Sidewalk Flowers by Lawson and Smith

Footpath Flowers

Sidewalk Flowers (2015), or what I might call Footpath Flowers, is a wordless Canadian picture book by poet JonArno Lawson and beautifully illustrated in ink and wash by Sydney Smith.

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The Fog by Maclear and Pak

The Fog picture book cover

The Fog is a picture book by written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Kenard Pak. This is an example of a story for children that starts out in comical fashion, but you soon realise there’s a horrifying environmental message. The metaphor of fog serves double duty as a symbol of climate change and as a psychological state. Where to from here? The ending offers part of the answer.

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Road Trip Stories

road trip

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.

Sometimes the ‘road’ is actually a river. In stories, a river can function symbolically as a road. In an American or Australian road trip story especially, hotels and motels may play a significant role within the setting.

SUB CATEGORIES OF ROAD TRIP STORIES

Inspired by the following, let’s subcategorise the trips into types:

I mark the signature of classic and contemporary Westerns, sundry types of road film (doomed/outlaw/lovers subgenre in particular), and the seventies “buddy” movie. 

The Many Faces of Thelma and Louise
DOOMED ROAD TRIPS

In some of these stories the characters escape doom. In other stories they lose their lives. We don’t know the outcome until the end.

  • Duel: Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, commonly thought of as Jaws but set on land.
  • Breakdown: An action thriller from the 1990s, obviously inspired by Duel.
  • Wolf Creek: An Australian horror story in which young people on a driving tour encounter a psychopathic murderer.
  • The Half-skinned Steer by Annie Proulx is a darkly comic inversion of the comic road trip.
OUTLAW ROAD TRIPS
  • The Homesman: Think of The Homesman as a Road Movie with a Western setting. The Homesman has more in common with Little Miss Sunshine (2006) than with The Great Train Robbery (1903).
  • Tallulah: Because Ellen Page’s character is a bit of a trickster, criminal type. It starts out as a lovers’ trip but the boyfriend soon deserts her, which allows for a more feminist character arc.
LOVERS’ road trips

“The Road Looks Long”, a song by Soul Scratch, combines a love story with classic mythic structure.

BUDDY road trips
FAMILY road trips
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Big Love, when the family go on a pilgrimage to historical Mormon sites.
  • Gilmore girls is another series in which the characters go on a few trips together. These parts of the story follow the Road Trip rules of story.
  • The River Wild is set on a river but might as well be a road, like many river journeys, including Deliverance, which is about a group of man friends.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Long Haul
  • The River Between Us by Richard Peck
  • Gilmore girls take a number of road trips together, such as “The Road Trip To Harvard”.
  • 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.
Children’s stories feature road trips equally. This is an illustration by Fritz Baumgarten from 1946.

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.

Header photo by Toa Heftiba

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?

STORY STRUCTURE OF SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT

From Scuffy the Tugboat (1946) Tibor Gergely (1900-1978)
From Scuffy the Tugboat (1946) Tibor Gergely (1900-1978)

The full title: Scuffy The Tugboat and His Adventures Down The River. Obviously, the river is highly symbolic.

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.)

SHORTCOMING

Scuffy was sad. Scuffy was cross.

The story opens with the shortcoming of the main character with no mucking about.

“A toy store is no place for a red-painted tug-boat,” said Scuffy, and he sniffed his blue smoke-stack again.

Scuffy’s shortcoming: He feels cooped up and under utilised in the toy store.

Talking toys in children’s literature pretty much play the same role in storytelling as talking animals.

DESIRE

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.

OPPONENT

The opposition in this story revolves around size.

Making Use of the Miniature In Storytelling

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.

PLAN

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.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle sequence begins with the pathetic fallacy of the rain coming down, which tends to make water choppy and dangerous.

Faster and faster it flowed.

The river itself, which started out as a brook, is now perilous for a tiny boat. Men come rushing to fight the flood with sandbags and whatnot. This is the big Battle scene.

ANAGNORISIS

“Oh, oh!” cried Scuffy when he saw the sea. “There is no beginning and there is no end to the sea. I wish I could find the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy!”

