A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever

A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever (2008), written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, was a Caldecott Honor book and garnered starred reviews from the big hitters. Today I’m taking a close look at what makes this book so good.

A PICTURE BOOK FOR PICTURE BOOK ENTHUSIASTS

It starts with the cover. This is a picture book for kids, but it’s also a picture book for people who have spent many years reading picture books, engaging the adult part of the brain. The joke on the cover is, “Who are these boys smiling at?” I have previously noted that when illustrators draw characters as if they’re posing for photographs, this is a form of direct address — sometimes accidental, I’m sure.

Smile, Baby! You’re On The Cover Of A Picture Book!

But here, Marla Frazee draws us in on the humour of this particular picture book convention (largely outdated now — you’ll find it on classic Little Golden Books). “How long do we have to stand here and smile?” asks one of the boys, simultaneously making the joke (to adults) and encouraging (child) readers to open the cover to get on with the adventure.

Let’s turn now to the back flap:

Marla Frazee based this book on real people and real events. Almost all of it is completely true. Except:

  • Bill and Pam do not have a striped couch.
  • James and Eamon do change their shorts occasionally.
  • Bill’s vocabulary lessons don’t just happen when he’s driving.

But other than that, it is all true (sort of).

I love the observation about the shorts, because picture book illustrators make certain concessions for the sake of story, putting reality aside — one of those things is keeping the main character in the same clothing from beginning to end. Otherwise the young reader may not realise the character is the same person, especially when faces are drawn in generic style, as they are here, with dots for eyes and little else to distinguish between the two boys.

This is the kind of wry observation which appeals to an adult co-reader, achieving a genuinely dual audience. There’s an argument to be made that it’s impossible for children’s stories to be highly regarded unless they appeal to adults as well as to their ostensibly ‘main’ audience — kids. But there we have it. Children’s books are in fact ‘Everybody Books’, which is why they’re so hard to do well.

IRONIC DISTANCE BETWEEN TEXT AND ILLUSTRATION

A deadpan text narrates the events of the week, from the obligatory nature hikes and sleeping on an inflatable mattress downstairs to Bill’s well-meaning attempts to engage them in wildlife study and Pam’s great cooking.

Kirkus

What does Kirkus mean when they say ‘deadpan’? How do picture book creators achieve deadpan?

I believe Kirkus is referring to what Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott have called ‘ironic distance’. Later Kirkus uses the word ‘counterpoint’. Publisher’s Weekly calls it ‘contradiction’.

The standout example of this concept is seen in Rosie’s Walk, in which the pictures tell a completely different story from the text. For any given illustration/text combo, we can plot it somewhere on the ‘ironic distance continuum’. In this particular book, the deadpan humour is achieved by doing the ironic inverse of what Pat Hutchins did. In Rosie’s Walk the main text is staid while the illustrations contain life and death excitement. In A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever, the text often promises excitement while the boys sit around and do basically nothing. The point is, holidays promise much but sometimes deliver little other than quiet contemplation and relaxation.

EXAMPLES OF IRONIC DISTANCE

Text: Eamon thought this chat was fascinating.
Illustration: Eamon, a middle-childhood aged boy, sits on the sofa between two elderly people. The look on his face suggests he is very uncomfortable. His posture suggests he wants to get off the sofa and do something else. It is clear he does not find the chat about penguins fascinating.

Text: And finally James did [arrive] with just a couple of his belongings.
Illustration: James has arrived with a hyperbolic, ridiculous amount of luggage, overflowing from cardboard boxes.

Text: He had never been away from home for an entire week, so he was very sad when his mother drove away.
Illustration: James has a big, confident grin on his face and the speech bubble suggests he shouts ‘Bye!’ enthusiastically. He is not sad at all.

As is evident from these first examples, the ironic distance is to do with emotion. Marla Frazee is expert at conveying emotion via facial expression and body language. A less experienced illustrator would’ve had a hard time pulling this off.

