Scuffy The Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton

Scuffy The Tugboat

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? Continue reading “Scuffy The Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton”

American Honey Film Review

American Honey film poster

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 orphaned underdog, 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.

American Honey matriarch

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.

American Honey love story

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, but with a troubling message about how everyone hates each other, and there’s no clear resolution, either.

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 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.

Piper by Emma Chichester Clark

Piper Emma Chichester Clark

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at a picture book called Piper by Emma Chichester Clark. Piper is a bit of a maudlin tale, and Piper the dog is similar to characters like Oliver (by Charles Dickens). He really doesn’t have great luck in life. But then he does! My daughter called this a ‘happy-sad’ story, which is her word for ‘bittersweet’. This is an entirely unironic take on the ‘unlucky character finds a new home’ tale, which I plan to contrast with a similar but ironic picture book tomorrow.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PIPER

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

This is Piper’s journey and Piper is clearly the main character. We can happily describe Piper as the hero, because he performs an heroic act and also because this is a mythic story. Main characters in mythic stories tend to be called heroes.

What is wrong with Piper?

Sometimes in children’s stories, the only thing wrong with a character is that they are vulnerable. Orphans are especially vulnerable. Piper is not exactly an orphan, but he is taken away from his mother and is therefore part of the orphan tradition of storytelling. Orphans are popular in children’s stories for a number of reasons, but mainly because it gets the protective parent out of the way. (All orphan stories owe something to Cinderella.)

Since he’s a dog, lack of ability to speak to humans is also a huge disadvantage.

WHAT DOES PIPER WANT?

Piper wants to find a new family and be happy with them.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The opponent is clearly the man who buys him, and expects him to chase/eat rabbits to protect the man’s garden. Later, even when Piper manages to run away, the man remains a constant threat, as he may at any time come to collect Piper, having paid for him.

WHAT’S PIPER’S PLAN?

Piper’s initial plan is to try and impress his new owner, but when that doesn’t work he’s at a loss. He has no substitute plan. From that point on, things happen to him.

Note that in stories, initial plans rarely work.

When things go belly-up, your main character doesn’t necessarily find a new plan right away, or at all. Alternatively, they might start with no plan because they like the status quo, but then they find one. In that case, they usually double down on that plan about halfway through the story.

Whether your main character has a plan right from the start or finds one partway through, characters do need plans. Otherwise they are not proactive, and readers don’t want to read stories about characters who just wait around. Characters with plans are also more likeable, so if you want to write a likeable main character, give them a desire and a plan early on. (Not all main characters need to be likeable, but it’s harder to write a good unlikeable one. You need to use lots of extra tricks.)

BIG BATTLE

I haven’t gone out of my way to collect mythic stories for this month’s exercise, which should give you some idea about the popularity of the ‘journey’ story.

In a plot with mythic structure, the main character will undergo a series of battles. Sure enough, Piper is hit by his new owner. Importantly, heroes on mythic journeys also meet characters who help them. These characters are often ‘mentors’. In this case, the rabbits repay Piper in kindness by bringing him lettuce, but note they can’t be of much use. That’s an important point about helper characters. They can offer emotional assistance and advice and sometimes they can provide objects which come in useful, but helpers can never solve the hero’s problems. It has to be the hero who gets him/herself out of bother, even if it’s entirely accidental. (As it is in this case!)

The Big Battle in an unironic mythic story is a near death experience. (Contrast Diary of a Wombat for an ironic take, in which Wombat is never in true danger.) The city setting provides lots of near death opportunities for dogs, who don’t know how to stay away from traffic. Therefore, Piper has a brush with death as he rescues an old lady from being hit badly by a car.

WHAT DOES PIPER LEARN?

When Piper is found injured under a bush he learns that humans can be kind as well as awful.

Kindness triumphs over evil. This is a simplistic message when you put it like this, but surprisingly popular in stories. I suppose we find it comforting. When you write out your own theme in a sentence like that, it’ll probably sound just as simple. That’s okay. It’s meant to. Just make sure you don’t say that sentence anywhere in the text. The theme has to be something readers discover for themselves.

HOW WILL PIPER’S LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Piper has found a new home with a kind old lady. Their similar injuries (both have a broken ‘arm’) symbolise how well matched they are.

But the story doesn’t end with Piper and the old lady relaxing on the couch in the old lady’s home. That would have been enough to complete a narrative, but Emma Chichester Clark has written a fairly run-of-the-mill mythic plot until this moment, and whenever you do that you’re best to add a little extra. In this case, the Villain isn’t dead. He’s been off-stage and is therefore still useful.

The final section of this story focuses on Piper’s enduring anxiety about whether the abusive owner will turn up to collect him. Eventually we learn that he won’t. This is a very happy ending for Piper, and instead of a home-away-home story, we have a very similar home-away-NEW home structure.

Some people call these ‘found family’ stories. They tend to be heartwarming.

Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

Outside Over There cover

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Today I look closely at a picture book classic by iconic American author/illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Outside Over There is a mythic journey of the imagination, with emphasis on atmosphere and emotion. It is a changeling story with the strong influence of fairy and folk tale.

Maurice Sendak’s most famous work is Where The Wild Things Are. Entire theses have been written about Where The Wild Things Are. I’ve summarised some of the key thoughts about that picture book myself, and have since noticed just how influential it was in its depiction of difficult feelings, previously taboo in stories for young readers.

Yet some children’s literature specialists believe Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work. In its publishing history, this picture book hasn’t always been marketed to children. This is one of those ‘children’s books’ which appeals to adults in a different, possibly deeper, way.

STORY WORLD OF OUTSIDE OVER THERE

Continue reading “Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak”