Sidewalk Flowers by Lawson and Smith

Footpath Flowers

Sidewalk Flowers (2015), or what I might call Footpath Flowers, is a wordless Canadian picture book by poet JonArno Lawson and beautifully illustrated in ink and wash by Sydney Smith.

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Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

Wolf in the Snow (2017) is an almost wordless picture book written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, with links to the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.

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The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield

George Dunlop Leslie - Roses

“The Little Governess” (1915) is one of the most functionally useful stories Katherine Mansfield wrote. It’s a cautionary tale without the Perrault didacticism. It’s Little Red Riding Hood, but social realism. This story exists to say, “You’re not alone.” It’s a gendered story, about the specifically femme experience of being alone in public space. Some critics find the ending inadequate. This is a stellar example of a lyrical short story with emotional closure but no plot closure. And it only succeeds in offering emotional closure if the reader can identify with the experience.

Tricksters, villains and criminals are everywhere in narrative. But throughout storytelling, across history the femme seule must deal with a particular subcategory of predator: The sexually predatory trickster. “The Little Governess” is Mansfield’s treatment of that particular dynamic.

Though this story is over 100 years old, it hasn’t dated as much as we might have hoped. Have you ever got a bad feeling about somebody but didn’t want to seem rude, so went along with their plan anyway? “The Little Governess” is a case study into why a young woman might ignore her instincts and find herself isolated.

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The Oral Origin Of Fairytales

Henry Herbert La Thangue - The Harvesters' Supper

The era in which oral folktales became written fairytales was also the era in which children’s literature as a whole began to develop.

How did oral tales change once they became written-down stories?



First, the main audience shifted, notably, from the peasant class to the monied classes. Main characters were previously adults; now they were children.

Oral folktales focused on empowering the oppressed, and tended to centre on class struggles. For this reason they appealed particularly to the lower classes. As they became written fairytales, and so became the domain of the educated classes, class struggles were usually replaced by adult-child power-struggles: the child became the central focus of the story, rather than the peasant.

Elizabeth O’Reilly

This meant the ideology also shifted. Oral folk tales were often ribald. Now they became didactic, emphasising upper-class manners:

Zipes points out that, as writers appropriated the oral folk tale, they ‘converted it into a type of literary discourse about mores, values and manners’ for the socialisation of children according to the social codes of the time. Thus, ‘writers of fairytales for children acted ideologically by presenting their notions regarding social conditions and conflicts, and they interacted with each other and with past writers and storytellers of folklore in a public sphere’. This point probably applies to all children’s books (and literature as a whole)

Elizabeth O’Reilly

Most importantly, perhaps, the content of a tale was affected by the fact that storytelling was a dynamic process between narrator and listener. When retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the storyteller would grab the child at “All the better to eat you with!” The child listener would probably react in a variety of ways, changing the story slightly with each retelling, perhaps pouncing on the storyteller in turn. The ability to turn the tables affected thee ending of Little Red Riding Hood. The children being told the tale were not harmed, and neither was Little Red Riding Hood, who managed to outwit the wolf in the oral tradition. It was only after being written down that Little Red Riding Hood lost her autonomy.

Another fairy tale perfectly suited to the oral tradition is Rumpelstiltskin, which is very old. Guessing the little man’s name turns the story into an interaction between storyteller and audience.

More recently, Spike Milligan wrote in the oral tradition. His story Badjelly The Witch is perfectly suited to adaptation for radio — the version I grew up with.

Below, Philip Pullman explains the extent to which oral tales vary depending on a variety of factors. He conveys the idea that fairytales were always meant to evolve. Fairy and folk tales are not meant to be set in stone forever, unlike the Gutenberg Press, which froze English spelling in time:

A fairy tale is … a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down. A storyteller might tell the tale more richly, more extravagantly, one day than the next, when he’s tired or not in the mood. A transcriber might find her own equipment failing: a cold in the head might make hearing more difficult, or cause the writing-down to be interrupted by sneezes or coughs. Another accident might affect it too: a good tale might find itself in the mouth of a less than adequate teller.

That matters a great deal, because tellers vary in their talents, their techniques, their attitudes to the process. The Grimms were highly impressed by the ability of one of their sources, Dorothea Viehmann, to tell a tale a second time in the same words as she’d used before, making it easy to transcribe; and the tales that come from her are typically structured with marvellous care and precision. […]

Similarly, this teller might have a talent for comedy, that one for suspense and drama, another for pathos and sentiment. Naturally they will each choose tales that make the most of their talents. When X the great comedian tells a tale, he will invent ridiculous details or funny episodes that will be remembered and passed on, so the tale will be altered a little by his telling; and when Y the mistress of suspense tells a tale of terror, she will invent in like manner, and her inventions and changes will become part of the tradition of telling that tale, until they’re forgotten, or embellished, or improved on in their turn. The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. A fairy tale is not a text.

