Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

Slinky Malinki cover

Slinky Malinki is a picture book by New Zealand author illustrator Lynley Dodd.

A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.

Old proverb

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CATS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Sometimes it is difficult not to resent their apparent success, and they are good or evil according to their creator’s feelings. […] Perhaps Kipling was right, and cats are neither for nor against us, but both or neither, as they wish or feel*. As characters they have great possibilities and depths that few writers, with the possible exception of Paul Gallico, have made use of. Their long history of connection with witchcraft has suggested tales of magic cats such as Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, 1955, or, in a more down to earth setting, Rosemary Weir’s Pyewacket, 1967; and their urbanised versatility (dog stories are more usually about country life) is categorised unforgettably in T.S. Eliot.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
* When creating the character of Slinky Malinki Lynley Dodd absolutely makes use of this historical duplicitousness: Slinky is one thing during the day, another thing altogether come nightfall. The werecat, in other words.

Writing in the 1970s, Blount, in the paragraph above, mentions some mid-century books I haven’t heard of. Here are their covers:

Carbonel Barbara Sleigh book covers
1955
Pyewacket cover
1967

JENNIE BY PAUL GALLICO (1950)

jennie

Jennie is regarded as one of the best cat stories of the 20th century. It makes use of the Black Beauty formula — a modified moral tale that’s both exciting and moving. Ideology: “How would you like if if you were the poor cat and a cruel boy teased you?” As in Black Beauty, the reader is to imagine that the cat is actually a human trapped inside a cat’s body.

See also The Guardian list of Top 10 Cats In Children’s Literature. Slinky Malinki is one. Can you guess the others?

THE ENDURING INFLUENCE OF OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS (1939)

Most of the cats one knows are typecast in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939. They are Gumbies, or Jellicles, Rum Tum Tuggers or Macavities or like one or other of his feline varieties: Criminal, Ole Thespian, Railway, Conjuror, Oldest Inhabitant, Pirate, or just the kind that sits about for ever. Their psychology is placed, wittily and firmly, among the humans whose lives the cats share; the only difference is one of size and shape, though even appearance is doubtful, from Growltiger, baggy at the knees, to Bustopher Jones with his well-cut trousers of impeccable black. The message is that these are cats we should be proud to know, described in verse so pleasing that it demands to be said, from the Rum Tum Tugger’s jogging perversities to Growltiger’s Kiplingesque ballad and the intricate jazz rhythms of Mungojerrie and Rumpeltazer*.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

*For a full list of cat tropes from this book, see the entry at TV Tropes.

The Criminal Cat Trope

TV tropes calls this character type the ‘Diabolical Mastermind‘.

Lynley Dodd, too, has created a cast of cat characters which closely align to the cat characters typecast by T.S. Eliot. You’ve got Growltiger with Scarface Claw — the other main cat, and a wonderful nemesis for Hairy. Slinky Malinki is, of course, a modern Criminal, related to the Macavity (who sneaks about) and Mungojerry (who plans naughty things) from T.S. Eliot.

This is a crime story for the very young.

Criminal cats are not a fantastic invention for the sake of literature, either. The siamese breed in particular is smart, and some of them seem to have evolved a collecting instinct, much like a butcher bird.

Slinky Malinky irl

Tonkinese cats can be ‘quite obsessive’ too, and here’s one who has a penchant for male underwear. (Tonkinese are a Siamese-Burmese cross.) There must be quite a history of cats thieving, or at least lurking about looking like they’re thieving: consider the English word ‘cat-burglar’.

For a parallactic insight into the cat’s reasons for thieving from neighbours, see comedian Tom Sainsbury channel a cat, which he calls Gingerbread.

THE STORY STRUCTURE OF SLINKY MALINKI

The character arc of Slinky Malinki

Shortcoming

but at night he was wicked

Although Slinky is perfectly nice during the day, he is transformed by the ‘magic’ of night…

Desire

…by some primal instinct to hunt. But because he lives in the suburbs and not in a wild forest, his hunting ground is the domestic realm of human neighbours.

