Road trip stories are basically mythic journeys but a group of friends or family are travelling together instead of alone. As well as meeting a succession of opponents along the way they argue among themselves. The Minotaur opponent who comes in from outside either binds them together or (in a tragedy) drives them apart.
See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng: 11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like.
MAZE-SHAPED ROAD TRIPS VS KNOT-SHAPED ROAD TRIPS
The labyrinth is the graphic symbol upon which all mythic journeys, and therefore all road journeys, are based.
Related symbolically to the labyrinth is the knot. Both labyrinths and knots symbolise journeys. The difference is that labyrinths comprise two mirror-image journeys — the journey into the darkest parts of the soul (death) and the journey back out (rebirth). But in knotwork design there is no beginning and no end. (The branch of mathematics known as knot theory also studies knots with no beginnings and endings. The simplest mathematical knot is a ring.)
A story like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey resembles a knot more than a labyrinth because the ending suggests our main character will be on the road forever.
STORIES WHICH END ON THE BEGINNING OF A ROAD TRIP
These tend to be coming-of-age stories, in which the main character has matured, but just enough to allow them to set off into the world alone. The majority of the maturation process is yet to happen.
Fish Tank is another Andrea Arnold movie and ends with the main character leaving in a car with a new boyfriend.
Six Feet Under ends with Claire Fisher driving to New York to try and make her way in the arts. In this story, as in Fish Tank, we worry for her, because her concrete New York plans have fallen through, leaving her in a vulnerable position, but drawn into the spiritual journey to the point where adventure no longer feels like a choice but a compulsion.
The Little Golden Books series was launched in 1942, just as the second world war ended. Children needed to hunker down with cosy stories (along with their parents). Scuff The Tugboat was one of the earlier publications of this highly successful franchise, first printed in 1946, and the epitome of ‘cosy’. Now you can buy an edition with a big 75th Birthday Celebrations on the front.
What makes this book a classic? Is there anything special about it, to be replicated by modern picture book writers?
But apart from the ‘pull along’ drag of it, in which there’s no going back, the river in this story could easily be a road and the main character could easily be walking down a path. Scuffy The Tugboat is your classic mythic structure: A character leaves home in search of something, meets various trials and tribulations along the way and either returns home or finds a new home, having learned something new about himself.
But this is the little kid version of a mythic journey — all suggestion, nothing followed through or explored in depth. A cosy myth, in other words. The illustrations by Tibor Gergely are also cosy in their palette and subject matter. (I like the concept of hygge to describe ‘cosy’ in picture books.)
This is a case of a character mistaking their malaise (desire) in their self-diagnosis. Scuffy thinks he wants to go out into the wide world, but he’ll learn that’s not what he wants at all. That’s what he wants on the surface, but deep down he wants a family.
I was meant for bigger things.
The journey will teach him what those bigger things are.
It eventually becomes clear to Scuffy that he is too small to survive in such a big world. Along the way he meets various cosy opponents:
The cow who almost drinks him by accident
The owl which hoots and gives him a bit of a scare
The men inadvertently blocking his way because they’re trying to pry free some floating logs. They won’t listen to the little tugboat.
Scuffy’s plan is to float down the river. He is self-important and speaks as if he owns the river. But eventually, when he realises the river is pulling him along and that he is stuck on this journey, he realises the plan belongs to the river, not to him.
The river moved faster and faster.
“I feel like a train instead of a tugboat,” said Scuffy, as he was hurried along.
The man with the polka dot tie has known all along that Scuffy would want to be saved right before the perilous journey into the sea, so in a scene that’s basically deus ex machina, the man with the polka dot tie plucks Scuffy out of the water and saves him.
Now that Scuffy has been on his big journey and learned how small he is compared to the world, he is happy to float in the bathtub at home.
WHERE DOES SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT FIT IN THE HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Scuffy The Tugboat presents to young children a world which is big and scary. It ultimately says: The world is big and scary — way more scary than you know. You may have dreams, but the best place for you is at home, safe with your family.
I suspect this is how many people were feeling in the aftermath of the second war. Older adults had lived through two major crises. Most of the book buying public had suffered great loss.
I suggest that is why there’s nothing subversive or daring about this book. Scuffy the character does something bold, but child readers are not expected to emulate his attitude, which is presented to the reader as arrogance rather than confidence. By the end of the story Scuffy’s arrogance has been ‘fixed’. He knows his place.
Scuffy the Tugboat feels quite different from anything published today, in which children are respected to the point where they are told they can save the world — if not today, then one day. In contemporary children’s books, when children return to the safety of home, they are more likely to have earned independence, and the reader extrapolates that this journey out into the world was the first of many more.
