Possum Magic by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas

Possum Magic is a classic Australian picture book by Mem Fox.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY OF POSSUM MAGIC

Grandma Poss uses bush magic to make a child possum (Hush) invisible so that Hush won’t be eaten by snakes. (I’m going to put aside the fact that snakes seem to ‘see’ via vibrations, so an invisibility superpower wouldn’t necessarily protect her…) But soon, Hush longs to be able to see herself again, the two possums make their way across Australia to find the ‘magic food’ (quintessentially Australian food) that will make Hush visible once more. Each  year on Hush’s birthday they eat the same food ‘just to make sure Hush doesn’t turn visible again’, thereby creating a kind of mythology about why (white) Australians eat certain foods as celebration.

In case you were wondering just how deep it’s possible to go in the analysis of a seemingly simple children’s story such as this one, Carolyn Daniel has much to say about Possum Magic in her book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature. First she points out that this is an example of a Quest Narrative.

Mem Fox’s Possum Magic is a quest narrative, following an ancient tradition in which a hero strives for something of value such as treasure or a beautiful woman. In this storybook the quest is for personal identity, a universal, internalized, and significantly contemporary goal. Grandma Poss makes Hush invisible to keep her safe from snakes. Hush has lots of adventures but there comes a time when she wants to be visible again. Most pertinently Hush wants “to know what [she] looks like.” In Julie Vivas’s illustration Grandma Poss leans over a pool of water witha  fuzzy outline of Hush beside her. But Hush has no reflection in the mirrored surface of the pool. Because she is invisible she lacks subjectivity and, therefore, agency.

The food in Possum Magic is obviously important, but did you know how important?

But Grandma Poss has trouble finding the magic to make Hush visible again and, although Hush tells her she doesn’t mind, “in her heart of hearts she did”. Eventually Grandma remembers that, “it’s something to do with food. People food—not possum food”. And she and Hush set off around Australia to find the food that will make Hush visible.

[…]

The foods that Grandma Poss and Hush eat are seen to be quintessentially Australian and their journey is a search for national and cultural identity as well as visibility or subjectivity. Fox’s narrative suggests that an individual’s sense of self does not arise spontaneously but is derived by literally consuming culture. By eating these significantly Australian foods Hush becomes visible and can be recognized as having a legitimate place within Australian society; she thus eats her way into culture. This reflects and supports the notion that ‘we are what we eat’ and that food narratives teach children how to be proper human subjects.

When we say this is an ‘Australian’ picturebook we should be careful to acknowledge that it represents a particular part of Australia and not its whole. She also offers a great example of the word ‘metonymically‘, which comes in handy when talking about picture books:

Applying a post-colonial reading to this storybook, which was published in the early 1980s, it is pertinent to point out, however, that the national and cultural identity Fox writes about is limited: geographically to the coastal regions of Australia and gastronomically to exclude indigenous foods and flavours.

In Fox’s narrative food is the magic that makes Hush visible. It constructs her as a subject and thus may be said to stand in, metonymically, for culture itself. For Michel Foucault culture is the magic that makes individuals visible. Following Nietzsche, Foucault argues that cultural discourses of truth, power, and knowledge distinguish between normal and deviant behaviour, thus determining individuals’ actions and constructing them as subjects. For Foucault power does not “crush” individuals; it does not need to because

[it is] one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires, come to be identified and constituted as individuals… The individual is an effect of power, and at the same time, or precisely to the extent to which it is that effect, it is the element of its articulation. The individual which power has constituted is at the same time its vehicle.

In Fox’s story the consumption of certain foods constitutes Hush as an individual. The various foods might be said to carry certain discourses or stories about what it means to be Australian, including lifestyle, attitudes, desires, and even power relations (who gets the biggest slice?). As Hush consumes these foods, she also consumes Australian-ness and is constituted as an Australian. As a visibly legitimate Australian subject Hush embodies culture or as Foucault puts it, she is an “effect of power.” Simultaneously she is also “the element of its articulation.” Hence by her annually repeated consumption of proper Australian food/culture she confirms, for all those (child readers) now able to see her, just what it means to be Australian.