Opponent

There is an unseen opponent in this story — young readers know that Slinky is not supposed to be taking those things, and that the things belong to people. For the reader, the opponents are the owners of the stolen items, who will get him into trouble if he is caught. For Slinky, his opponent is probably some unseen creature of the night. Slinky is an adrenalin junkie.

Plan

This thieving is a habitual thing rather than a once-off, so I’d say his ‘habit’ is to wait until nightfall when all the humans are asleep, then break into people’s homes and drag stolen items to a hidden place at his owners’.

Big Struggle

CRASH went the bottles,

BEE-BEEP went the clock,

RO-RO-RO-RO

went the dogs on the block.

These words are accompanied by an image of chaos — the legs of the human family members have caught him in a compromising position, tangled up all of his stolen gear. Here it looks like Slinky has been fighting with the stolen goods themselves; he is tangled up in wool and has a glove on his head. You could argue that the main opponent in this story are the alluring goods that he can’t help but steal. The items are almost personified.

Here we have a startled teddy bear face to contrast with Slinky’s malevolent eyes. The bear seems to be looking at the reader for help.

slinky malinki teddy bear

Anagnorisis

We see from his face that Slinky is feeling ashamed of himself.

This is a black and white shot from the app, but you can see the repentant look on his face.
This is a black and white shot from the app, but you can see the repentant look on his face.

New Situation

The final page: ‘NEVER again did he answer the call, when moon shadows danced over garden and wall. When whispers of wickedness stirred in his head, he adjusted his whiskers and stayed home instead.’

The image on the final page reminds me very much of the image from a now out-of-print book by Kenneth Grahame (of Wind In The Willows fame), in which Bertie the pig escapes from his sty, breaks into the farm house and eats all the Christmas goodies. He is found the following day in a state of overstuffed bliss.

Bertie's Escapade last page_700x877

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN SLINKY MALINKI

HORROR SYMBOLISM

More picture books than you might think start with the horror genre and modify the symbolism and tropes for little kids. Stories which manage to achieve this are surprisingly popular. Kids love happenings that take place at night — this is an opportunity for the carnivalesque. The horror genre is really great for making use of symbol, because it is one of the most highly symbolic genres (along with Westerns and sci-fi, which are less common in picture books.)

There is something reassuring about the perfect mixture of scary things and familiar: Here we have a dark, scary sky and a cat that’s ‘blacker than  black’ creeping about stealing familiar, and sometimes humorous, items.

slinky malinki milk bottles

On the front cover Slinky holds a glove in his maw. If this were a straight horror story, that glove would likely be a disembodied hand. Take as an example the 1963 movie The Crawling Hand. These days, the disembodied hand is more often seen in horror comedies, as it is here.

Bloody Knuckles 2014
Bloody Knuckles 2014

Shapeshifting

In Slinky Malinki we also have the trope of the Werebeast, which is associated with a number of subtropes. Slinky’s night-time personality shift comes with nightfall and is psychological rather than outwardly manifested.

Kinks and Curlicues

The illustrations make use of classically horrific line work, with the kink in the tail and the spindly branches on the trees. Even the native New Zealand flax seems sinister as it looks as if it might reach out and grab any passerby.

The Moon

Lynley Dodd has used the technique of connecting symbols to the setting, to great effect.

Sometimes a story is not actually magical, but something is infused with a supposed supernatural set of forces.

The moon plays a prominent role of course. First, the illustrator needs a light source, but more importantly, according to folklore (and modern hospital workers), strange things happen when there’s a full moon. In one image we even see Slinky carrying a perfectly round balloon (as well as a slipper and a sausage link), and the blood-red balloon partially obscures the moon. This makes Slinky seem as if he is at one with the moon, and like he might be carrying a moon replica in his very own mouth. The moon, we gather from this picture, is the reason for his personality transformation.