NEW SITUATION

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 was published at a time when children’s books were undergoing a change. Scuffy appeared near the end of the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature and helped ushered in the Second.

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 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.

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.

Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Bye Bye Baby 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. Let’s look closely at a picture book called Bye Bye Baby by husband and wife team Janet and Allan Ahlberg. I’ve chosen Bye Bye Baby to contrast with yesterday’s completely un-ironic take on the classic Cinderella/journey/home-away-home/mythic structure story utilised by Emma Chichester Clark in Piper.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BYE BYE BABY

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.

Bye Bye Baby put self to bed

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?

Bye Bye Baby road
When a character walks down a road in a scene like this, they’re probably embarking upon a mythical journey.

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.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

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.

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

Making use of pathetic fallacy, it is even raining as baby cries his eyes out.

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.)

SEE ALSO

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.

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 un-ironic 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 BIG STRUGGLE

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 big struggles. 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



Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work by far. It marks the apogee of the picture book form, a simply profound story told in incantatory words and color drawings of stunning beauty. In creating the 359-word tale, Sendak is said to have been drawn to such childhood memories as the Lindbergh kidnapping and to have listened exclusively to Mozart to evoke the ambiance for the book’s Grimm setting in rural eighteenth-century Germany.

Jerry Griswold

I’m not surprised to learn that Sendak revised the text over 100 times. (I’m more surprised to learn he was counting.) The word arrangement is very strange, with adjectives following nouns, more reminiscent of a Romance language than English.  Sendak must have been going for a foreign feel. I wonder if that foreign feel was retained in the translations.

The first time you read Outside Over There it might strike you as somewhat odd. It is not easy to find the rhythm and cadence immediately. It sometimes seems to stop when it should continue and continue when it should stop, it plays constantly with your ear’s expectations (if you expect a rhyme it never comes when you think it should, but when you least expect it, a bit after, a bit before or never). However, the more you read it and the more you make it yours, it is precisely those parts that were frustrating or odd the first times that strike you as so exceptionally beautiful and poetically forceful.

Sendak stretches sentences mercilessly. As someone reading out loud, he loses you for just a second and then takes you by the hand and returns you to your place gently, without you realising. The experience of reading it out loud is almost as if you were sent along an unknown path and on the way were provided with the tools required so as not to get lost.

We Read It Like This

The Lindbergh Kidnapping

If you listen to true crime podcasts and whatnot you may already know all about the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932. The following podcasters have done a Lindbergh episode:

STORY STRUCTURE OF OUTSIDE OVER THERE

Outside Over There is another picture book with mythic structure. The whole thing might be Ida’s imagination but that’s neither here nor there. She is called to adventure when goblins steal her little sister. She goes after the sister, defeats the goblins in a big struggle, then arrives home a slightly changed person.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

A  girl called Ida. She looks to be 8-10 years old. (Though her feet are unusually huge, imo.)

Ida’s red hair is pretty typical for a girl character who will enter into a fantasy world. (Does she also have green eyes? I just had a peer at my printed copy, and yes, she does.)

What is wrong with Ida?

Outside Over There is about jealousy and sibling rivalry. Sendak’s treatment of this subject might appear simple; instead, it is deeply accurate. The story belongs to Ida, a girl of some 9 years, and when it opens her baby sister has already arrived.

Jerry Griswold

Ida’s nightmarish fantasy that her baby sibling has been swapped out for a demonic character touches on a fear with crosses culture and eras. The idea that a close family member is not who you thought they were taps into a primal fear.

Outside Over There Changeling

The changeling narrative can help us understand human psychology more generally. This particular fear has been brought up in discussions about why some parents choose not to vaccinate their children:

Honestly, read enough anti-vax stories and they all sound kinda similar to “MY Baby was fine and then one day a faerie swapped it out for a WEIRD baby” except for “faerie” sub “MMR jab.” People never change. People are always people, throughout human existence.

— @Nicole_Cliffe

Naturally, Ida in this story isn’t thinking the first thing about vaccinations. Remember, Maurice Sendak never wrote his books with a child audience in mind — he just wrote them. I believe adults are more likely to worry about their children going missing than children are worried about their siblings going missing.