And the feminist reading:

Having eaten into Australian culture, Hush is visibly an individual. Grandma Poss is additionally visibly designated as specifically female by the apron she wears (notably she is the only character in the book who is clothed). Judith Butler argues that the body is “always ready a cultural sign” and is “never free of an imaginary construction” as either male or female. To Foucault’s argument that there is no position outside power/knowledge,” Butler adds there is no classification outside of the culturally assigned binary opposites male and female. For Butler embodying culture means acquiring the necessary skillls, “bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds,” to “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. Butler argues that the bdoy is a politically regulated cultural construct,” “a signifying  practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality”. Gender is an “act” which is both “intentional” and “performative”. It is “a strategy of survival within compulsory systems” performed through a “stylized repetition of acts” under “duress”. For Butler then, gender is performed rather than possessed. Its performance must be reiterated repeatedly in order that the illusion appear natural. Each and every successful performance reiterates the systems of power relations that produce the illusions in the first place. Even something as simple as Grandma Poss’s apron reinforces the systems of power relations that produce the illusion of femininity. The apron is a symbol of domesticity, a stereotypical accoutrement of the maternal figure in children’s fiction. Grandma Poss’s apron is metonymic of culture; it defines her and serves to reiterate the definition of proper femininity.



I didn’t grow up in Australia, but live here as an adult, so I approach this particular picture book both as a foreigner and as an outsider.

Possum Magic Numbers inside
There is now a counting book to accompany the original story.



WONDERFULNESS

Strong Sense Of Place

There are now a lot of Australian picture books which star local fauna. Many of them are fairly pedestrian, introducing the young reader to the names of the creatures and perhaps what they eat and their circadian rhythms, but this story is particularly well done because of the mixture of local fauna (beautifully anthropomorphised), Australian food (for humans), Australian geography and Australian dialect. Few Australian picture books manage to combine all of those things, and so Possum Magic has become for Australians like a celebration of Australia. Indeed, this is a book by an Australian, written for Australians, and there was a time when this in itself was something to be celebrated.

In the years that I’d been reading to Chloë I’d been shocked and dismayed by the very few Australian books available for Australian children so I determined to write a very Australian book.

Mem Fox

Not every member of the international audience appreciates the book’s content. I suspect this is a reflection on how many books are exported from America, compared to the very small proportion imported to America:

Goodreads Possum Magic review

The Wacky Plot Does Not Need Explaining

Perhaps one difference between writing for young children and writing for adults in general is that in picture books an author can present any number of strange and unlikely things, and the audience will accept it — not as fact, but as a part of the story. So it is with Possum Magic; of course you turn invisible with a potion, and of course the only way to make yourself visible again is to travel around the country eating typically Australian junk food. Anything is possible in a world where possums talk, and wear glasses and sneakers. Things do make sense within the world of the story (somewhat): ‘…which is why Grandma Poss had made her invisible in the first place’.

To extend this idea a little further, though it is true that young children will accept almost anything  in a well-written story, this is precisely the reason we need to be careful about offering them stories with a modern ideology. When there is the symbolic annihilation of non-whites and female characters, and world-views which should have gone the way of the dodo, it’s not that the child reader doesn’t notice; it’s because these ideas are being so thoroughly taken on board that the ideas themselves seem invisible.

Language

Not every picturebook author can get away with this: Half rhyming, half not rhyming. But Mem Fox does:

Rhyming:

Grandma Poss made bush magic./She made wombats blue and/kookaburras pink.

She made dingoes smile and emus shrink.

Not rhyming:

But the best magic of all was

the magic that made Hush INVISIBLE.

How exactly does Fox get away with this combination? The rhyming accompanies the most magical parts of the story, for example when Grandma Poss is looking at her recipe books. When she’s not rhyming, she’s making use of some other technique, such as alliteration or repetition…

Rule of Threes

Again, this popular technique is employed here, with three sequences that begin with: Because she couldn’t be seen…’

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF POSSUM MAGIC

Julie Vivas is a master of watercolour. A lot of picturebooks have been illustrated with watercolour used as a kind of textured fill, but the watercolour line in this book is delicate and precise.

An artistic problem that Julie Vivas would have had to overcome is, ‘how to depict an animal that is invisible’? She deftly resolved this issue by painting a furry outline.

possum magic invisibility

The white background allows the detail and texture of the paintings to shine.

Below is the image from the front cover. The magic is represented by colourful stars.