Philip Pullman

Not everyone agrees with the idea that fairy tales came from the oral tradition:

The popular understanding is that fairytales evolved exclusively from oral folktellers – from the uneducated “Mother Goose” nurse, passing into the imaginations of children by centuries of fireside retellings.

But this story is a myth. Fairytales were invented by the blue blood and pomaded sweat of a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.

Melissa Ashley

Sure enough, some fairy tales did not come from the oral tradition. Beauty and the Beast is the stand-out example of that. I have seen these referred to as ‘literary fairy tales’ to distinguish them from ‘oral fairytales’, in which ‘oral’ is assumed.

Header painting: Henry Herbert La Thangue – The Harvesters’ Supper

Story Structure: The Big Struggle

Harry Brooker - The Tug of War

All complete narratives feature a big struggle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal big struggle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun big struggles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.

I often feel the big struggle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a big struggle-free myth structure should more naturally be shorter.

Struggle 1904 by Robert Demachy
Struggle 1904 by Robert Demachy

WHAT IS THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE?

More commonly it’s known as the climax.

When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realisation. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.

Mythcreants

I’ve also seen it called The Dark Moment.

Here it’s called a Black Moment:

Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.

Naomi Edits

I’ve also heard it called ‘The Big Doom‘. Whatever you call it, this part of a story looks like this:

  • The big struggle is the final conflict between main character and opponent and determines which of the two characters wins the goal.
  • Characters come close to death, spiritually or actually, depending on the genre.
  • So, how to portray a big struggle… metaphorically? Sometimes this involves playing with spatial perceptions in some way. For example, in her re-visioning of Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter makes use of mise en abyme. Other techniques include playing with scale, making use of The Overview Effect, or otherwise inducing some kind of spatial horror.
  • The big struggle sequence can also look like not much at all. As Captain Awkward says in a post about running into family after estrangement, “anticlimax  a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.” A non-big struggle, when expected, is also a ‘big struggle scene’.

The big struggle sequence looks quite different in the big struggle-free myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.

Torture your protagonist.

The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

Janet Fitch

THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

HELPERS

A child’s main shortcoming is that they are small and without power, so a lot of children’s stories have historically relied on an adult stepping in to help. The child’s main job was to find someone more powerful. Victorians preferred the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the adult male woodcutter saves the day, and alternatives of that era have basically been forgotten.

The hero or heroine of a fairy tale usually cannot kill the dragon or marry the princess without help. This, of course, is contrary to the American tradition that if you go it alone and work hard enough, you will get to the top. In fairy tales, characters who refuse help, or refuse to help others, end up covered with tar or talking frogs and snakes.

Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-up: The subversive power of children’s literature

Not all fairy tales follow this general rule, of course. That’s because the fairy tales which we read today have been edited by Victorian men who seemed to harbour their own fantasies of stepping in to save women and children. Fairy tales such as “The Gallant Tailor” and “Mollie Whuppie” feature protagonists who save themselves, but it’s unlikely you were exposed to those as a child.

In contemporary children’s fiction, children fight their own big struggles. However, they very often call in someone more powerful/older to help them in the pre-big struggle stage. That helper might be just a little bit older, or they might be eccentric (powerless in their own way).

Or the helper might be very old e.g. a grandparent, neighbour, wizard/witch or realistic equivalent.

These days help may come from the Internet. Courage the Cowardly Dog was one of the first children’s shows to do this — back when the Internet was very new and therefore novel. Courage would regularly consult the personified PC in the Bagge family attic. 25 years on, children’s writers seem less enthused about having The Web solve children’s problems. Now writers of realistic contemporary fiction might have to contrive ways to keep phones out of their characters’ hands all the time.

The people who regularly help children in real life rarely help them in stories. Therefore, you’ll rarely see a parent or a teacher helping a fictional child in any useful way. They may try to help, but inadvertently make the situation worse. This is to do with wish fulfilment — the wish to be independent. Or rather, the first step towards independence.

Just because you're struggling

WHAT DOES A BIG STRUGGLE LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN’S STORIES?

The Uncle Wiggly series was written by Howard Garis (1873-1962) for over 52 years and 70 books. Lansing Campell (1882-1937) illustrated many of the books. "Skillery Skallery Alligator".
The Uncle Wiggly series was written by Howard Garis (1873-1962) for over 52 years and 70 books. Lansing Campell (1882-1937) illustrated many of the books. “Skillery Skallery Alligator”. This is a classic fight scene in a children’s story — it would no doubt hurt, but provokes a laugh. An umbrella in the maw counts as slapstick.
MIERENSPROOKJE by Jaap Habold 1940s tickling a spider to death
MIERENSPROOKJE by Jaap Habold 1940s, tickling a spider to death.

In books for the very young, you’re not going to find many guns, bows and arrows, fisticuffs and arguments (though you will sometimes). Still, picture books definitely feature ‘big struggles’.

  • Oftentimes, the big struggle phase seems to comprise about half the entire book.
  • The big struggle scene may be a ‘culmination’ of ridiculousness (followed by calm after the page turn, perhaps with more white space and calming rhythm.)
  • Therefore, the ‘big struggle scene’ in a picture book might also be called the ‘Culmination’.
  • It might also be called ‘The Fright‘.
  • The big struggle isn’t necessarily between the child and the main opponent. Rather, another opponent will often step in.

Picture book author Katrina Moore thinks of picture book structure like this:

  • Set up
  • Escalation
  • Climax/Low Point
  • Resolution
  • Wink

Obviously, the climax/low point maps onto the big struggle. (I love the term ‘wink’. For me, the broad concepts of set up and escalation aren’t quite specific enough.)

What form does this so-called big struggle sequence take in picture books? I’ve been breaking down the story structure of picture books for some time now. Now it’s time to take a look at the picture books on my shelf and those studied on this blog.

AN ACTUAL GUN BIG STRUGGLE

Hunters with guns are switched out for the lesser opponents (the animals residing in Thidwick’s antlers) to create a more dramatic big struggle scene.

AN OVERSIZED BODILY FUNCTION
  • You can see an oversized bodily function in The Three Little Pigs in which the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the houses down. However, in The Three Little Pigs, the sneezing is not the main big struggle scene. The main big struggle scene (at least in less bowdlerized versions) is the wolf falling splash into the pot.
  • In Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou! by Julia Donaldson all the animals in the story sneeze together and wake up a sleeping toddler.
  • In Yertle the Turtle by Dr Seuss, the king turtle is toppled off his perch when the turtle on the bottom of the stack burps.
TRICKSTER HERO WINS BY SAPPING THE OPPONENT’S STRENGTH/POWER
  • Our hero is a trickster archetype who challenges the opponent to perform things which will eventually lead to their own downfall. We see tricksters in classic tales such as The Emperor’s New Clothes.
  • In a mythically structured narrative our protagonist defeats a dragon as an archetypal trickster, tiring him out until he’s fast asleep by challenging him to perform tiring feats. (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch)
A SCARY CHARACTER SUDDENLY POUNCES AFTER A LONG LEAD UP

This kind of story has its origins in oral narrative such as Little Red Riding Hood. The young listener/reader KNOWS what’s going to happen — the thrill is in the waiting.

  • In Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett wolf has enough of performing circus tricks for three show-off little pigs and eventually bites them.
THE CULMINATION OF RIDICULOUS, ESCALATING (POSSIBLY NEAR DEATH) EXPERIENCES

This often happens in a tall tale or in a comic classic/carnivalesque plot.

  • In The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop a city tries to murder a man but they can’t do it because he has four brothers and each has a secret superpower. Battle scenes: an attempted drowning, an attempted execution, an attempted burning at the stake, an attempted burning in the oven.
  • In And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Inside a boy’s imagination, a simple horse and cart becomes an entire procession of motley scenarios. The illustration starts simple then becomes more and more detailed until nothing more will fit on the page. The big struggle scene, in other words, is extreme chaos.
  • In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers there are so many things stuck in a tree that it’s impossible to imagine anything bigger or more ridiculous.
THE MAIN CHARACTER HAS A TANTRUM

Most common in comedy picture books. The childlike character isn’t getting what they want so they just lose it. These stories work if the main character’s shortcoming includes impatience and treating others badly. Young readers will identify well with this particular shortcoming, as their frontal cortexes aren’t fully developed — they know exactly what it feels like to not get what you want and to lose control as a result.

  • The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter is perhaps the ur-picturebook for all modern stories involving loveable, main character tantrums.
  • Z is for Moose — Moose realises he’s not getting a part in the alphabet book, which is going to Mouse. He wreaks havoc on the illustrations in a very clever, meta kind of way.
  • Pig The Winner — Pig the Pug cheats at games but when Trevor wins he chucks a wobbly and ends up injuring himself with the bin.
  • Pigeon Wants A Puppy — When Pigeon doesn’t get his puppy he yells, “I want a puppy! Right here! Right now!”
THE OPPONENT IS INJURED/SCARED OFF BUT NOT KILLED
THE MAIN CHARACTER GETS CAUGHT UP IN THEIR OWN TERRIBLE PLAN

This kind of big struggle happens when the character is ‘their own worst enemy’.