Ironically, modern children have far smaller worlds than the baby boomers who were reading Scuffy the Tugboat. For many of today’s children, the most freedom they ever get ‘out in the world’ is the world they see through books and other media. Perhaps there’s no irony here at all. Perhaps we can expect, in any era, children’s books to afford exactly the freedoms denied to the young readers who enjoy them.
American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, is the granddaughter of Thelma and Louise — a road journey with classic mythic structure which follows the coming-of-age (or not) of an 18-year-old named Star. Star comes from a tough background — the classic orphanedunderdog, with a mother who has overdosed, and an auntie(?) who requires Star to look after her young kids rather than looking after Star, who definitely needs protection, from the abusive guy she’s got hanging around.
Star has an allegorical name — an ironic name, because this kid will never be a starlet. Refreshingly, she doesn’t even want that. Star explains to Jake that her mother chose it because we’re all made of ‘Death Stars’. Now it’s not ironic. This is an example of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — Star has already had this character arc. She’s lost her mother to meth. She’s faced death before. By this point in her 18-year-old life she’s learning to live with the fact that we’re all headed for the grave. This explains her hedonism. When Star explains her name to Jake, this is more of a revelation to the audience than to Star herself. Star has not fully come to terms with death — that takes some decades. She mulls it over on several occasions — when she realises the trucker she hitched with has been carrying a load of cattle, and when she accidentally steps in blood (or what looks like blood) in a ditch.
It’s inevitable that a disenfranchised kid like Star will fall into bad company, because most any company is better than what she’s starting out with. Bad company rolls into town as a band of magazine hawking troubadours in the guise of magazine salespeople, with a subculture reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. They’re headed to Kansas — synonymous to most outside Kansas with The Wizard of Oz — another mythical journey starring a girl. Arnold encourages the connection with a cut to a pair of sparkly red shoes which belong to Star’s little cousin. But this is no dreamland. This crew are outlaws with their own set of rules. They punish each other physically for coming last in their sales ranking system. This is headed by a matriarch rather than a patriarch, and reminds me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. The matriarch as villain is an interesting device in a feminist film, and at this cultural moment almost a necessary one, to avoid the hackneyed old ideas of women as one hundred percent victims of the patriarchy, or the dreaded Female Maturity Formula, in which girls have already been through their character arcs, existing only as models for boys to have theirs. We need more female villains. Krystal is wonderfully complex. We get just enough to wonder about her backstory.
Other reviewers have doubted the entire premise of this road trip — who buys magazines anymore? Andrea Arnold lampshades this by having Star ask it up front. What’s never clear is if there are any magazines. If there were, they wouldn’t make money. My interpretation is that there are no magazines. People are paying for a scam. The magazines exist only to justify the begging. Why else do they need to travel so far to get away from each town?
Freshly free of childcare responsibilities, Star’s road trip kicks off. Road trips are hard to write well. They tend to feel splintered — one damn encounter after another. The road trip is by nature a linear plot shape — a masculine plot shape. But when road trips star girls and women, they tend to look a little different. Star’s trip is circular, as they move through areas completely foreign (wealthy and built-up) back to a poor area which reminds Star of her own home. Female journeys are more likely than male journeys to be circular in this way.
We now get to see the childlike side of Star, who isn’t ready for the world of work. She plays the fool, gets high, and doesn’t know a violent man when she sees one. If Jake promises her ‘a present’, she’s putty in his hands. She’s come from nothing, so a present equals love. This movie is basically a love story — or can we call it that? It’s not a love tragedy, either. Like Arnold’s Fish Tank, this is the arc of an emotionally neglected teenage girl falling in with a bad older man, then finally making her escape, or not.
Arnold makes sure we empathise with Star by giving her numerous Save The Cat moments — twice she rescues an insect. Eventually she uses her sex work cash to buy groceries for neglected kids. Star has a strong moral code, in opposition to Jake’s. She has no time for lying and bullshit. Her reaction alone tells us a lot about her backstory — she’s had nothing but lies and bullshit her entire life. She’s also empathetic because she doesn’t want for much, and we see that as an endearing thing. She meets a trucker and tells him she wants lots of kids and her very own trailer. It never crosses Star’s mind that she could maybe have an actual house. The truck driver himself comes across as extremely empathetic — unlike the truck driver in Thelma and Louise, he’s not turned into the villain — he’s big into boats but despite driving miles for his job, he admits he’s never been to the ocean. He’s not young. We know he maybe never will. This could be Star in three decades’ time — it’s quite possible Star will live her life dreaming. And is dreaming enough? That’s where the symbolism of the magazines come in. If anyone wonders why people would still buy them, the trucker gives us the answer — the magazines are dreams — dreams that even poor people can hold in their hands. The trucker buys two subscriptions, and for him, that will have to satisfy his love for actual boats.