Other examples in which the moon is almost magical but not quite: Melancholia, Moonstruck, A Walk On The Moon, Once Upon A Time In The West.

Because we all know a cat or two, cat stories tend to take place at night, when cats are most active.

Orlando's Evening Out by Kathleen Hale

LANGUAGE OF SLINKY MALINKI

One day I look forward to delving in deeply to Lynley Dodd’s perfect scansion, but for now I’ll point out the following techniques, also used by T.S. Eliot:

Added Alliterative Appeal: Lots of picture book authors make use of alliterative names, but Lynley Dodd’s names would have to have some of the best mouthfeel in the biz. They’re more like Awesome McCool Names.

 RELATED

Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd Picture Book

Scarface Claw is a wonderful animal villain.

Honestly, for a close-reading I could have picked any of Lynley Dodd’s Slinky Malinki series (or from the even-better-known Hairy Maclary series set in the same world). I find it impossible to pick a favourite. But if I have a favourite character, it is probably a tie between Slinky Malinki and Scarface Claw. Although I grew up in New Zealand I’m a little too old to have grown up with them. Still, I have collected the entire series and enjoy reading them to my daughter, over and over again. Every New Zealander who has ever read a picture book will be familiar with these animals. Teachers will be able to name all of them. If there’s an archetypal New Zealand picture book series, this is it. For a read-along experience, Penguin has partnered with Kiwa Media and turned some of the Hairy Maclary books into apps. While not created from the ground up for a touch screen, the app versions do offer word highlighting, which can be useful to an emergent reader perhaps.

PLOT OF SCARFACE CLAW

Most readers will already know from previous books that Scarface Claw is ‘the toughest tom in town’, introduced thus in Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. This book focuses specifically on his toughness, presenting a range of scary scenarios that are not the least bit daunting to Scarface Claw. Finally the reader finds out that there is ONE little thing Scarface Claw is scared of **SPOILER ALERT**: Scarface is scared of his own reflection.

Scarface Looks Into The Mirror

WONDERFULNESS

The most amazing thing about Lynley Dodd’s books how nice they are to read aloud, over and over and over again. Actually, I think the weakest in this regard is the first and most famous Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. I’ll admit I sometimes get ever-so-slightly tired of the repetition of that, which may be as much a comment on how many times I have been called upon to read it aloud. Hairy Maclary is a book which builds on itself, which is excellent for child literacy and speech development and so on, but taxing on an adult reader. For a repetitious book, Hairy Maclary is still excellent. But it is in the subsequent books that Lynley Dodd’s poetic language really shines. To borrow from culinary-world, the mouthfeel is wonderful. It’s all to do with the scansion.

 

Font is also important. The reader is given clues on how to read with use of all caps:

WHO

is the roughest

and toughest

of cats?

The boldest,

the bravest,

the fiercest of cats?

Wicked of eye

and fiendish of paw

is mighty,

magnificent,

SCARFACE CLAW.

The poetry has a distinctive meter, and if you tap the rhythm on the table you’ll see how scary it sounds, sort of like the narrative poems of yore, a la The Highway Man (though this is different again).

Something that may pass unnoticed until it is pointed out is that the animals do not talk. There are many picture books about animals, which I would divide into two distinct types: First are the anthropomorphised animals who are human stand-ins. This is of another kind, in which the animals are actual animals, thinking and behaving as humans expect animals might. This requires a good understanding of animal behaviour, and it’s clear Lynley Dodd has a history of living with pets.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to complexity of vocabulary for young readers, and apparently Lynley Dodd’s work has sometimes been criticised for including words beyond the comprehension of her audience. Another school of thought believes that children should be exposed to vocabulary beyond their comprehension; this is exactly how they learn. I fall into the second camp, and I doubt Dodd would have achieved such perfect rhythm and meter if she had limited herself to words from a children’s dictionary. In the end, does it matter if children don’t know the exact meaning of some words? The illustrations and the language are more than enough to compensate.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

As with pretty much every picturebook, a lot of the story’s success rests upon the facial expressions of the characters — or animals.