  • A brilliant example of this kind of inner big struggle occurs in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers, in which a boy on a journey literally gets entangled in the yarn he draped about precisely to help him find his way home.
  • In Neil Gaiman’s middle grade book Coraline, the big struggle sequence is a chapter straight out of a gothic novel, in which the main character must work her way out of her imaginary household before it morphs into such a shape that it will somehow enfold her within its clutches.
THE MAIN CHARACTER SHOWS KINDNESS AND WINS THE ENEMY OVER

During the climax of the story, your hero shows an astounding level of kindness to the enemy. It might come in the form of unconditional acceptance, unusual empathy and understanding, or an actual gift with a great deal of personal significance. The hero might even give away the very thing the villain was trying to steal. This gesture of goodwill causes a change of heart. The villain decides to stop doing harm, at least for now.In The Lego Movie, all the lego realms are terrorized by Lord Business. He plans to glue all the lego pieces permanently into place, freezing everyone exactly how he wants them. The main character, Emmet, is supposed to be a special person with the power to stop Lord Business, but toward the end, he discovers that he’s no more special than the next lego. To stop the fighting and gluing, Emmet meets with Lord Business. Emmet explains that Lord Business is also special, and that he has something unique to contribute to the world. Because of this conversation, Lord Business abandons his evil plans. The gesture of goodwill is a good match for a character-focused story. But like other character-based conflicts, it’s important to set things up ahead. You’ll want a sympathetic villain with a motivation the audience understands. However, you don’t have to tell their whole backstory in a flashback. Your hero can piece together the villain’s backstory and motivation, and then use that information in making their gesture.

Mythcreants
A COMPETITION, PROBABLY RIDICULOUS
The animals have a dance-off in 'Johnny Crow's Garden', 1903. Illustrated by Leslie Brooke
The animals have a dance-off in ‘Johnny Crow’s Garden’, 1903. Illustrated by Leslie Brooke

THE FOUR-PART CLIMAX

If you think in terms of ‘climax’ rather than ‘big struggle’ followed by ‘anagnorisis’ and ‘new situation’ you may prefer to break climax into further parts:

The climax of a novel actually has four components:

  1. The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions)
  2. The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving)
  3. The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome)
  4. The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing).

Writer’s Digest

Moment of truth = anagnorisis
Climatic moment itself = near-death big struggle moment

Matt Bird of Cockeyed Caravan breaks down the Battle stages according to which part of the main character is being challenged. I have noticed he’s right on the money for the vast majority of stories:

In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).

The pilot of Breaking Bad is exactly like this, starting with Walt’s humiliation as a lowly car washer serving his own students, followed by the diagnosis of lung cancer, then the moral dilemma — does he follow that idea to become a drug lord or doesn’t he?

OTHER LINKS

For pantsers who haven’t decided on the big struggle beforehand, here’s some tips on how to come up with one.

RELATED TERMS

THREEFOLD DEATH: According to Dan Wiley’s entry in Duffy’s Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, threefold death is a motif of the early Irish aideda in which a victim is killed by three different means in rapid succession, often wounding, drowning, and burning. Examples of this motif can also be found in literature of folklore of Wales, France, and Estonia. The widespread nature of the motif makes some scholars think it began in a hypothetical Indo-European tri-functional sacrifice in which human victims were offered to a triad of divinities. Two of the best examples are found in Aided Diarnmata meic Cerbaill (The Death of Diarmait mac Cerbaill) and Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (The Death of Muirchertach mac Erca). The tales are typically set in the early Christian period between 500 and 699 CE. The narrative pattern typically is (a) a crime is committed against the church, (b) it is prophesied the offender will die a threefold death, (c) such a death does occur. See Duffy 10-11.

Literary Terms and Definitions

Header painting: Harry Brooker – The Tug of War

The Amazing Bone by William Steig

The Amazing Bone cover

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE AMAZING BONE



SHORTCOMING

Pearl the pig is an Anne of Green Gables character — dreamy and optimistic despite the hardships she endures.

Steig opens the story with, “It was a brilliant day, and instead of going straight home from school, Pearl dawdled.” This will remind you of Little Red Riding Hood, no doubt. The Grimm Brothers transcribed that tale at a time when, as properties of men, women and girls were required to be inside the house. If anything happened to them while they were enjoying the outdoors, it was their own damn fault.

As a pig, she is also delicious. Even in 2017 we’re getting a whole heap of ‘I Love Bacon’ memes through our feeds, so most people can relate to a pig’s predicament. Not that children will be thinking along these lines at all. But to this modern reader that is her main shortcoming in the story — she is delicious to foxes. She becomes a victim through no psychological or moral shortcoming of her own.

It does pay to remember, though, that this was not the intention in early iterations of the Red Riding Hood category of tales, which existed to punish girls for stepping outside, and blamed them for the evil predilections of men, while also being saved by them.

DESIRE

Pearl wants to enjoy her day outdoors. Steig gives us quite a lengthy introduction — longer than modern picture books allow for — in which we see her ‘dawdling home’ sequence.

Finally we see her at her most relaxed, sitting in the grass and dreaming.

Pearl in the forest The Amazing Bone

Note the pacing of this first section of the story (encompassing Pearl’s shortcoming and desire and her ‘normal life’ (which we know is about to be disrupted. We see one scene per page. In fact, this scene is a double spread. Later, as the excitement picks up Steig will put two pictures on each page. This is the illustration equivalent of using short sentences after long, languorous ones.