One reviewer on Goodreads notes that Grandma Poss reminds him of Grandma Moses off the Beverly Hillbillies. I suppose Grandma Poss might be the picturebook version of the Cool Old Lady trope. Like Grandma Moses makes medicine in an old copper stiff, Grandma Poss uses bush magic to protect her grandchild from snakes. One distinctive thing about possums is their big, dark eyes. Vivas has made the most of this feature by giving Grandma Poss a pair of glasses. Notice how the characters have been drawn to be as endearing as possible. Even the names are endearing: Hush and Grandma Poss (shortened from possum, which is in itself a very Australian thing to do).

possum magic apron and stars

The character illustrations are full of life. Notice the children sitting on the form bench; they are not just sitting, but absolutely in motion, drinking a juice box, leaning forward, biting into lunch.

possum magic grandma

STORY SPECS OF POSSUM MAGIC

496 words

Between 30-32 pp, depending on the edition

Published 1983, this was Mem Fox’s first book. She famously didn’t find it easy to find a publisher, but we say that of any book that took off later, don’t we? Almost all books, no matter how classic they become, find it difficult to get a placement at a publishing house.

Older editions of Possum Magic feature a map of Australia with place names. I wonder why publishers have decided to take this out of earlier versions (or perhaps it is simply an Australian/International publication difference, in which case Australians wouldn’t necessarily need a map).

COMPARE POSSUM MAGIC WITH

Other Australian classics include Shy the Platypus and Wombat Stew.

Shy The Platypus

Like Possum MagicWombat Stew is a popular musical for children. My daughter went to it on a class trip in kindergarten and loved it.

Wombat Stew

WRITE YOUR OWN

Perhaps you’re sufficiently familiar with a specific place/culture that you’re able to introduce a lesser-known animal or plant or custom or food to a young reader.

Possum Magic is a kind of faux-folktale, in that the story explains why Australians eat certain foods once per year on their birthdays. What other aspects of a young reader’s life could be ‘folklorised’ in similar fashion?

Tough Boris by Mem Fox and Kathryn Brown

Tough Boris is an Australian/American pirate picture book. As fodder for stories, ocean piracy has never yet been out of fashion. Especially in stories aimed at boys, the pirates of modern picture books are often comical rather than scary; jovial rather than evil. Pirate stories bear little to no resemblance to the actual crime of piracy, which is alive and well in the world today.

Tough Boris Mem Fox

 

 

What is the allure of pirates, and what kind of stories can they tell the modern reader? In this particular story, ‘pirate’ is a visual metaphor for ‘masculinity’. This is the age of the antihero; for adults see Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire etc.

Marjery Hourihan breaks down the difference between pirates and heroes in her book Deconstructing The Hero:

gentlemen—pirates

neat—dirty

sober—drunken

rational—irrational

honest—deceitful

self-controlled—violent

law-abiding—criminal

England—island

This picturebook breaks down the dichotomy between pirates and heroes.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY?

As is increasingly common in high quality modern picturebooks, a very simple text is complemented by a series of illustrations which depict the bulk of the narrative. The text simply lists a number of attributes of a pirate called Boris von der Borch. The illustrations tell the story of the time the pirates went shore to search for hidden treasure. (They have a map.) The pirates find a boy on shore and steal his violin.

Tough Boris All Pirates Are Scruffy

It’s not clear how the child gets onto the pirate ship afterwards — perhaps the pirates stole the boy as a slave, or perhaps the child somehow managed to find his own way onto the ship (less likely, perhaps?) but either way, we see the child looking on as the pirates scuffle and fight, not knowing what the violin is for. The child stowaway breaks into Boris’s cabin one night and takes it back, seeking refuge below deck until he is found by a hoard of scary-looking pirates. When the boy plays the violin for the pirates he is accepted as one of the passengers. Then, Boris’s beloved green parrot dies of unknown causes.

The violin case is used as a coffin for the parrot, then ‘buried’ at sea. Boris gets one of his worker pirates to row ashore in a dinghy. But this trip is also to return the stowaway to the shore. After enjoying his time onboard the pirate ship, bonding with the scallywag pirates, getting to know what they’re like, he is now abandoned, alone once again on a beach. Boris has given the boy back his violin, perhaps because he will always be reminded of his beloved parrot if he were to keep the violin, and the boy.

WONDERFULNESS

This is a picturebook which rewards close reading of the illustrations. Indeed, the reader is unlikely to grasp the full story upon first or second reading, as explained by this Goodreads reviewer:

I didn’t really like this book at first. But it fit well for our pirate book club parties. Then after I read it for the tenth (or so) time, I discovered that I really liked the tender story told in the pictures and not in the actual words.

