “ship-shape.” He has a hook for his hat, his rope, and his spyglass. Unfortunately, Scuppers gets shipwrecked after a big storm. Being a resourceful dog, he soon makes a house out of driftwood.
Eventually, Scuppers repairs his ship and sails away, arriving at a seaport in a foreign land. The street scene is straight from a canine Kasbah. There are lady dogs dressed in full-length robes with everything but their eyes, paws, and tails covered, balancing jars on their heads. Scuppers needs new clothes after all his travels. He tries on various hats and shoes of different shapes and colors.
Life at sea soon calls Scuppers back to his boat. After stowing all his gear in its right place, he is back “where he wants to be — a sailor sailing the deep green sea.”
Scuppers proves himself comically adept in this inversion of a Robinsonnade tale, so he doesn’t have a shortcoming or a need. In that, he is identical to Mister Dog. But he does have a problem, which is all we need to start a story, especially a picture book. His problem is that he wants to be a sailor, but he’s not a proper sailor (yet). In order to be a proper sailor, he’ll need sailing experience.
There is no anthropomorphised opponent in this story, because Margaret Wise Brown does her own thing, always. Instead, the opponent is simply the storm.
If there’s any kind of mythic narrative in which a human opponent is absent, it is the Robinsonnade. The very essence of a Robinsonnade is ‘man alone’, at least for a large part of the story. This makes these stories difficult to write. If there’s no villain, what will you use for your human-interest opposition? For longer works, ‘nature as opposition’ is never enough on its own to create a fascinating character web.
First Scuppers builds a house. This speaks directly to the hygge nature of picture books. When my daughter was a preschooler I noticed that in her play (whether with a dollhouse or in computer games like Terraria), the first tasks she set herself involved making herself a bed. Then, when disaster struck (it always did), her character-self could retreat to the safety of home.
This need for security is depicted in fantasy. I remember at about the age of ten writing my own Robinsonnade (not that I knew that word). It was called “Fruitiful Island” and not much happens except my main character is shipwrecked onto an island which turns out to be a bounty of delicious goods. (I didn’t realise the value of narrative conflict back then and the story languished, half-finished, but a fulsome utopia in my own mind.)
The enduring popularity of The Sailor Dog tells me I’m not the only one with the shipwrecked on an island fantasy, in which we build our lives again from scratch, taking pleasure and pride in our own efforts.
If he could build a house, he could mend the whole ship.
I find this line hilarious. One could say exactly the same thing of Robinson Crusoe, who made such a fine old life for himself on his island, why the hell couldn’t he build himself a ship to get on out of there, if he had so many skills?
In short, Scuppers is far more self-determined than Robinson Crusoe ever was. That seems to be the way of it for children’s characters. Writers can create adult characters for adults who sit around and wait for things to happen to them before springing into action, but if you’re writing child characters for a child audience, they’ll probably be up-and-at-em from the get go. Adults are mullers; children are doers.
We might assume in a Robinsonnade that the Battle scene happens against the backdrop of the big storm which gets Scuppers shipwrecked in the first place. This would indeed make for wonderful pathetic fallacy. But the shipwreck is not the main thing:
Next morning he was shipwrecked. Too big a storm blew out of the sky. The anchor dragged, and the ship crashed onto the rocks. There was a big hole in it.
That’s as close as Margaret Wise Brown gets to a Battle sequence. But for this story, it’s more of a ‘means of transport’, getting Scuppers to the island.
In a classic Robinsonnade narrative, the Battle happens on the island, as the hero fights for his life, trying to find food, coming close to starvation and whatnot. This aspect of the Robinsonnade is the most interesting for an adult audience. We see the hero slowly lose his grip in Castaway, starring Tom Hanks. In Castaway, the hero almost loses himself.
But in a Margaret Wise Brown story, Scuppers had no problems on the island. He sleeps, he mends his own ship, he sails back into civilisation. Scuppers has literally zero problems surviving on the island. This is part of the gag above. This is what makes The Sailor Dog a parody of the Robinsonnade rather than a true Robinsonnade. It works as a story because the elements are all there — the emphasis is simply skewed.