ALLY

Pearl’s ally is introduced before her opponent is introduced, which has the useful effect of creating tension in the audience, who will wonder if this amazing bone is really on her side or if it is a fake-ally opponent.

When we meet the bone we also meet the catch phrase of the story: “I don’t know, I didn’t make the world.” This is somewhat metafictive as Steig’s lampshading requires the reader to wonder about the origin of magic in the story. We are reminded not to worry about all that — Steig is taking overt artistic licence to do any unexpected thing he likes. This works very well because of the long history of fairytales. The ones which have survived are not all that ‘quirky’ — they are full of witches and forests and ogres and magic creatures, but not pieces of magic creatures. There is no logical reason for Steig to have written a story starring a magic talking bone and although readers will happily accept a magical witch or something, he gets quite a lot of mileage out of the fact that this bone can talk even though it doesn’t have lips.

PLAN

The bone explains that he has been dropped by a witch and would prefer to live with the youthful, optimistic Pearl, so they set off home. Pearl knows what her parents will say — they’ll say it’s ridiculous that she has a bone which can talk — more lampshading to humorous effect.

OPPONENT

Of course the opponents appear at this point from behind a rock. They are wearing masks from Japanese theatre, which I agree are the most freaky looking traditional masks out there.

The characters with the long  noses looks like tengu. They’re a kind of supernatural creature, part human, part bird or prey.

The middle creature in yellow might represent a hannya, This character is possibly the most ridiculously misogynistic of the Noh masks, expressing the fury of a woman turned demon through jealousy and anger and who revenges by attacking.

(These days I feel the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask has supplanted traditional Japanese masks in the West when it comes to freak value. Ghostface is also very scary — perhaps we will not be seeing these in a picture book anytime soon.)

These masked creatures are not the main opponent, however. They are just part of the landscape, reminding Pearl and reminding readers that even in an environment which looks beautiful and safe, evil can jump out from anywhere. These characters are easily scared off by the talking bone in Pearl’s handbag, which they are trying to steal from her, and although we never see their identities, if you look closely at the illustration you’ll probably agree with me that these ‘highway robbers’ are meant to be dogs. Dogs, compared to canines from the wild, are usually fairly hapless criminals, both in real life and in storybooks.

This is when the real opponent turns up. This time the bone’s talking won’t spook him. We know it won’t spook him because of Aesop. Foxes are smart, unlike dogs.

The wily fox was not as easily duped as the robbers. He saw no dangerous crocodile. He peered into Pearl’s purse, where the sounds seemed to be coming from, and pulled out the bone. “As I live and flourish!” he exclaimed. “A talking bone. I’ve always wanted to own something of this sort.”

(Note that Pearl herself is an ironic Aesopian character. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.)

The fox is a smartness proxy for the audience. Indeed, when I read this story to my daughter she exclaimed, “Oh, I wish I had a talking bone!” just as the wily fox had done in the story.

The fox takes Pearl home for dinner, where he plans to eat her of course. He locks Pearl and her bone in the basement.

At this point we wonder how on earth Pearl and the bone are going to get out of their dire predicament. Plotting-wise, this is the difficult part for the writer. The writer must come up with some ingenious plan which surprises the reader.

Humour wise, this is the highlight of the story. Pearl and the bone whisper to one another, which gives a read-aloud narrator some welcome variety — not enough picture books encourage stage whispering — and their conversation is alternately melodramatic versus reminiscent of two girls sitting outside the principal’s office rather than about to meet their death:

“I know how you feel,” the bone whispered.

“I’m only just beginning to live,” Pearl whispered back. “I don’t want it to end.”

“I know,” said the bone.

At this tense point Steig uses a technique called the dynamic frame. The dynamic frame is film-making terminology butis even more common in picturebooks than it is in film. Filmmakers who use dynamic frame change the size and shape of the image on the screen. It has gone out of fashion in filmmaking. You still see it in contemporary films when shooting through doorways, for example, so hat the lighted area seen by the audience is shaped, even though the shape of the screen itself doesn’t change.

An example of the dynamic frame in a picturebook

For another example of this technique in a picture book see Hyman’s Sleeping Beauty, with views through the arches. In Where The Wild Things Are, the pictures gradually grow in size and then become smaller.

This part of the story will probably remind you of Hansel and Gretel more than Little Red Riding Hood, as the fox cranks up the stove ready for Pearl to go in.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rather lazily, in storytelling terms, Steig’s amazing bone can do magic. It comes out with a number of magical phrases and the fox gradually shrinks to the size of a mouse, retreating into a hole in the wall.

However, it totally works. Steig gets away with ‘rescued by magic’ because of the dialogue. The bone is just as amazed as Pearl at his ability to get them out of trouble, and the joke has been set up earlier with the gag that bones couldn’t possibly talk because they don’t have mouths.

“Well, what made you say those words?”