Who needs talking animals, when so much language is exchanged in the eyes?

Booksellers New Zealand Blog

In this particular story, even the scary black spiders have big, expressive eyes. As for Scarface Claw himself, this is not a truly scary creature — few creatures really are in picturebooks, which are often read right before bedtime. The young reader is instead encouraged to laugh at Scarface, and also to emphasise with him; children will be familiar with the feeling of being scared of some things and content about others. Here, the contentedness of Scarface is achieved via the closed eyes. Plus, isn’t it always funny to see a cat licking his leg? There’s something graceful and private about it, and when the reader sees Scarface in a more vulnerable moment, empathy is encouraged.

 

scarface claw content licking leg
Scarface Licks His Leg

The real gem illustration occurs on the penultimate page. After seeing Scarface in a variety of relaxed poses (and scary ones, in previous books) the reader sees for the first time Scarface looking both terrified and adorable. He now has big eyes and flat ears. I accidentally skipped this page when reading to my daughter, who realised a page had been missed. She knew the word that went with it, too. “Where’s the page with EXCEPT…?’ she asked. This was an interesting exercise, borne of nothing more than two pages being stuck together, because I realised just how important this penultimate page was to the story, which could have worked without it, but wasn’t nearly so good.

Another technique Lynley Dodd uses in a number of her books is an intriguing object only just visible on the page — it’s usually someone’s tail, propelling the reader forward to the next page, where fans will know exactly whose tail it is; the next page need only confirm it. In this book, the reader sees Scarface Claw’s tail dangling down from the wall. On the following spread we see Scarface himself, in repose:

Scarface Relaxes Fencetop

 

The technique isn’t limited to tails — the reader sees the leg of the oh-so-vital mirror before seeing the mirror itself, a good three pages later. So this technique doesn’t necessarily need to be used on consecutive pages, but can foreshadow well in advance.

To go with the ominous rhythm, horror elements have been included judiciously into the illustrations. The picture of Scarface Claw at night outside in a lightning storm features trees with curved, finger-like branches which I have since learnt to associate with Tim Burton. But overall, the book’s scariness is tempered by insertions of comedy. The dogs are supremely comical with their ‘lolloping and leaping’, and their tongues hanging out, with Hairy Maclary grinning like a muppet.

STORY SPECS

This is one of Lynley Dodd’s later books, first published in 2001 by Puffin. Dodd has said that it takes her a year to write and illustrate each book. My softback edition places the colophon at the back of the book. The back side of the front cover very cleverly doubles as both a promotional poster for other books in the series and a checklist of cats which my daughter loves to name before the story begins. As far as she’s concerned, it’s a part of the story.

slinki malinki and friends
Slinky Malinki And Friends, inside the front cover

This story leaves a big impression at only 160 words.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Scarface Claw may have been inspired (consciously or not) by the American Little Golden Book classic The Large and Growly Bear. Like Scarface Claw, the Large and Growly Bear is an outwardly fierce creature who takes great delight in scaring the creatures around him. The climax is that he is scared of his own reflection in a pond. I expect this plot comes from something even older — probably a folk or fairy tale. I simply haven’t found it yet.

Some people are terrified of mirrors, mostly because of superstitions related to reflections and the dead. This fear is called spectrophobia.

For an example of a picturebook that is written around the technique of ‘tails first then turn the page’ (or whatever it’s actually called) see the Australian classic I Went Walking, which doubles as a book for toddlers as well as an early reader for slightly older children.

I Went Walking Cover

I Went Walking Tails First

When a character is scared of something a child doesn’t find scary, this is a sure source of humour for a child, and is utilised by other writers, too. In series one, episode eleven of Lake Campbottom, the character of Gretchen fails to be frightened of all sorts of nasty things, but is then terrified of a cute chipmunk with big eyes.

scary chipmunk