I’d like to note, too, that picture book writers are often advised to ‘leave out anything that can be conveyed by the illustrator’. A sentence like ‘He was very sad’ is often given as an example of exactly the sort of thing that should be left to the illustrator. What’s often left out of these discussions is that sometimes the illustration says the opposite. Writers are advised to add illustration notes only if there is a very big ironic distance between illustration and text. This is where an author/illustrator is at a massive advantage — Marla Frazee is able to milk the entire continuum of ironic distance because she’s doing both. I’m constantly amazed at how well illustrators and writers work together to create excellent picture books when they don’t sit down at the initial stages to work things out together, but author illustrators equally adept in both (rare) certainly have this extra edge.

The comic book format of A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever is a good choice to convey the ironic distance between adventure and relaxation, because comic books are so heavily associated with super heroes, and super heroes never sit around — they’re always gearing up for something heroic, and then doing it.

THEMES

My own child was born in 2008, the year this was published, and I think the storyline has only become more relevant since then. Once kids are dragged away from their devices it takes a while for them to re-engage the kind of imaginative thinking which results in penguins made from gathered beach items. These boys are taken on a journey from the modern world into the world of their own imaginations, symbolically transporting them back to a more simple time.

This is the exact kind of nostalgia which appeals to the adult audience, and confirms my view that this book will be understood on a different level by adults. (My premise is that nostalgia is the one emotion young children cannot share with adults.)

THE GRANDPARENT ARCHETYPE IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

This story also subverts some expectations adults will have about picture books. We’re used to child-grandparent combos in which the grandparents have regressed back to childhood and enjoy fantastic adventures at the level of a child. Think Grandpa Jo from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and all the picture books featuring dancing grannies who have time for their grandchild even though the parents are too busy to notice the magic around them.

This books is not like that. This book is more akin to my own reality. Grandparents have time for grandchildren and go out of their way to create fun experiences, but the grandchildren remain wholly unappreciative. Because let’s face it, there has never been a bigger generation gap than that which exists between today’s grandparents and their grandchildren. Technology is the clear reason.

STORY STRUCTURE OF A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER

So what are children to make of this picture book? If we take away the parts they won’t yet identify with, is there enough left in the story for them? The answer is yes, but this is a picture book for a slightly older audience than the 3-4 year old set — the child reader will have to understand irony. This typically happens around age 8. So I might introduce this story to 7 year olds and up, with plenty of conversation from the adult co-reader.

SHORTCOMING

There’s no clear ‘main character’ because this is the story of a ‘generation gap’, in which the kids and older people are equally important. But young readers will naturally identify with the boys, so let’s go with them.

James and Eamon are a realistic admixture of excited and apathetic. Now that I think about it, this is a very rare thing in picture books. They’re excited to be with each other at their grandparents’ house, but together they slip into this snarky, underwhelmed attitude which bonds them to one another rather than to the older man who is ferrying them around.

“I thought you are supposed to walk on a hike,” one says to the other in the back seat of the grandpa’s car. “Yeah, not stand and look at some flower for an hour,” the other snarkily replies. Significantly, they sit very close together while the grandfather figure remains removed, in the front seat of the car and driving.

So, these boys have a clear moral shortcoming — they are failing to appreciate all that is right there for them to enjoy. Would the child reader have the same response as me, who is used to being an unappreciated chauffeur? I doubt it.

Their psychological shortcoming is that they have forgotten how to have a full spectrum of fun. The zombie-eyed illustration of the boys staring into a television is a commentary on how ‘young people these days only notice the world around them when it’s happening through a screen’. This is clearly from an adult’s point of view — an older generation commenting upon a younger generation.

There’s another layer of humour in the zombie-eyed scene — Pam has given the boys coffee ice-cream — massive icebergs of it. I recently made the mistake of buying ‘Coffee Intense’ flavoured ice cream from Woolworths and inadvertently lay awake all night after eating it — my previously sampled coffee ice cream from Aldi must have basically no caffeine in it.