“I wish I knew, “the bone said. “They just came to me. I had to say them. I must have picked them up somehow, hanging around with that witch.”

It’s the haplessness and the understatement which leads to the humour.

ANAGNORISIS

“You are an amazing bone,” said Pearl, “and this is a day I won’t ever forget!”

This is an uninspiring line but a necessary one. Sometimes you need those lines in stories. I’m going to call it the ‘overt revelation’, but it’s not a genuine one. The fact is, humorous picture books don’t actually need a anagnorisis. We hope that Pearl will not suffer from PTSD. We hope that she will go on just as before, frolicking in meadows and enjoying herself.

The audience does have a small revelation — Pearl was absolutely right about what her parents would say about her bringing home a talking bone. Naive as she is, Pearl does have insight into human behaviour, at least when it comes to her own parents.

NEW SITUATION

The bone stayed on and became part of the family. It was given an honored place in a silver tray on the mantelpiece. Pearl always took it to bed when she retired, and the two chatterboxes whispered together until late in the night. Sometimes the bone put Pearl to sleep by singing, or by imitating soft harp music.

Anyone who happened to be alone in the house always had the bone to converse with. And they all have music whenever they wanted it, and sometimes even when they didn’t.

SEE ALSO

The Amazing Bone: Scrabboonit! from We Read It Like This

Jack And The Flumflum Tree by Julia Donaldson and David Roberts

jack-and-the-flumflum-tree-cover

The title suggests this may be a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk but it’s not really — it’s an original tale based on mythic structure with elements of Little Red Riding Hood (the sick grandma) and pirate adventures (the big seas, the small boat). Like any good fairytale, this story makes use of the rule of threes.

This is also a carnivalesque story, in which the opponents are friendly, easily distracted, and very happy to join the children in their hi-jinks.

jack-flum-flum-tree-sharks

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

This picturebook has the usual problems found right throughout the kidlit world. This is another story about a white boy. He has two sidekicks. One of the sidekicks is a girl dressed in pink. The other is a black boy. Two boys and one girl consistently comes back in educational research as the ratio at which boys feel comfortable — 1:1 boy-girl teacher attention in the classroom will give boys the impression that girls are dominating. So it is in children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Monster House.

Is this in the illustrator’s wheelhouse? If so, a call to illustrators — why not make Jack the black kid for a change, with a white boy as his sidekick? And to writers: Why not write some more trios of two girls and one boy?

Well, we know why.

How does everyone feel about the phrase ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist?’ which is repeated as a refrain throughout the story?

In this book both the boy and the girl are assumed to be wearing ‘knickers’, but in my dialect of English — and I assume most modern dialects — knickers refer specifically to female underpants. The assumption is therefore that getting (unnecessarily) shitty about something is a specifically feminine trait, and when the instruction is dished out to a male character the effect is to feminise him and strip him of his power. The phrase has always grated with me.

STORY STRUCTURE

SHORTCOMING

Jack needs to go on a long journey without adult supervision in order to mature.

DESIRE

He wants to save his granny from her purple spots disease by finding her fruit that grows on the rare and distant Flumflum tree.

OPPONENT

Nature is against them — the ocean, mainly, and everything in it: namely sharks, leaks and man overboard.

jack-and-the-flumflum-tree-boat

But nature isn’t a very satisfying opponent. A ‘humanesque’ opponent appears once they get to the island in the form of a mischievous monkey who steals the precious Flumflum fruit.

PLAN

At each of the three calamities at sea Jack works out a use for each of the items granny provided in the patchwork sack.

BIG STRUGGLE

Jack turns into a trickster with the monkey, giving him or her some wooden spoons. The monkey can’t resist playing the drums with them on the tom-tom drum, so the children are able to retrieve the stolen Flumflum.

ANAGNORISIS

Each of the items in the bag had a use. That’s what the young reader will learn at the end of the story.

As for Jack, he has learned that he is quite capable of saving the day.

NEW SITUATION

Granny is better and Jack is the hero.

 

See also a Goodreads list of picturebook featuring trees

Charles Perrault’s Fairytale Morals: Rewritten For A Modern Audience

When Charles Perrault wrote down the fairytales he’d collected from the wider culture, he ended each one with a summary which summed up the moral. In many cases, his take on the moral was pretty far from earlier tellings. Perrault wrote in a tongue-in-cheek manner — that much is clear. But as with any kind of humour, his basic beliefs about life and humanity shone through. Perrault was a man of his time. He joked about misogyny, but I believe he meant every word.

Sleeping Beauty Angela Carter

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOOD

When choosing a life partner, look carefully at his family.

See also: Sleeping Beauty And Cannibalism

LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

If you think you might assault someone, stay out of the fucking woods.

See also: The Evolution Of Little Red Riding Hood

BLUEBEARD

Ladies, trust your instincts. If you think that old man next door is creepy, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Also, if your new husband treats you like a child and starts playing mind games with you, get out of there before the shit really hits the fan.