Adult fears about what might make children afraid are usually based on… adult fears.

We Read It Like This

When the little sister is replaced with an ‘ice baby’, this makes use of pretty obvious temperature symbolism. Sounds cheesy when you put it into words (as symbolism always does), but Ida feels cold inside.

WHAT DOES IDA WANT?

This question is simple when it refers to an object. A holy grail story, where the main character is after carrots or a jewel.

For a story like this, which is all about emotion, we need to dig deeper. Ida has psychological needs.

She needs attention. When she forgets to pay attention to her baby sister, she is mimicking the lack of attention her parents pay her. Maybe Ida will be taken away someday, too?

Ida’s parents have withdrawn: Papa is away at sea, Mama is lost in vacant thought and (pictorially) even the family’s protective German shepherd does not see the danger — goblins stealing up the lawn with Bruno Hauptmann’s ladder.

Jerry Griswold

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The goblins who take Ida’s little sister, and who might capture her as well if she’s not careful.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Outside Over There yellow gown
…snatched her Mama’s yellow rain cloak, tucked her horn safe in a pocket, and made a serious mistake.

In various cultures, walking backwards is thought to bring bad luck. (I’m sure that’s just the natural consequence of walking backwards… in which you will eventually run into something and hurt yourself!) In any case, Ida climbs out the window backwards which, in her fantasy, is the wrong thing to do.  I think it symbolises ‘inattention’ and ‘not looking’ in this story. Ida’s real mistake, according to Ida, is not paying close enough attention to her little sister.

Ida is aerial and floats there over a haunting and mysterious landscape where a shepherd has fallen asleep unmindful of his flock and where below can be seen the dark, libidinous caves where the robber bridegrooms have taken her sister. But in going outside over there, Ida made “a serious mistake.” A clue comes to her in a riddle like song she hears floating over the water and sung by her sailor Papa: “If Ida backwards in the rain/would only turn around again/and catch the goblins with a tune/she’d spoil their kidnap honeymoon!” Ida’s mistake is to have gone out the window backward on her rescue mission; there is in this kind of reluctance and unwillingness, “so Ida tumbled right side round.”

Jerry Griswold

In a Gravity type plot, Ida doesn’t work out her own mistake. Instead she has to be told what to do by the voice of an absent and significant male figure, her father. The father tells her to turn around and catch the goblins with a tune.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

She finds herself smack in the middle of a goblin wedding and discovers that beneath their hoods these goblins all look like her baby sister. Slyly, she starts what Max in the Wild Things calls a “rumpus” and what Ida styles a “hubbub”; playing a captivating tune on her wonder horn, she sets the goblins dancing and sends them into such extremes of pleasure that they cannot control themselves or others. A kind of Pied Piper with a Zauberflöte, Ida churns the goblins’ revelry until they all dissolve into a watery stream. By this magic trick Ida separates the real baby from the goblin impostors and finds her own sister crooning in an eggshell.

Jerry Griswold

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

It is a new Ida, then, changed and protective, who hugs her sister and takes her home.

Jerry Griswold

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

There she meets Mama reading a letter to Ida from her Papa: “I’ll be home one day, and my brave, bright little Ida must watch the baby and her Mama for her Papa, who loves her always.” Just as for any child jealous of her sibling, Ida must be reassured by the last word of the letter; still, the fatherly advice is beside the point since we already know with Sendak, as the book concludes, that this “is just what Ida did.”

Jerry Griswold

Always check the final spot illustration in a picture book, even if it looks like it belongs more to the cover than to the story. It always tells you a little more about the story. Compare the final spot illustration to the almost identical one which opens the story. Spot the difference? There was a goblin crouching by the sunflowers but the goblin is gone now.

Receiving a letter from the father seems to have pulled Ida out of her slump, for now.


COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Sendak’s Other Picture Books

Like Wild Things and Night Kitchen, Outside Over There legitimizes taboo feelings by showing their simultaneity and reversibility. In some way, Ida’s playing the wonder horn evokes the goblins who kidnap her sister but also dissolves them so Ida can rescue her sister. Like Sendak’s other books, the pages of this one fold in upon each other so that felt withdrawal of the parents in its opening is answered with the reassurance of “always” love in its conclusion.