DESIRE

The boys want to have fun on holiday, but they don’t know how to have the right kind of fun. Frazee’s illustrations mimic real life when she shows the boys having fun one moment, bored and zoned out the next. That’s exactly what modern kids are typically like. Moreover, the boys are rough housing with each other when the grandfather figure has unrolled a large map for them to appreciate. They are having fun, but it’s the sort of fun which can’t be contrived.

OPPONENT

The grandparents’ idea of fun activities is at odds with that which James and Eamon find genuinely diverting, so Young vs Old make natural Opposition.

PLAN

The boys ostensibly plan nothing — in naturalistic stories, kids don’t always make plans. They have to go along with adults’ plans. However, they do make their own mini-plans, to have fun in the moment. Their running gag is that they do everything in the same way. This constitutes a plan of sorts, kiddie version.

Finally they decide to do as they were expected to do all along — go outside of their own volition.

BIG STRUGGLE

The boys have been battling with the older people all week, not in any traditional sense, but the older generation has set ideas about how boys should spend time at ‘Nature Camp’.

This long-running Battle ends after the old people have exhausted themselves trying, and fall asleep snoring on the sofa. This is when the ‘winners’ emerge victorious — the boys go outside and look at their natural surroundings for the first time.

ANAGNORISIS

And it turned out to be the very best part of the best week ever.

This is a rare example of a story in which the main characters as well as the ‘opponents’ have both come out equally victorious. The boys have learned to appreciate the natural world around them, just as the older folks have been aiming for all along. However, they couldn’t  be finagled into appreciating it. It was only after the old people removed themselves that the boys were afforded time to get bored, and inspired.

The adult reader learns from this story that kids don’t appreciate things in the way we hope, though they will still be appreciating our efforts in their own way. We’ll have an easier time of child care if we just let kids get bored sometimes.

The genius here is not that the boys finally get outside in the end; it’s that their joy in being together is celebrated equally whether they’re annihilating each other in a video game or building a replica of Antarctica on Bill and Pam’s dock. As respectful of kid sensibilities and priorities as it’s possible for an adult to achieve.

Kirkus

NEW SITUATION

The reader has seen it was boredom itself that led to the boys’ true appreciation of nature. They have now made their own fun using very low-tech items and we can extrapolate that they have learned the skill of playing outside in nature.

I doubt it’ll endure when they’re back in their regular world of scheduled activities and computer games, but one day, if these boys become parents, they’ll probably teach their own kids to make penguins out of seashells.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever reminds me of an older book from the early 1980s, Three Days On A River In A Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams.

Follow the red canoe from page to page as it journeys down river carrying the family on a camping tour. It’s the next best thing to paddling it yourself.

MARKETING COPY
Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams our first morning
Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams our first morning

In Williams’ story, a family go on a canoe down a river — what it says on the tin. The story takes young readers through the entire process, from planning and packing to coming home and feeding the caught fish to the cat.

Three Days On A River In A Red Canoe is a good example of a narrative in which the main opponent is ‘nature’ rather than other characters: First it rains, thenthere is a gale, then the canoe almost overturns in the current of the river.

I’m reminded of Frazee’s story because the in both stories, the artwork is simple enough to let a young reader think they can produce something similar. I was recently listening to a picture book illustrator saying that she includes more naively drawn illustrations in each spread with the specific purpose of inviting the reader to create their own.

Frazee’s story is a picture book/comic book blend in its layout; Williams’ story is a picture book/informational text blend, and even ends with a non-fiction section on rivers.

Of course, both are about holidays, and the titles are similarly structured.

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

the farmer and the clown

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories, even when those stories don’t have words.

(Frazee is pronounced FRAY-zee.)

The Farmer and the Clown is part of a trilogy. Frazee has said that they can be read ‘individually, and taken together, with a beginning, middle and end. The FARMER AND THE MONKEY is the “winter” book; a time of seeking warmth.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN

The Farmer and The Clown is an example of a carnivalesque story. Carnivalesque stories are popular with children. ‘Carnivalesque’ is a term coined by a guy called Mikhail Bahktin to describe the kind of story in which a character breaks away from ordinary life for a while and has fun. At the end of the story the character returns to their ordinary life. In this case, two characters go off on a picnic.