See also: Bluebeard by Charles Perrault, a breakdown of the story structure

 

THE FOOLISH WISHES

When arguing with the most important person in your life, be careful what you say. Words once uttered can affect your relationship forever.

 

THE FAIRIES

When women are judged mainly on their looks, it’s not really all that surprising if the most beautiful daughter in a household is ostricised by her embittered female relatives. Nor is it surprising that these women, after a lifetime of discrimination, have become embittered.

It doesn’t matter if pearls and rubies fall out of your mouth; as long as you a beautiful your prince will find you. You don’t need to make any special sort of exertion; just leave home and go wandering through the woods.

 

HOP O’ MY THUMB

If your own parents are so nasty that they’ll take you and your siblings into the woods and leave you there to die in a time of famine, you don’t actually owe them anything after that. Make like a Scientologist and cut your ties.

 

DONKEY-SKIN

If your father wants to ‘marry’ you, get the fuck out of there and everything will eventually be okay.

 

RICKY WITH THE TUFT

Although men need women to be beautiful (for ‘evolutionary reasons’ or whatever bullshit they feed you these days), women are not to expect their male partners to be equally good-looking. If you’re a woman, your beau can be the ugliest fucking bastard in the world, but as long as you really really love him, you’ll eventually realise, with no magic whatsoever, everything about him is hunky dory. In other words, women have to conform to the Beauty Standard, but men do not.

The history of fairy-tale selection and adaptation has given far more prominence to male beasts who are afflicted with monstrosity, and then has held up the promise of redemption through love for them: the beast himself from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, who is restored to his human shape, or ‘Riquet a la houppe’ (Ricky with the Tuft’), in one of Perrault’s stories, who teaches the giddy heroine to love him for his mind, in spite of his looks. In more recent interpretations, such as the film of The Phantom of the Opera, or Mask, and The Elephant Man (directed early in his career by the aficionado of the macabre, David Lynch), the ‘monster’ solicits sympathy in the midst of exciting distress, horror and alarm.

[…]

A crucial distinction  between Renaissance grotesque and [the] Counter-Enlightenment derivative can be made in terms of the response. […] The grotesque style has undergone a change and expanded its reach. The treatment of monsters in fairytales, first fora n adult readership in the late seventeeth century, and progressively for a young audience thereafter, has contributed decisively to this shift in taste. The anti-heroes of popular stories, like the ugly suitor in Charles Perrault’s fairy tale of 1697 (Ricky With The Tuft), of the hissing Great Green Worm in marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s tale of that name, offer a vision of the monstrous redeemed by the grotesque. Fantasy beasts may ape human beings in order to mock them, but representations stage their presence in order to think with them, through them, about what it means to be human,

— Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

CINDERELLA; OR THE LITTLE GLASS SLIPPER

You’re more marriageable if you’re both charming and beautiful. Even better if you’re rich, but two out of three will suffice. You may even attract a prince. But do you really want a husband who’s chosen you for your beauty, your lifelong acculturation as a compliant doormat, and your smaller than average feet?

See also: The History And Influence Of Cinderella

Breaking Bad And The Influence Of Classic Fairytales

Vince Gilligan broke new television ground by writing a series about a good man turned evil. He also borrowed from a long history of storytelling. Walt White is a modern superhero archetype, but Breaking Bad also borrows from classic fairytales. Most modern stories do.

PUSS IN BOOTS

Walter White Boots

The unnamed cat in Puss In Boots is determined to make life better for himself and his underdog third son master. The first thing he does is pretty benign — he catches a rabbit with a lettuce leaf and sells it to the palace. But then he gradually turns into a lying, thieving, threatening, murdering little bastard. Puss ‘Breaks Bad’, in other words.

Things end better for Puss though, depending on which version you read. In one version he ends up as a pyromaniac, setting fire to his master’s house after the ‘Marquis of Carabas’ turns out to be ungrateful for all the help he’s had in securing the ogre’s house. Kind of like the final episode of Breaking Bad, in a way.

BLUEBEARD

Skyler

The wife in Bluebeard knows something’s going down, and she makes it her mission to find out once Bluebeard leaves town. So she finds out he’s lying, murdering scum and that her own life is in danger. What now? Unfortunately, Skyler doesn’t have two brothers to save her from her fate.

THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Breaking Bad Money

Walt actually thinks that as long as he gives his wife everything money can buy he is actually a good person. Doesn’t matter that he’s basically holding her captive, using the kids as bargaining chips.

I’m reminded too of the father of the girl held captive in Rumpelstiltskin, because who is worse in that story? Rumpelstiltskin, the greedy King, or the father who pawns off his own daughter?

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOOD

Jane death breaking bad

Jane. Sleeping. She’s not cursed by an evil fairy but by drugs. She used to be Daddy’s little princess.