The Anagnorisis is that Scuppers is a proper sailor now. He’s survived a shipwreck, made a life for himself on a (semi-)deserted island, and now he’s wearing sailor clothes to boot. The scene in which Scupper hangs all his new sailor clothes on his hook is the Anagnorisis scene.
Of course, the audience must have the world knowledge to know what a sailor’s uniform looks like. Perhaps a modern audience needs this pointed out. In 1953 I suspect the sight of men in their defence force uniforms were far more common around the world.
The Little Golden Books series was launched in 1942, just as the second world war ended. Children needed to hunker down with cosy stories (along with their parents). Scuff The Tugboat was one of the earlier publications of this highly successful franchise, first printed in 1946, and the epitome of ‘cosy’. Now you can buy an edition with a big 75th Birthday Celebrations on the front.
What makes this book a classic? Is there anything special about it, to be replicated by modern picture book writers?
But apart from the ‘pull along’ drag of it, in which there’s no going back, the river in this story could easily be a road and the main character could easily be walking down a path. Scuffy The Tugboat is your classic mythic structure: A character leaves home in search of something, meets various trials and tribulations along the way and either returns home or finds a new home, having learned something new about himself.
But this is the little kid version of a mythic journey — all suggestion, nothing followed through or explored in depth. A cosy myth, in other words. The illustrations by Tibor Gergely are also cosy in their palette and subject matter. (I like the concept of hygge to describe ‘cosy’ in picture books.)
This is a case of a character mistaking their malaise (desire) in their self-diagnosis. Scuffy thinks he wants to go out into the wide world, but he’ll learn that’s not what he wants at all. That’s what he wants on the surface, but deep down he wants a family.
I was meant for bigger things.
The journey will teach him what those bigger things are.
It eventually becomes clear to Scuffy that he is too small to survive in such a big world. Along the way he meets various cosy opponents:
The cow who almost drinks him by accident
The owl which hoots and gives him a bit of a scare
The men inadvertently blocking his way because they’re trying to pry free some floating logs. They won’t listen to the little tugboat.
Scuffy’s plan is to float down the river. He is self-important and speaks as if he owns the river. But eventually, when he realises the river is pulling him along and that he is stuck on this journey, he realises the plan belongs to the river, not to him.
The river moved faster and faster.
“I feel like a train instead of a tugboat,” said Scuffy, as he was hurried along.
The man with the polka dot tie has known all along that Scuffy would want to be saved right before the perilous journey into the sea, so in a scene that’s basically deus ex machina, the man with the polka dot tie plucks Scuffy out of the water and saves him.
Now that Scuffy has been on his big journey and learned how small he is compared to the world, he is happy to float in the bathtub at home.
WHERE DOES SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT FIT IN THE HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Scuffy The Tugboat presents to young children a world which is big and scary. It ultimately says: The world is big and scary — way more scary than you know. You may have dreams, but the best place for you is at home, safe with your family.
I suspect this is how many people were feeling in the aftermath of the second war. Older adults had lived through two major crises. Most of the book buying public had suffered great loss.
I suggest that is why there’s nothing subversive or daring about this book. Scuffy the character does something bold, but child readers are not expected to emulate his attitude, which is presented to the reader as arrogance rather than confidence. By the end of the story Scuffy’s arrogance has been ‘fixed’. He knows his place.
Scuffy the Tugboat feels quite different from anything published today, in which children are respected to the point where they are told they can save the world — if not today, then one day. In contemporary children’s books, when children return to the safety of home, they are more likely to have earned independence, and the reader extrapolates that this journey out into the world was the first of many more.
Ironically, modern children have far smaller worlds than the baby boomers who were reading Scuffy the Tugboat. For many of today’s children, the most freedom they ever get ‘out in the world’ is the world they see through books and other media. Perhaps there’s no irony here at all. Perhaps we can expect, in any era, children’s books to afford exactly the freedoms denied to the young readers who enjoy them.
Can you guess which country this “eat-me-when-I’m-fatter” produced this fairytale? I’ll drop some clues:
Goats have historically been very important to this country, for their meat, milk and cheese.
It’s not a fertile country, which is always better for goats than for cattle and sheep.
It’s a land of mountains.