Carnivalesque tales don’t necessarily have a single thing to do with ‘carnivals’, though in The Farmer and The Clown, Frazee has taken characters from a circus to use in her story.

Farmer and the Clown circus wagon

For more on picnics in children’s literature, see this post.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER AND WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEM?

Who is the main character? This question isn’t always as easy to answer as it seems. In this case the title suggests two characters who are equally central to the story. Sometimes a story is about a pair/group of people equally. If you’re not sure, here’s the question to ask: Who changes the most over the course of the story?

I argue that the farmer changes the most. Therefore, the farmer is the main character in this story, by a little bit. The young clown also changes, I guess. He or she learns that being separated from family can be fun, but not for too long or you start to get homesick.

What’s wrong with the farmer? He is isolated. The single chair on the verandah shows that he lives alone, and we know that even before we’re inside his house.

What’s wrong with the child clown? They are missing their own family, and because of youth, there’s no easy way to get back.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Carnivalesque stories tend to be unvarying in some of these steps. In a carnivalesque tale, the characters always desire fun. They desire a break from the routine and restrictions of their regular lives. But they also need to return to those regular lives at the end of the story. Unending fun is as terrible as never-ending routine.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

This is tough. I’m trying to persuade you that every story needs an opponent. But where’s the opponent in this story? At first glance there is no opponent — just hard circumstances (falling off a wagon and becoming separated from family).

Here’s the thing, though: ‘Opposition’ is often very subtle. All this means is that the characters want different things. It doesn’t mean they have to have a big fight because of their differences. Sometimes the characters are very loving. (Another example of this kind of story is Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, in which two characters are always happy in each other’s company, never arguing.)

Frazee depicts a different kind of opposition in this wordless picturebook.

Look at the farmer’s face when we first see him. He looks grumpy, right? We assume he’s a grumpy old miser who prefers to be alone.

Look at the little clown’s face. They have a painted on smile, but we assume he is happy. It’s only when the facepaint is washed off that we see they are not happy at all.

Frazee thereby presents an opposition between the characters and the reader, bringing the reader into the story as one of the participants.

When the farmer says goodbye to the little clown, his hands are clasped firmly behind his back. This tells us that he knows he has to say goodbye to the little clown, but he doesn’t want to. He’s restraining himself from leaping forward and keeping the clown for himself.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The farmer watches the clown sleep, wondering what to do

The farmer has no idea how to get the clown back with their family, so he simply looks after them. When the little clown becomes sad, he goes out of his way to make their time together fun, by teaching the clown how to milk a cow, by doing tricks with his hat, by taking them on a picnic.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene of this story is as subtle as the opposition. (If the opposition is subtle, the big struggle will be, too.)

The big struggle is an inner struggle. This is what makes The Farmer and The Clown so masterful — Marla Frazee uses no words, yet we still know exactly how that farmer is feeling when he is forced to say goodbye to the little clown. It’s all in those hands, clasped behind his back.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Another way of putting this: How does the character change? What is the character arc?

In old tales, like the fairytales transcribed by Charles Perrault, stories for children ended with a paragraph about what the child reader should take away from the story.

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

The ending Perrault gave to Little Red Riding Hood

These are called ‘didactic’ (moralistic) stories and are no longer published for modern kids. Exception: Overt, didactic messages are still found in ironic children’s literature, which pokes fun at those old didactic tales. Lemony Snicket started that big trend in middle grade fiction, but there must have been something in the air, because in the same year  A Series Of Unfortunate Events was published, we had the massive hit series from Nickelodeon, SpongeBob Squarepants (1999), which often ends with a mock didactic message, sometimes in the form of an outro (musical sequence to end on).

Contemporary stories, even for the very young, are rarely obvious about what the character has learned. Sometimes, even in picture books, the character winds up dead, and has therefore learned nothing!

Still, characters must change in some way. We deduce this change for ourselves. The farmer now knows what it is to have young company. When he leaps into the air, trying to cheer up the little clown to get him out of bed the next morning, I’m reminded of Grandpa George from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Frazee makes use of the trope that old people regain some of their youthful vigour when exposed to youth and novelty.