Jane doesn’t have an ogre of a mother-in-law exactly, but she does have Walt — her boyfriend’s business partner. He doesn’t kill her — exactly — but lets something else do the job. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, however, Jane sleeps forever.

LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

how you doing brock

The Brock storyline, perhaps. Not goodies, ricin. Walt is the Big, Bad Wolf.

Others have suggested that Little Red Riding Hood is Jesse, with the hint in his name: ‘Pinkman’.

CINDERELLA

Breaking Bad Grey Matter

This is the rags-to-riches ur-story that applies not to Walt but to his millionaire erstwhile business partner. Like Cinderella, Walt’s friend kind of struck it lucky and that’s how he got rich. Also like Cinderella, he is a good person. But Walt doesn’t think this in itself is what justice looks like. Walt is an Ugly Stepsister, perhaps.

FAIRY GIFTS

A rule in fairy stories which applies across cultures: If you find out where a fairy gift came from you lose the gift.

When Skyler returns Marie’s baby shower gift to the jewellery store, she learns that Marie has stolen it. Marie is a bad fairy, and Skyler not only loses the expensive baby tiara but narrowly escapes from a night in prison.

Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairytale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairytales as ur-texts.

Anthony Browne writes postmodern picturebooks and Into The Forest is an excellent example of intertextuality.

WHAT IS INTERTEXTUALITY?

The relationship ‘between texts’.

No work of literature stands entirely alone. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.

STORY STRUCTURE IN INTO THE FOREST BY ANTHONY BROWNE

Shortcoming/Need

The boy is lonely without his father.

Lightning scene from Into The Woods by Anthony Browne
Lightning as portrayed in picture books and comics is often a very different kind of zig-zagged yellow shape, but when an illustrator chooses realism, the lightning bolt takes on a different level of scary.
Daddy Come Home 1913 composed by Irving Berlin, art by John Frew
Daddy Come Home 1913 composed by Irving Berlin, art by John Frew

Desire

We get a hint about the desire before the story even starts, in fact, on the internal title page, where there’s a sign pasted to the window saying ‘Come home Dad’.

Opponent

In “Into The Woods” there is an unseen opponent. The boy’s own anxieties about his father at war are preventing his happiness.

Plan

To take his mind off the loneliness, the boy’s mother asks him to take a basket of goodies to his grandmother’s house. She tells him to go the long way round to avoid the forest. But the boy plans to ignore this advice for the first time ever, in case his father comes home early.

Big Struggle

This is a mythic journey through a forest in which a boy encounters a variety of characters then ends up back home, having changed fundamentally as a person. The big struggle is a psychological one, symbolised by the increasingly knotted and gnarly trees and the worsening weather.

Hansel and Gretel from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
The tree looks as if a clawed hand waits at its base — at least, you think it might look like a clawed hand, but not quite. Can you trust your own imagination? Are you meant to think that?

The real life big struggle is off the page — only in the illustrations do we get hints that the father is a soldier off at war. There’s the soldier in the boy’s bedroom, missing one leg, and the light over the dinner table shaped like a hard helmet, with its bulb melting into the shape of a tear. The empty chair casts bar-like shadows against the wall suggesting lack of freedom and imprisonment. This is all postmodern stuff.

Anagnorisis

In this highly metaphorical story, the boy learns that although being lonely and worried about your father is scary, it is possible to make it through a forest of anxiety and come out all right at the other end.

New Situation

The boy is safe in the comfort of home, along with both parents there to protect him. The child reader is given not one but two reassuring images at the end — first the scene at grandma’s house, then again when the boy returns home with his father. This double reassurance compensates for the scary images on the previous pages.

INTERTEXTUALITY IN THE ILLUSTRATION OF INTO THE FOREST BY ANTHONY BROWNE

BLACK AND WHITE PALETTE

This particular book is a great look into how black and white mixed with vibrant colour can be used to create a certain effect.

Browne plays with different ambient effects in his Into The Forest, shifting from colour to black and white for the setting at the point where the protagonist enters ‘the woods’ of a fairytale world where he encounters characters from rhymes and tales. Browne incorporates many ‘hidden’ characters and objects in the shapes of the environment in these pictures, and the reader explores them in a different way from the emotionally compelling coloured pictures that open and close the story. […] In general then, picture book artists will only ignore the rich meaning of colour choices and their capacity to work on the reader’s emotions when they wish either to avoid that emotional engagement or else to invoke our feelings, particularly a sense of the uncanny or sinister, specifically by drawing attention to the ideational content of the images.

Reading Visual Narratives, Painter, Martin, Unsworth

Below, the goodies are wrapped up in a tea towel with the flag of England — a patriotic gesture in time of war?

Jack and the Beanstalk from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
Little Red Riding Hood scene from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
Red is a commonly utilised accent colour when illustrations are mostly black and white.
John Hilliard Red Coat, Blue Room, 1969
John Hilliard Red Coat, Blue Room, 1969
In the forest (1950)
In the forest (1950)