Yes, it’s Norway.
From ca. 1700 until 1850 the human population as well as the number of goats and sheep of this country almost tripled.
The increased pressure on the natural resources worsened the living conditions for people and animals alike.
A characteristic feature of this period was the herding of single flocks by children. During the daylight hours, this was a precaution against predators as well as a way of keeping the animals off the areas meant for the harvesting of winter fodder. At night, the small flocks were in some places gathered in mobile corrals guarded by adults with dogs.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff was first published between 1841 and 1844, when goats were important to survival. The idea of a creature taking the life of a goat was not so far removed from taking the life of a child (due to the resultant starvation).
My childhood version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff was unfortunately — I see now — not a good one. It’s the small format Little Golden Book published in 1982, retold by Ellen Rudin. (The 1980s were chocka block full of retold fairytales.)
Rudin has a good sense of rhythm, and has retained all the things that are fun about this story as a read-aloud, but I feel the point of it is lost.
This is not clear from the text of the Little Golden Book version, but the goats need to get to the other side of the bridge because there is nothing to eat on their current side. Perhaps if I’d looked at the pictures more carefully as a child I’d have noticed all the rocks on the left, contrasting with the healthy green growth on the right. But I just assumed the goats happened to be standing on a pile of rocks and that the greenish hue of the background was perfectly good grass.
The stakes were much higher than that.
Here is a page from a completely different version, illustrated by Paul Galdeone. “There was very little grass in the valley” offers a clear need in the text (as well as in the illustration.)
Notice these goats looking left. In the vast majority of Western picture books the main characters look right, encouraging the reader to look forward to what’s overleaf.
Trolls featured prominently in Norwegian myth and legend. They were originally believed to be actual supernatural beings who lived in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves. They lived together in small family units, and were rarely helpful to human beings. Later they became more concretized. They became more evil and although they were often ugly, it was also thought that trolls would walk among us, undetected. Like vampires, they have trouble with sunlight. I suppose this is why the troll in this fairytale lives under a bridge.
Roald Dahl was influenced by such mythology. You’ll find aspects of trolls in some of his stories (along with witches, of course). The Trunchbull of Matilda feels a bit troll-like in her one-sided badness and ugliness. So do The Twits.
One day the littlest Billy Goat Gruff said, “I cannot wait any longer. I am going t cross the bridge and eat the sweet, green grass.”
“We will come, too,” said his brothers. “We will be right behind you.”
This is the most problematic part of the retelling, because it always seemed to me that each goat genuinely attempted to sacrifice the older one in order to save himself. I feel the ‘plan’ should be made clearer here. These brothers are working together strategically rather than looking after self-interests.
For me this story failed, because I had no revelation. I was supposed to realise at the end that these goats had worked together. Instead I wondered why the older goats didn’t spend the rest of their lives holding grudges against the younger ones.
I was supposed to learn that working together can defeat evil.
After that the three Billy Goats Gruff crossed the bridge whenever they liked and ate their fill of sweet, green grass.
And the horrible, mean troll never bothered them again.
THE THREE FISHING BROTHERS GRUFF BY BEN GALBRAITH
Ben Galbraith is a Kiwi illustrator who says on his blog that he’s ‘quite colour blind’, which kind of backs up my theory that colour selection is far more scientific than successful artists like to make us think, and that it can be learned. (There are also tools to help artists out like Adobe Kuler and that picker thing you get in Illustrator etc.)
The art in this book is an appealing mixture of textures and collage. Sometimes this art style can look too digital, but it’s done well here. I like the humour of a boat called ‘the cod’s wallop’. If I had a boat I might call it that. The author is a keen fisherman, and this comes through in the story. The New Zealand way of speaking and its sea setting also comes through quite strong, and the issues about over-fishing aren’t specific to New Zealand, but remind me of the problems I see on any episode of Coast Watch. It was an inspired choice to set the story in ‘Bay of Plenty‘ and in ‘Poverty Bay‘, which are not only allegorical names but are actually real places.
Header painting by Hans Fredrik Gude (1825 – 1903) depicts the Norwegian Mountains, 1856, a landscape unlike the lushly grassed hills in children’s picture books.