Frazee received a letter from a grandmother whose three year old granddaughter had made the observation that when we meet someone, even after that person moves on, we have kept something about that person and made it a part of ourselves. (That kid is an emotional genius.) We deduce that the farmer has changed simply from spending a bit of time with this child.

How does the reader change?

Marla Frazee loves a Mem Fox quote which goes something like, “A good picture book changes the reader’s emotional temperature over the course of the story.”

In a story, it’s not always the character who changes. Oftentimes it’s the reader. Did you find yourself welling up as you finished reading The Farmer and the Clown? I did! I was perfectly happy before I opened this book, but by the end my emotional temperature had certainly changed.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

The young clown will be with his real family. The farmer has a new companion, so we can extrapolate that he won’t be as lonely as he was before.

Farmer and the Clown reunited
Found Family

A lot of children’s stories are about ‘found family’. A young character has no family, or a terrible family, so goes out into the big, wide world and meets a person/people to call kith and kin. This kind of story can still work, so long as the author makes it clear that the child had no family to begin with. Contemporary stories about found family have a real-life political backdrop of children who have been taken from their families, often for no good reason. Speaking of Samson and Delilah, here in Australia The Stolen Generation and their descendants are still dealing with the intergenerational trauma of Australia’s White Australia policy, in which Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in White families. Other countries have similar histories.

This is why every piece of art is political. When authors write picture books, even carnivalesque picture books like The Farmer and the Clown, history has an impact on the story. When the young clown reunites with his family of clowns, this is a good thing. We know this, because the clowns are clearly excited to see him (or her). The farmer may or may not be sad to see him go, and lonely from now on. Frazee’s ending makes for a perfect blend of bittersweet which, ideologically, is very much a story of its time: ‘If you have a family who care for you, your own people are always the best people for you.’

Marla Frazee softens the ending a bit. When you turn the page, the final spot illustration shows that the monkey has jumped off the wagon to join the farmer. The monkey has one finger to his/her lips, looking conspiratorially at the reader. A lot of picture books end in this way — this is a circular plot. Now we know that this story is going to play out again, but this time with a monkey. Perhaps the clowns won’t come back for the monkey. This is acceptable in a contemporary milieu because the  monkey never was part of the clown family — itself stolen from its own kin. We can imagine the monkey will stay with the farmer forever, keeping him company.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN

Marla Frazee works with real media rather than digital illustration. She feels that even when hand-painting something that would be heaps faster on a computer, the subtle difference between hand-painted and digitally painted art is worth it. As a child she hugely appreciated the time and effort that went into the illustrations that appeared in her favourite picture books. (I would like to add, from experience, that it’s perfectly possible to do painstaking hand-drawn work straight onto a computer, via a tablet.)

Marla Frazee says in this video that she is influenced by Maurice Sendak, who is most famous for Where The Wild Things Are. It’s easy to forget this now, but when Wild Things came out it was unlike anything that had come before, in its honest expression of a child’s strong emotions.

Frazee was also influenced by Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCluskey (who also wrote Make Way For Ducklings).

Frazee also says she loves stories in which an older person tells a story about what happened to them as a younger person, which then inspired what they do as adults. The fancy name for this kind of story is hypodiegetic narration.

The farmer’s cottage in the middle of nowhere reminds me very much of the setting of Courage the Cowardly Dog, a Cartoon Network show from the late 1990s.

Farmer's house Farmer and the Clown
Nowhere, Courage the Cowardly Dog

A small, rickety house in the middle of an empty plain also reminds me a lot of Samson and Delilah, an Australian film about two Aboriginal teens learning to live independently in the Australian outback. (A must watch for teenage viewers and older, because not much of Australia looks like the set of Neighbours or Home and Away.)