The film employs only a couple of professional actors — the rest are amateurs recruited from carnivals and suchlike. This feels like cinema verite. Each of them looks interesting and distinct. It feels like the actors were left to ad lib. You really feel like you’re in the bus with these young people, for better or for worse. If you’ve ever been on a bus trip, to summer camp, stayed in a hostel, flatted, or partied, you’ll get this.
There’s commentary about rich and poor in America as the bus travels from mega wealthy to poverty stricken areas, where the problems look different. When Star gets to the house of neglected children we’re given closeups of photos pasted without frames to the wall, a near empty fridge, Mountain Dew. This is how we’re shown, tis could be Star’s own house. She’s missing her little cousins and now she’s back in Texas, where she grew up with her meth-addicted mother, she’s come full circle. This is the beginning of her epiphany, though we never get to see what that epiphany is. Maybe she realises this is her entire lot in life, which is why she buys food for these strangers with her sex work money. Or maybe she realises she can use situations like these as a negative example, and start planning to get out of it. The overall message is egalitarian — echoed in the film credits, which list only names, with no distinction between actors and film crew. Krystal explains that poor people will buy magazines because they feel sorry for you, but rich people will buy them because they feel guilty for being rich. Krystal’s take on life may or may not be accurate, but this is how Arnold encourages to view the rich and poor as basically the same, only with different angles on the same societal problem of late stage capitalism.
There’s commentary about homophobia — it’s subtle, but one of the gay characters doubts he can go door to door in redneck country. Subtext reading: he’s not safe here. There’s little commentary on race — this is not Andrea Arnold’s story to write. Our main girl is a woman of colour, but this is a story about white America. It’s clear these white kids identify with Black culture — they have a love for rap and call each other the n-word. It’s left up to us to decide why these kids align themselves with a culture that’s not entirely their own.
The ending is left open for the viewer to extrapolate. Jake gives Star the turtle and she sets the turtle free. Then she joins the turtle in the water. One interpretation: Star is now free like the turtle, having experienced a revelation. Meanwhile, the others dance over a fire to Raury’s tribalistic anthem ‘God’s Whisper’. If that’s not religious imagery of rebirth, I don’t know what is. Then again, Star has given away Jake’s (stolen ring) present before — is this the part where Star finally sees this violent, coercively controlling man for what he is? Maybe. But if she doesn’t see it now, she never will. Take a close look at the lyrics to God’s Whisper, though — you may need to look them up because the song feels morphed and warped in the film — and it’s clear Star has realised who Jake really is:
I won’t compromise I won’t live a life On my knees You think I am nothing I am nothing You’ve got something coming Something coming because I hear God’s whisper Calling my name It’s in the wind I am the savior (Sing it again!) Savior Savior (I can’t hear you! What?) Savior (What?) Savior
The outro music is “I Hate Hate” by Razzy Bailey — an ironically breezy tune with children backing up in the chorus.
That’s why I’m singing now I hate hate, everybody sing it with me I hate hate, let’s all get together now I hate hate, the good Lord above Don’t you know I love love Oh, you got to have love
“I Hate Hate” can be interpreted in two ways. The singer either despises ‘hatred’, or they really, really hate something (with the double ‘hate’ serving to emphasise). I interpret this choice of song as Star’s acknowledging to herself that she hates this man, but this experience isn’t going to stop her from living life to the full. It’s okay to acknowledge the bad stuff, and that’s how we move on. Mind you, the irony could have a darker side. She could acknowledge this guy’s terrible and yet choose to stay with him.
For us, Star’s journey ends here. Does she use this newfound hatred to escape? For all we know, this young woman could keep traveling these American highways forever, trapped in a hot bus with a bad man and a stifling, drug-addled rag-tag crew who don’t seem to see abuse when it’s right in front of them. This is the water they swim in, and this is how abuse works. Streetwise matriarch Krystal does see it, but she’s toxic and ignores it. She may even revel in watching it play out, accepting the abuser back when she promised his victim he was gone.
Why do girls fall for these guys? Many outsiders have wondered that about women who stay with bad men. Star’s journey in American Honey affords us a view of destructive attraction from the inside, because Shia Labeouf makes an excellent job of him. He’s been well-written, too. We should now be left with a little insight for how these relationships happen, and empathy for the girls involved.
Although American Honey is comparable to Thelma and Louise, I make the comparison mainly because there are so few road trips starring women. Arnold avoids the problematic, overdone trope which concludes Thelma and Louise — that in order to achieve perfect freedom, a female character must pay the ultimate sacrifice: her life. (In stories about men, it’s more often the male best friend who pays with his life.) I am left hoping for the very best for Star. I think she might be okay now that she’s a little more worldly. More importantly, the real-life audience might be a bit more okay, too. Watch this with your young adult daughters and discuss with your sons.
From the title you might mistake this for one of those simple picture books for literal actual babies, where the baby in the book says ‘Bye bye!’ to various people from the pram, or to animals at the zoo etc. That’s not what this is. Bye Bye Baby is a slightly weird story more in the vein of Boss Baby by Marla Frazee, in that you’ve got a baby who is a grown person in a baby bod. The narrative voice is knowing, telling us that this baby has no one to care for him, which was ‘very sad’. Fairytales start like this. We get a pathetic figure and we empathise with them due to their great misfortune.
The ironic tone is set from the ‘log line’: A sad tale with a happy ending. When we are told the story is sad, we know it’s not taking itself seriously. The log line also ruins the ending, but then, the ending wasn’t really ruined because the fairytale nature of this story tells us from the get-go that this tale will end happily.
The title ‘Bye Bye Baby’ must be a riff on ‘By and by he met a…’, which takes its structure from folk tales such as Chicken Licken, and utilised most famously by Frank L. Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
Baby. Another orphan. There is a loooooong tradition of orphans in American children’s literature in particular.
There was once a baby who had no mummy. This baby lived in a house all by himself. He fed himself and bathed himself. He even changed his own nappy.
It was very sad.
Again we are told, “It was very sad.” This is a great example of telling not showing, to comic effect.
What’s wrong with Baby?
If you’re told what the character ‘needs’ that’s a clear sign it goes here.
Then, one night, when the baby was putting himself to bed, he thought, “I am too young to be doing this. I need a mummy!”
The baby is presented to us as very unfortunate, but we don’t really feel it. If you’re writing a story and you want the readers to feel sad about missing parents, you have to show the parents in action before getting rid of them. But when children are already orphaned at the beginning of a story, we may feel a bit sorry for them, but we don’t feel great sadness. We’re not supposed to feel great sadness until later in the story.
Baby is actually pretty amazing. There’s something gleefully carnivalesque about seeing a baby do things for himself. The humour is ‘dog wears a hat’ brand of joke — babies in real life do not turn off their own alarm clocks and whatnot, so young readers will get a lot of pleasure out of that. I’m sure it’s empowering.
He’s still a baby, but.
The baby could not walk far without resting. He could not walk fast without falling over. But he kept going all the same.
WHAT DOES BABY WANT?
Baby wants to find his mummy, but actually any decent adults in want of a child will do. (There’s no mention of the father.)
This is very fairytale. In stories like Thumbelina and Melon Princess (from Japan), old people who long for children end up with children somehow or other. This story is told from the point of view of the child rather than starting with the old, childless person.
The characters Baby meets along the way are not baddies or monsters or villains, but they are in opposition to Baby because none of them are able to be his mummy.
Note that along his journey, Baby also meets a helper. The Old Uncle who will help him find his mummy.
WHAT’S BABY’S PLAN?
Baby asks everyone he meets on his journey if they are his mother, or if they wouldn’t mind functioning as such.
The baby trips over and bumps his nose. Teddy does the same. They fall on the old hen.
Eventually he yells “I want my mummy!”
This is the Big Battle scene.
He says it again (in massive font) in a full-bleed double spread.
The tantrum is the Big Battle. Another picture book which makes use of a tantrum as a Big Battle is Z is for Moose.
WHAT DOES BABY LEARN?
It’s the narrative voice which appeals to me about this story, which is an otherwise run-of-the-mill journey into the big, wide world, written with classic mythic structure. The baby goes in search of parents. ‘By coincidence’ he runs into a woman who doesn’t have a baby, though she’s pushing an empty pram. ‘By coincidence’, baby meets a man who agrees readily to be his father.
The baby learns that even when your life is very sad, there can be a happy ending. This point is underscored with the story-within-a-story (a mise en abyme technique) in which the mummy reads Baby a sad story with a happy ending.
HOW WILL BABY’S LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
We can extrapolate that Baby will be happy from now on, living with the random woman he met on the street and the man who decided would step up as his father.
Just don’t start getting all weird about it and ask how the mother feels about some rando baby choosing her co-parent for her. Or why she was pushing an empty pram in the first place.
No, don’t do that. Let us accept this brand of weirdness, and the strong cultural prioritising of heterosexual coupledom. (This is a picture book from 1989.)
Babies going off on adventures or doing things that only older humans can do is inherently funny. Talking animals are also funny, though we’ve seen so many more of them they’re basically run of the mill now.
Rose Cecil O’Neill, inventor of the Kewpies was America’s most famous commercial illustrator for part of last century. She used the same humour.
Below is another illustration by Rose O’Neill, the highest paid female illustrator of her era.
More recently Marla Frazee created Boss Baby, which is also funny for its hat on the dog, babies as adults kind of way.