Jerry Griswold

As well as Sendak’s other dreamlike picture books, Griswold notices the influence of fairytale. Apart from similarities to The Pied Piper, mentioned above:

While Ida turns her back upon the baby and plays the musical instrument know as her “wonder horn,” the goblins steal into the nursery, kidnap her sister and leave a changeling made of ice. When Ida turns and embraces the baby it is, like most, drippingly wet; but when the changeling melts away. Ida discovers the goblins’ theft and in a rage turns maternal: putting on Mama’s cloak she sets out upon a rescue mission. She heads through the window to “outside over there.” This is the region known in dreams, where the Wild Things are, where the Night Kitchen is, where — to mention the place Rumpelstiltskin’s name is heard in the Grimm tale — the fox and the hare bid each other goodnight. And for Sendak, to whom this image is important, it lies on the other side of the window.

Jerry Griswold

Amanda Katz at NPR draws parallels between Outside Over There and The Juniper Tree.

Though it has none of the bald violence of “The Juniper Tree,” Outside Over There is also the story of a sister whose sibling is torn from her, and who fights to bring him or her back. Ida, Sendak’s big-eyed, horn-playing child heroine, is left with her mother and baby sister when her father goes off to sea. The family inhabits a pastoral wonderland, a kind of German Romantic landscape full of sailors and shepherds and sunflowers crowding, just a touch too aggressively, through the windows of a stately home.

Amanda Katz

In The Juniper Tree Katz explains

…a small boy is murdered by his stepmother, who then sets up her own even younger daughter to think she has killed him. Then she feeds the dead boy to his father, upon which the appalled, grief-stricken half-sister triggers a supernatural process that eventually brings her brother back to life and kills the evil stepmom. Then the three remaining family members rejoice and finish their dinner.

Changeling Stories

Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another changeling story, except the parents are swapped out. Traditionally it’s the child.

Even Harry Potter is a take on the changeling story. In 1940 George Orwell published a long essay called Boys’ Weeklies. Based on his own experiences at prep school, he talked about boarding school stories for children and their problematic ideology.

[Orwell] tries to understand why millions of children find stories set in boarding schools so spellbinding, the ‘snob appeal’ of this milieu is ‘absolutely shameless’. ‘The heroic characters all have to talk BBC,’ he observes, something that is equally true of the Potter novels.

In the same essay, Orwell touches on the ‘changeling fantasy’, a common trope of popular children’s literature, in which an apparently ordinary boy or girl turns out to be the child of an impossibly glamorous couple. Harry Potter falls squarely within this genre and that aspect of the novels also taps into the English obsession with ancestry. We are invited to condemn Voldemort for thinking ‘pure-bloods’ deserve special treatment yet to admire Harry’s impressive lineage.

Toby Young writing for The Spectator

That essay was written between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, yet the massive success of Harry Potter and its descendants show that a great chunk of contemporary kids love the boarding school story, and its changeling narrative.

That changeling narrative is nowadays more commonly known as a Chosen One story, but its origin in changeling folktales is clear.

Fairies, trolls, elves, and devils kidnap human children, leaving their own demonic offspring in their place.

  1. Changelings: An Essay by D. L. Ashliman.
  2. The Changeling. A poem by James Russell Lowell.
  3. The Changeling. A ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier.
  4. Changeling Legends from the British Isles. Stories from England, Wales, the Isle of Man, Scotland, and Ireland.
  5. German Changeling Legends. Stories from German-speaking countries.
  6. Scandinavian Changeling Legends. Stories from Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.
  7. How stories about children swapped from the fairy realm helped me navigate being transgender, KJM Stewart

Influence On Labyrinth

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth movie was inspired by Outside Over There. But I’m not watching that again — it always freaked me out as a kid.