Samson and Delilah outback cottage

When characters exist in a small cottage in the middle of nowhere, this increases the vulnerability, which also increases our sympathy. Notice too how Marla Frazee chose to keep her ‘camera’ higher than the characters. We’re looking at the farmer and the clown as if we’re up high, like we’re birds. This also makes the pair seem vulnerable, and also young and small. Even though the farmer is an adult, we can consider both farmer and clown as children. They both have a childlike sense of fun.

When the child clown reunites with his clown family inside the wagon, we know that the farmer will be alone once more. Did you feel a pang of sadness for him?

Colour Palette of The Farmer and the Clown

The palette is ochres, though the end papers are red to lend some colour. (Clowns are also associated with red because of their noses.) The clowns themselves are colourful, showing that they are not a part of this environment. The clowns belong to an entirely different world.

Dreamy
Farmer and Clown picnic

Many of the illustrations are not full bleed, meaning they don’t fill the entire page. (I’m not talking about the spot illustrations either, which are small pictures without the background.) A number of the illustrations in this book are almost a cross between full bleed and spot, with a fuzzy border. This lends a dreamy atmosphere to the story. Have you ever had an unusual experience which, looking back, feels almost like you dreamt it? For me, the years I spent in Japan as an exchange student feel like a dream now, because the experience was so different from my normal life and also because it happened a long time ago. I’m not sure young readers have been around long enough to know what memories turn into after several decades, but adult readers would.

Continuous Narrative in The Farmer and The Clown

There is a type of narrative art known as ‘continuous narrative‘. Marla Frazee is a big fan of this type of illustration, and includes an example in most of her picture books. Here’s an example:

continuous narrative from Farmer and the Clown

The youngest readers of picture books don’t understand that there is only one little clown. They think there are six identical clowns. But after exposure to enough books, we learn to decode pictures as they are intended: There are not six clowns but one, and this is the same clown in six different states. Continuous narrative in illustration is good for depicting movement.

STORY SPECS OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN

The Farmer and The Clown won the Horn Book’s ‘Mock Caldecott’ 2015 by a country mile, but lost out when it came to the real Caldecott Medal. (You know what won? Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, also very good, obviously.)

Marla Frazee is also well-known for illustrating the Clementine middle grade novels and for writing Boss Baby, recently turned into a feature film by DreamWorks.

Read Boss Baby by Marla Frazee. Don’t watch the film.

Marla Frazee. Boss Baby

Boss Baby, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, is an award-winning 2010 American picture book released by Dreamworks in 2017 as a film. Boss Baby was adapted for screen by Michael McCullers, who also gave us Austin Powers and Mr Peabody and Sherman, which will give you some idea of the tone.

Notice the label ‘inspiration’ for the major motion picture. While book and film begin in similar fashion, a film is much longer and needs much more plot.

Boss Baby is a perfect example of a picture book that appeals to a dual audience. Later adoptions and foster care situations excepted, almost every adult reading this book to their child has been through the newborn phase with the little person they’re currently reading the book to. The humour in this story is — to use this taxonomy — predominantly Reference Humour, layered with Character Humour (adults will also recognise the Tyrannical Boss character trope, and enjoy seeing it made fun of. Adults, and slightly older children, will recognise the extent to which Frazee has turned ordinary baby gear into office equipment — the high-chair table becomes a desk; the baby monitor is now a phone. A baby bath is now a luxurious spa; the swing at the park is a private jet. I am confident in saying there is some Character Humour that only adult co-readers will get — when the baby decides to think ‘outside the box’, the child see the ‘box’ is his playpen, but adults will recognise this as cliched corporate jargon.

What will children find funny? Plenty… and this is where the illustrations really shine. As shown a few years later when BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures became an instant bestseller, children LOVE the idea that they run the show. For them, the humour comes from a simple Juxtaposition (called ‘Analogy’ by the guy who runs The Onion). Boss Baby is basically a Status Flip story.

The illustrations are full of ‘Hyperbole’ humour. Boss Baby doesn’t just hand over a folder of instructions — he hands over so many papers it literally fills the living room. The parents aren’t just tired; they’re so exhausted they literally keel over.