Because of the dual storyline, either the text or the pictures is likely to appeal to a different audience:

[T]his is a story for young little kids, like my nephew, who think pirates are cool. Pirates are all tough, pirates are all massive, pirates are all scary, pirates are all scruffy. Little kids get that, and agree with it. That is a pirate as little kids know him. The word story was the one my nephew was responding to. Tough Boris is also a story for older kids, but *that* story is told through the pictures, and that story is more complex and more suspenseful than the story told in words. The story in the pictures is the one that my eight year old niece was tuned in to. Where the two stories, merge, though, is in the end, and that ending is appropriate to both the word story and the picture story.

– Goodreads

 

Front cover aside, the story begins on the colophon page, where a boy looks out to sea at a ship. Unless you notice that the boy is holding a violin case, you may not realise that the violin initially belonged to the boy. There is no scene in which we are shown the pirate taking the violin from the boy. This is significant; the story is written by a character as storyteller — by the character of the boy, supposedly a long while after the story happened (Once upon a time, there lived…) , and during this time the boy has had time to reflect on the pirates’ true characters, ameliorating them somewhat. Boris is spoken of with unlikely affection, given that he stole the boy’s violin; ‘pirates are all like this, and so it was no surprise that Boris was too.’

This is the case for any unlikely picturebook narrative, but one interpretation is that this entire story is the wish fulfilment of a lonely boy who plays on the beach, wishing some pirates would turn up. The stereotypical dress and characterisation of the pirates, from the golden hoop earrings to the eye-patches to the parrot on the shoulder all point to a scenario which has been wholly imagined.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

We see some juxtaposition in the illustrations — Tough Boris wears traditional pirate garb (as do all of the pirates) but if you look closely at the pattern on his red coat, you’ll see it is embroidered in flowers, which would look perfectly at home on the apron of a kindly grandmother. Although he has the typically haggard face of a fairytale pirate, he gazes lovingly into his parrot’s eyes. He is more interested in the parrot than in the treasure map held before him. His smile is part grimace, but a smile nonetheless.

Boris seems less tough than he might otherwise in juxtaposition with the other pirates, who we never see smiling. It seems it wasn’t actually Boris who stole the violin, but the pirate with the eye patch and the blue and white stripes. Boris has been canoodling with his parrot all the while. It’s not Boris who holds the pirate flag. Boris stands around, or out of the action, much like the boy. We see Boris in pyjamas (a slightly vulnerable state of dress) but the other pirates are always ‘in costume’.

The boy’s integration into the world of the pirates is symbolised by the red kerchief, which he first wears around his neck, then ties around his head, pirate-style.

The young reader is encouraged to identify with the child character, not just because the character is a child, but because of the point of view of some of the illustrations. We see ‘over-the-shoulder’ shots (or versions thereof) first on the aforementioned colophon page, with the boy sitting on the hanging rock, looking out to sea, and again on the ‘He was greedy’ page, in which the boy is high up at the top of a mast, looking down onto the deck as we do.

On the following page, the haggard, evil, Tough Boris seems somehow vulnerable, clutching such a delicate object as a violin, not knowing what it is for but nevertheless treasuring it.

“All pirates are greedy,” we read on the following page, as we see the boy take the violin. The boy, too, is ‘greedy’ (insofar as one can be greedy, taking back one’s own property). The boy is now a pirate. We have seen him two pages back untying his red kerchief from around his neck, and next time we see him (peeking out from the stairs leading below deck) he has fastened it around his head.

The parrot joins the boy below deck, as a bridge between the world of the pirates and the lonely life of the boy.

The loop of noose-like rope hanging from the ceiling below deck seems portentous after we know the fate of the green parrot. The parrot sort of saves the boy from the swipe of Boris’s sword by coming between them.

We don’t know how much time passes before the parrot dies. When we learn the parrot has died, we are shown a long shot of the ship, when all of the proceeding scenes have been medium shots and medium close-ups of life onboard. Death is bigger than anything we know or can depict — the long shot is therefore a good choice. Not only that — the metaphor of ‘out to sea’ springs to mind, as a description of the state of mind of the recently bereft.

It is the boy who approaches the pirate in his grief, and supposedly offers the violin case as a coffin. The pirate and the boy are shown with matching body language — heads down, slumped. The boy is halfway through the door — he is halfway to becoming a pirate, with Tough Boris as a father figure.

Of course, he doesn’t quite make it. He is abandoned onshore. Notice the large ship with the dinghy being towed behind it — a father/son metaphor.

Tough Boris final scene

 

The message of this picturebook comes through loud and clear: Fathers cry, not just sons. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness and grief are good reasons to cry.

STORY SPECS

Published by Puffin in 1994.

Mem Fox is one of Australia’s best known children’s book authors and literacy experts, perhaps most famous for Possum Magic, published in 1978 and which has since become an Australian childhood classic. By the time she wrote Tough Boris she had already published about 20 picture books.

Illustrator Kathryn Brown is American, making this an Australian/American collaboration. Brown has illustrated a number of picture books as well as written her own.

COMPARE TOUGH BORIS WITH

Here is a list of kidlit about pirates from CLCD, including books for older readers, not just picturebooks.

Pirate Jenny by Nina Simone. 

The lyrics are about a scrubber woman from the south who dreams of ruling the world by becoming a pirate and killing the people who keep her in her place. Her imagination helps her get through the day, where she is told to get on with her scrubbing.

FURTHER LINKS RELATED TO PIRATES

Pirates wore eye patches to keep one eye accustomed to the darkness below deck.

Pirates didn’t actually talk like that.

Photos of a pretty cool pirate themed bedroom.

When Pirates Ruled America, a podcast

My take on the film Pirates: Band of Misfits! in which gender roles are reinforced rather than challenged.

 

 

Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins

Rosie's Walk Picture Puffin

Rosie’s Walk is, on a pedagogical level, designed to teach young readers  dimensional prepositions, but this is very much subordinated to the interesting story.

See an animated version of Rosie’s Walk from 1970.

Or if you prefer, an actual chicken walking through an actual obstacle course. Because chickens can be trained, apparently.

 

WONDERFULNESS

There are two distinct stories in this picturebook:

1. Rosie the hen walks from her coop, across the yard, around the pond, over the haycock, past the mill, through the fence, under the beehives and back to her coop.

2. A very hungry fox plots to murder Rosie the hen but is foiled time after time by getting himself into pickles.

Because this technique has been reproduced a number of times since, it’s easy to forget that Rosie’s Walk started the whole thing off: A pedestrian story (text) is completely offset by illustrations which tell a different story altogether — a story of peril, in which the protagonist is lucky to get out alive. This picturebook was so influential that it is written about a lot in academic texts on children’s literature, much like Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are.

Fox and Flour

For example, here are some passages from Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens:

An Example Of Irony In Picturebooks

The distance between pictures and words can function as comedy or irony, and this can even be at the expense of the narrator, as seems to be the case with Rosie’s Walk.

The Layout Of Pages Leads Us Expertly Through The Story

A picture is a frozen moment in time, not subject to the demands of forward motion which control the verbal text. This is obvious from the opening spread of Rosie’s Walk. We can enter the picture at any point, and if we happen to be a young child not yet trained to interpret books from left to right, we might well start anywhere; but in fact the text carefully orients the viewer’s gaze by drawing attention to Rosie and to the information that she is going for a walk. Rosie is situated slightly off-centre, but her narrative centrality is reinforced because the objects at the edges of the picture (buildings, cart, fox) are incomplete; the picture co-operates with the text in that Rosie is depicted in a stance which conventionally denotes ‘walking’, i.e. one foot flat on the ground (heel and toe), one up-lifted. The picture is a very flat profile; while there are minimal attempts at perspective in the drawing of the buildings, the milk cans and the cart are ‘flat’, with no attempt to suggest three-dimensionality. The scene is also presented at the same ‘height’ as the viewer, who is positioned full frontal to it. This encourages the viewer to seek the linearity implied by ‘a walk’ — where is Rosie going? Where has she come from? The important addition in the illustration, which will prove to function in counterpoint with the text, is the presence of the fox. Throughout the book the fox makes a series of bumbled attempts to catch the hen, but these are registered neither by the hen nor the narrating text. Thus on the next double page the fox pounces; the text merely states that Rosie walked across the yard, but the picture shows both the pouncing and the setting up of the old slap-stick gag about treading on the head of a rake, and on the next page again, which is wordless, we see the fox discomfited. The audience’s encounter with the book is thus again very complex. First, the book introduces its audience to an important principle of intelligent picture books, a capacity to construct and exploit a contradiction between text and picture so that the two complement one another and together produce a story and a significance that depend on their differences from each other. Further, because individual pictures do not have grammar, syntax or linear flow, but freeze specific moments in time, rarely presenting more than one event within a single frame, this relationship between text and picture is one between differently constructed discourses giving different kinds of information, if not different messages. Hence the audience will experience a complicated process of decoding, so that a text which by itself is a series of inconsequential events structured as a language lesson, and as such might be expected to strive for clarity and precise, single meaning, becomes only a surface beneath which other kinds of meaning can be perceived, and meaningfulness itself becomes problematic. At the same time, the audience is being offered three different ways of relating to the book: he may be a superior subject, a cooperative subject, or a subjected subject, depending on the answer to the following questions. Is the narrating voice as oblivious as Rosie to the fox’s presence? Is the narrator in collusion with the audience, sharing a joke about the story? Or is the narrator teasing the audience?

Rosie’s Walk Teaches Humour

What, finally, does Rosie’s Walk tell us about the world? One of its functions is to teach/reinforce a social concept of humour. Treading on rakes, being covered in flour, being caught in runaway vehicles, or being chased by bees are not intrinsically funny events. It is a learned social convention that such events can be regarded as funny, and we learn the situations in which this applies. The ironical counterpoint of text and pictures constitutes these events as comic, even if the audience has not yet learned to recognise them as such. More specifically, comic villains may readily suffer such mishaps. It renders them less threatening, but also, especially when such accidents occur within a narrative sequence and are linked in a cause-and-effect relationship to attempted acts of villainy, as in Rosie’s Walk, it implies that evil brings about its own undoing.This is a tenet that has become deeply ingrained in children’s literature, especially in fantasy, and must be seen as an element motivating the recent genre of pessimistic realism. It is already being learned from Rosie’s Walk. Rosie simply passes through her world in quiet self-absorption and unknowingly avoids its major threat. Her escape may seem merely a matter of chance, and she herself may seen incredibly stupid, which offers one way of reading her obliviousness to danger. But nevertheless her implicit passivity may also represent a chosen quietude, and hence an ideological construct crucial for how we think about society and for how we envisage engagement with it or separation from it. Either way, it is an ideological issue that cannot simply be ignored.

Repeated Patterns Offer Comfort To Offset The Danger

The atmosphere of Rosie’s Walk is clearly not dangerous, despite the threatened violence of the situation, at least partially because so many of the objects it depicts consist of repeated patterns: a pear tree is a round green circle filled with carefully arranged rows of similar pears, and even the fox’s fur consists of the same shapes repeated to form patterns. These images are ritualized, repetitive, and therefore unsurprising, like wallpaper. No true danger could take place in such a comfortably decorative world.

In contrast we have fairy tales which could be genuinely scary to a child if interpreted as existing in the real world, rather than some non-existent other-world. Stories which borrow from fairy tales therefore tend to be more scary than the likes of Rosie’s Walk which, like Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddleduck, are about animals who would naturally get eaten, but manage to be completely benign as a story. Sandy Whiskered Gentleman definition wants to eat Jemima Puddleduck but she is mercifully ignorant of this fact, as Rosie is of the fox.

Sandy Whiskered Gentleman

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

The Illustrations Teach/Reinforce Vocabulary

[Rosie’s Walk] is a very minimal narrative, and at text level is hardly more than the lesson in the use of six dimensional prepositions (‘across’, ‘around’, ‘over’, ‘past’, ‘through’ and ‘under’), which the pictures do indeed illustrate. But because of the way the pictures relate to that simple text, the book becomes a fascinating, exciting and amusing experience. The pictures make it a fuller narrative by laying out a scene around the words, making them both more specific and creating meaningful contexts for them, but they also encourage a more complex response to the text. Pictures can reveal things that the words do not, and their interesting details are clues to a more interesting story than the one the words tell.

 

– John Stephens

Use of Folk Art

So-called realistic art inevitably implies an attitude of scientific objectivity. We assume that folk art is pleasant and harmless and so respond to the theoretical danger of Rosie’s Walk as pleasant and harmless.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Related to this art style is the flat perspective, in contrast with a few picture books (such as those by Chris Van Allsburg) which utilise the full range of available perspectives.

Perspective In Rosie’s Walk

Like the vast majority of picture books, Rosie’s Walk places more emphasis on action than on atmosphere. The lack of detailed perspective suggests that Hutchins’s pictures are meant to be quickly scanned for their narrative information, not inspected for the implications of their settings.

Take note of the line within the pictures — this technique was used a lot in the 1970s, and give the story a distinctly retro feel: This is not just hatching to define form — the lines within the shapes are decorative.

Rosie The Hen Went For A Walk

 

Notice how each tile of the roof is clearly defined and individually drawn. Cylindrical form is given to the milk pails by horizontal, well-defined lines. Rosie’s feathers are ornamental. To off-set all of this ornamentation, it was a good choice to make use of white space for the ground and sky — a popular choice in similar styles of work. (See Mercer Mayer’s early work. Later he seems to have either grown tired of the ornamental style or discarded it when switching to digital, as his ornamental line turns into air-brushed fills which have more obviously been digitally rendered.) Perry Nodelman points out the paradox that both intensely patterned and intensely disrupted visual surfaces convey relatively less narrative information, and that a book such as Rosie’s Walk verges on the merely decorative.

 

Rosie's Walk Barn Behind Rosie

Distinctive Colour Palette

Rosie's Walk Color Palette
Rosie’s Walk Color Palette

If a picture in which one color predominates strongly suggests a particular mood, then so does a picture that leaves out one particular color. The pictures in Rosie’s Walk seem so peaceful and unthreatening not just because of their style but also because they contain yellow and red and even green, but no blue at all.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Pairing Of Pictures To Create Mood and Movement

Much of the fun of Rosie’s Walk is the fact that the pictures come in pairs. In each pair, the first picture shows the fox about to get himself into physical difficulty, and the second shows the result of the movement  forward implied by the first. First, the fox in midair, about to land on a rake; second, the rake hitting the fox in the face. First, the fox about to leap on Rosie; second, the fox in the pond he has not noticed. In choosing these two particular sorts of moments, Hutchins implies an entire sequence of actions; she has selected those moments that best suggest movement forward or the consequences of previous actions. In focusing on the unexpected results of the fox’s action, furthermore, these pairs of pictures constantly reveal how the fox is as unconscious of his surroundings as is Rosie herself: she may have no eyes for foxes, but foxes appear to have no eyes for rakes and ponds. These pairs of pictures create mood as well as meaning. Their repetitive rhythm gives the story the detached feeling of a series of jokes rather than the evolving intensity of a plot; we can laugh as our familiarity with the pattern develops because we know the story is going to keep going through variations of the same situation rather than moving forward toward a climax.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

COMPARE WITH

Mr Magoo is a somewhat outdated children’s show, this time about a functionally blind man who walks around his urban environment narrowly avoiding one scrape after another.

Another cartoon from around the same era is Roadrunner — again about a bird and a dog-like creature — Wily Coyote — who runs into one scrape after another in pursuit of roadrunner bird for dinner. In this case, the Roadrunner is fully aware of Wily Coyote’s disasters, and seems to take great delight in them.

An Australian picture book by one of Australia’s most popular author/illustrator pairs is A Particular Cow, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Terry Denton. Like Rosie’s Walk, this story is made up of (mostly) one long sentence which stretches over multiple pages. The cow is oblivious to the chaos she causes after accidentally walking under a clothesline and ending up with a pair of bloomers on her head. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a dominant use of yellow.

A Particular Cow Cover

A Particular Cow Double Spread

Another picture book with dominant use of yellow is The Story About Ping. Instead of the significant red, we have blue:

Whether or not we associate the absent blue [of Rosie’s Walk] with sadness, these pictures do establish a definite mood, a mood different from the much calmer and more serene mood of Kurt Wiese’s pictures for The Story About Ping, which emphasize blues and yellows and downplay red.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

The Story About Ping Cover

 

The Story About Ping fisherman

The Story About Ping duck tail

Ellen Raskin’s book Nothing Ever Happens On My Block is another story in which the main character is surrounded by plenty of things going on, but fails to notice

Nothing Ever Happens On My Block

Stop Thief

Another story which teaches prepositions but which also has a strong story is by Jan and Stan Berenstain: Bears In The Night.

Bears In The Night Cover

 

I’m Mouse is another picture book consisting of a single sentence for a very young audience.

STORY SPECS

Rosie’s Walk, written and illustrated by Pat Hutchins. Published by The Bodley Head, 1968

A single thirty-two word sentence sewn together with seven prepositions. Or, in more academic terminology:

The text is…a single sentence…consisting of two correlative clauses which function formally as the beginning and end of a narrative sequence, as marked by the semantic relationship of the two verbs which frame it, ‘went’ and ‘got back’. The middle of the narrative is made up of a series of prepositional phrases adjuncted to the first clause.

– Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, John Stephens

 

WRITE YOUR OWN

Take a classic public domain poem or nursery rhyme and imagine how the narrative might be completely different if you were to change the:

  • characters
  • time of day
  • place
  • mood
  • colours

Can you turn a workaday tale into a scary one, or vice versa? For example, Mary Had A Little Lamb might not be a lamb at all, but a gigantic fluffy monster. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star would be quite different if a child astronaut were looking at earth from a futuristic space craft. Humpty Dumpty would take on a different mood altogether if ‘Humpty Dumpty’ were a child pushed off a wall by bully classmates.