RELATED

Jerry Griswold has also explained how Outside Over There takes up Sendak’s identity as a gay male in a deeply symbolic way. (The hornpipe, that makes sailors wild beneath the ocean moon, the goblin wedding and spoiled honeymoon, the father’s disapproval, the man’s insistence that his offspring had made a ‘serious mistake’, the father’s identification of that mistake as being ‘backwards’ and his insistence about ‘needing to turn around again’.

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss

Green Eggs And Ham
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 another Dr Seuss early reader, Green Eggs and Ham.

Green Eggs and Ham is buddy comedy from the late 1950s with aspects of the carnivalesque. It also makes use of a mythic journey to beef up the word count and ends in a clear character arc.

Hard to believe, but this book was banned in China, for promoting Marxism. (They lifted the ban after Dr Seuss died.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF GREEN EGGS AND HAM

If Green Eggs and Ham were a movie and not an early reader, it would be called an ‘odd couple’ or ‘buddy comedy’ film.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is an odd couple film. So is Baby Mama, in which two very different women are thrown together. In both of these films, the very-different characters end up friends. That’s the case with Green Eggs and Ham, too. This is why odd-couple stories are emotionally satisfying.

Sometimes the odd couple never get to be good friends, but by any measure they are best friends anyway. In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Greg and Rowley are very different and Greg doesn’t even really like Rowley that much, but they spend a lot of time together. The cynical main guy with the optimistic and babyish best friend is also seen in Monster House.  Go back to the late eighties, early nineties and we saw this dynamic in The Wonder Years. The late nineties gave us Freaks and Geeks, in which Sam seems very different from his geeky friends. He’s thrown in with them because he’s so small for his age.

These are also called ‘buddy comedies’. The guys are buddies, but the difference between them leads to lots of humour. I say ‘guys’, because there are fewer stories about female friendships in general, unless they’re of the Mean Girls variety. (This is why the film Baby Mama stands out as unusual.) That said, the female buddy story is becoming more popular.

In Green Eggs and Ham we have a cranky, pessimistic guy juxtaposed against an enthusiastic guy. This might as well be Greg Heffley and Rowley, where Rowley is all over something, singing its praises. (But Wimpy Kid is an ongoing series, so Greg Heffley’s character never changes.)

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

In a buddy comedy/odd-couple comedy, both characters change. Usually. They take a little bit from each other and become more rounded individuals. In a typical buddy comedy, it’s ‘the relationship’ that changes.

Typical Characters In A Buddy Comedy

A Buddy Love story consists of an “incomplete hero,” who does not know what or who he is missing to make his life whole. The contrast between the two main characters promises entertaining sparks and is therefore appealing.

Usually you fill out the character web with at least one outside, dangerous, ongoing opponent. And because most buddy stories use a mythic journey, the buddies encounter a number of secondary opponents on the road. These characters are usually strangers to the buddies, and they are dispatched in quick succession. Each of these opponents should represent a negative aspect of the society that hates the buddies or wants to break them up.

There will be a snag in the relationship that keeps interfering. This allows an ongoing opposition between the two leads in a traveling story where most of the other opponents are strangers who quickly come and go. In any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent.

As in the love story, one of the buddies should be more central than the other. Usually it’s the thinker, the schemer, or the strategist of the two, because this character comes up with the plan and starts them off on the desire line.

Often one’s a cop, the other’s a fed, or one’s a cop the other’s a crook, or one’s a by-the-book detective and the other’s the precinct’s resident loose cannon. They have to work together to get something done (like solve a crime). Buddy cop movies are a slightly different genre mashup: Action+Love+Crime (without the comedy).

In Green Eggs and Ham, Sam-I-Am is a green eggs and ham enthusiast at the beginning and remains the same throughout. There’s no character arc for Sam-I-Am. It is Joey (the cat thing in the hat) who changes. If you’re ever wondering who the main character is in a story, the best question to ask is, ‘Who changes the most?’ That doesn’t mean ‘Who changes in circumstance’. It means ‘Who learns something about themselves’.

Joey is therefore the main character.

What’s wrong with Joey?

Once you’ve created a main character, always ask this question.

He won’t try new foods. This is a recognisable problem for the target audience, who are learning to read.