Another standout feature of the illustrations is the perspective, which makes a really interesting case study because the general rule of thumb is: Powerful characters look down on weak characters. From the reader’s perspective, when we look down on a character they seem weak; when we look up to a character they seem formidable.

But in Boss Baby, the reader looks down onto the small baby — emphasising his smallness — yet it is very clear from the framing, lighting and body language that he is the boss. Standing in the front doorway, the light from outside casts a massive shadow of the parents. The juxtaposition between the baby’s actual size (tiny next to the briefcase) and the shadow he casts, adds to the humour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BOSS BABY

Who is the narrator of Boss Baby? The Dreamworks screenwriters decided to create an embodiment of the narrator, in the form of a big brother. This does make perfect sense, because there is an entire category of picture books about ‘bringing the baby home’., and those are designed to be read to the ‘big’ sibling. Also, the parents are referred to as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, capitalised, but then when you become a parent you’re quite often referred to as the ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’, so this doesn’t in itself mean there’s an older sibling watching on. (Alternatively, the narrator could in fact be the slightly older Boss Baby himself. There is something a little retro about this book, suggesting it’s older than 2010 — the mother is wearing a dress that seems to hail from the 1950s.)

Most bringing-baby-home picture books espouse an idealistic ideology — this new baby is gonna be great! (Just as soon as you get used to sharing him with your parents!) Some little-sibling stories are more emotionally honest. Feelings of uncertainty and jealousy are real when you’re the eldest sibling, and stories which acknowledge the disruption are my favourite kind. Boss Baby is the emotionally honest kind. (Chatterbox is another.)

The picture book is a good example of an ensemble cast. Another story with an ensemble cast is Little Miss Sunshine.

Ensemble casts aren’t quite as easy to break down, because the different ‘functions’ of story are divvied up. While it’s the baby who has the ‘plan’ in this story, it’s the parents who have the ‘problem’.

SHORTCOMING

The ‘main character’ is the family of three. For the purposes of story analysis I will consider the narrator omniscient rather than an older brother.

The problem this family has: When a new baby arrives in the house he absolutely runs the show. The parents have no choice but to obey his every command.

DESIRE

The baby wants his every need met, including constant company. We assume the parents want some of their freedom back, or at least some sleep.

OPPONENT

The members of this family are their own opponents.

PLAN

Babies, of course, do not make plans. They do not have the executive functioning to do so. That’s why Marla Frazee’s decision to turn the baby into a tyrannical corporate boss works so well. Now the baby’s plan is to dominate his family, deliberately running them ragged for the pleasure of it.

boss baby middle of the night
There’s a slightly noir feel to the lighting in this illustration, with the light on outside the bedroom. It’s almost like they’ve been called to a dark alley by a mob boss. Notice how well Frazee depicts exhaustion. The parents’ regular eyes are dots, but here she gives them larger, more detailed eyes.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Boss Baby continues to give his parents the absolute runaround — we can see the pace pick up when there are more mini-scenes on a single spread. In a picture book, this is a sure sign of the Battle Sequence. The baby wins. We know the baby wins because the parents are literally flat out on the couch, almost like they’ve been defeated in a boxing match.

boss baby big struggle

ANAGNORISIS

Sure enough, the Battle Sequence is followed swiftly by not one but two separate anagnorises:

He called a meeting.

His staff did not respond.

He called and called and called. Nothing.

The boss’s usual demands were not getting their usual results.

it was time to try something completely out of the box.

In other words, the baby’s MO is no longer serving him well, so he realises he’s going to have to get his needs met some other way. This is where he says his first words.

For their part, the parents are delighted that all their hard work seems to be paying off. Not only that, but suddenly in their eyes, the little tyrant in their house seems like a baby rather than a boss.

NEW SITUATION

When the parents hug their baby this marks a turning point in the family — the really hard newborn phase is over, and now they’re all moving forward into a slightly easier time.

I hope I’ve managed to persuade you that this picture book is among the best of the best. I would encourage parents to avoid the Dreamworks film. Mostly for this reason, but also because sometimes the short version of a story is far more powerful than a fleshed out, colourful, noisy plot.