SEE ALSO

Rosie’s Walk: Picture book perfection from We Read It Like This

Where Is The Green Sheep?

Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek cover

At first glance Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox is so simple that it’s difficult to explain its popularity. Here in Australia, I know many preschoolers who count this as among their favourite books. It has certainly been a favourite around here, and my daughter has memorised it.

The answer is short: Simplicity wins the day. Margaret Wise was another author who mastered simplicity of plot to great effect.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?

PARATEXT

The reader is introduced to a number of different kinds of sheep (making use of various simple adjectives), but at various points asked, ‘But where is the green sheep?’ The green sheep appears on the final page, of course. The sheep looks green because it is fast asleep under a green bush.

WONDERFULNESS OF WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?

First, there is the simplicity of language. Some (more complex) picturebooks introduce young readers to new situations and, as a consequence, to new words. This book is a real ‘comfort’ read. There will be very few words a 3 year old doesn’t already know. I’m guessing this is the reason my own daughter managed to memorise it, and it makes an excellent early reader, too, as emergent readers will be able to memorise the sentences and then connect them to the text.

Sometimes when reading a picturebook I think, ‘Gosh, who would have thought of that, and isn’t it clever?’ This book has that effect on me. Mem Fox’s brilliance as a writer for children comes from her ability to see the world in a slightly off-beat way. Of course a sheep sleeping under a bush looks green, but who else would have thought of it? This is exactly the way a child thinks, before learning that no, the sheep is still sheep-colour — the bush is distinct but green.

That said, for all we know the inspiration to make the sheep green due to the bush came from the illustrator. But since I have to guess I’d say the author and illustrator worked quite closely on it. The nice thing about the final page is that there is nothing in the text which mentions the bush. Any mention of a bush would be redundant, since there’s a picture of one.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

This was the first book illustrated by Judy Horacek, who has since gone on to illustrate more, including Good Night, Sleep Tight and The Story of Growl.

Horacek’s illustrations are full of bright colours, and the shapes are outlined in black lines. Notice that board books also tend to make use of this illustration style — I think I heard that young eyes are better able to focus on pictures with clear delineations in form, and this book has me wondering if children prefer this style of illustration even after their eyes have become accustomed to subtle gradations of colour. Or is it that older children have learnt that illustrations done in this style have been created just for them?

Children respond very well to humorous faces on animals, especially. The faces of the sheep are two dots for eyes and a curve for a mouth. The open mouths sometimes offer more in the way of expression on these sheep. (Many anthropomorphised animals in picturebooks are drawn with eyebrows even though animals don’t have eyebrows simply because it’s difficult to convey the full range of human-like emotion without them.) Here, the personalities of the sheep are conveyed mainly via their body language. A red sheep does a ‘handstand’ on top of a hill, using only one leg. (See picture above.) The humour of this is amplified because we’ve just been shown a blue sheep standing like an everyday sheep, in a paddock. The blueness of it is ridiculous enough. In other words, the ‘ridiculousness’ of the illustrations build up gradually, with the sheep starting off more sheep-like, progressing into being more human-like, and eventually ending up in ‘tall-story‘-like situations such as standing on the moon.

Here Is The Bath Sheep – but sheep don’t have baths!
And Here Is The Bed Sheep
And Here Is The Bed Sheep – but sheep don’t sleep in human beds!

So not only do sheep have baths like people, they are also literate!

Here Is The Near Sheep
When adjectives are introduced they are exaggerated for humour

The thin sheep is a very thin, unlikely looking creature; the wide sheep is equally unlikely.

Each sheep in this book looks happy. There is a real carnival feeling running all the way through.

My daughter’s favourite page is what I will call the ‘Where’s Wally Sheep page’, just before the end, in which we are shown an entire page of sheep: playing in a sandpit, flying with angel wings, wearing a tropical fruit hat, eating a birthday cake etc.

My daughter likes to use her fingers as legs and make a play out of walking around the scene, joining in with the cake-eating scene, wishing the sheep a happy birthday. It was me who introduced this possibility to her on one reading, and now we must linger every single time. In effect, this is a ‘look’ page, similar to a page of Richard Scarry’s lookbooks, and is designed to be gazed a while before reaching the climax. Interaction occurs when the child and adult co-reader are given the opportunity to ask questions: ‘Why do you think that sheep might be crying?’ Despite the simplicity of illustration and language — and perhaps because of it — this story reaches far beyond the page, extending into the reader’s imagination.

SPECS

Published by Penguin imprint Viking, Australia 2004.