Stock Yuck

Five-year-olds are usually pretty fussy about green foods. In a clever twist, Dr Seuss avoids the stock yuck of green vegetables (broccoli is the usual stand-in for ‘horrible foods’ in the West), and turns an unlikely thing green. This makes it even more disgusting. In real life you wouldn’t touch green eggs and ham, because it would be rotten and mouldy. When writing our own stories, we can use this trick too: Take a common item and change its attributes.

WHAT DOES JOEY WANT?

Sometimes a story is about what a character does not want.

Joey wants Sam-I-Am to leave him alone. He does not want to eat the green eggs and ham.

When your main character is on the defensive, and the plot is about what they don’t want, the opponent needs to have a strong desire to compensate. (In a story, if no one really wants anything, you don’t have a story.)

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Sam-I-Am is the opponent, not because he wants to kill Joey or anything like that, but because he wants something different from what Joey wants.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Joey’s plan is to run away from Joey so Joey will quit bugging him.

Expressed entirely in the pictures, the pair end up going on a mythic journey which involves hills, the tops of trees, trains, a tunnel and eventually a boat.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

They end up under the sea. In a mythic structure, the big struggles increase in intensity, leading to a life-or-death situation.

The big struggle of words does not increase in intensity — it remains the same. What happens in this picture book is that the situations get increasingly ridiculous. The ultimate in ridiculous is arguing under water.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

We see from Joey’s face when he pops up from the sea that he is defeated.

dr seuss green eggs and ham

This marks a change in his attitude. He realises Sam-I-Am won’t leave him alone until he tries the green eggs and ham. So he tries it. And he learns that he loves it.

Notice how this part of the story connects directly to the ‘What’s wrong with Joey’ part of the story? Dr Seuss set up Joey’s great shortcoming right at the beginning and if you’ve read plenty of stories, it’s inevitable that Joey changes his mind about the green eggs and ham.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

We might assume Joey will be less frightened of new foods in future. But this is a comedy, so it’s just as likely Joey does not apply his newfound love of green eggs and ham to the next unfamiliar thing. He’s just as likely to hate that, too. In comedy, characters never really change. Or if they do change, the change is not applied generally.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST GREEN EGGS AND HAM

I Really Like Slop Elephant and Piggie

Green Eggs and Ham was first published in 1957. A much newer (2015) early reader with an almost identical odd couple and character arc is I Really Like Slop, an Elephant and Piggy story from the Mo Willems franchise.

Green Eggs and Ham is longer, at 225 words. I Really Like Slop is only 182 words. This reflects a modern trend in picture books — new stories are shorter than retro classics. (Notably, Green Eggs and Ham contains only 50 different words.)

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you

Both Green Eggs and Ham and I Really Like Slop are 100 per cent dialogue.

Unlike Mo Willems, Dr Seuss rhymed his stories, using the classic nursery rhyme rhyming scheme, otherwise known as trochaic tetrameter. Dr Seuss was such a cultural influencer that any writer making use of this rhyming scheme ends up compared to Dr Seuss.

Elephant and Piggy stories rely entirely on comedic structure (rather than mythic structure). Comedic structure can only be sustained over a short length of time before spilling the gag at the end. So unless Mo Willems were to take Elephant and Piggie somewhere, placing them in a particular setting (they’re always suspended in space, against a blank background), he wouldn’t be able to sustain more words. Dr Seuss was able to sustain a longer gag by taking his characters on that road trip/mythic journey.

I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew

solla solew
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 I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss.

Solla Sollew is plotted using classic mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, changes a little along the way, meets a variety of friends and foes (and some who are both), ends up in a big big struggle and then either returns home or finds a new one. Yesterday I looked closely at The Gruffalo, which is also mythic structure but less obviously so. The day before I looked closely at The Gingerbread Man, which is pretty classic mythic structure except Gingerbread Man never meets any helpers along the way (and spoiler alert, he doesn’t live to learn anything from his journey). I figure it’s time to present a solid, classical mythic structure picture book with all of the most basic elements.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Our first person narrator is also the main character, because he’s telling a story about his own journey. This is an old creature looking back on a time when he was young. We know this from the first sentence, ‘I was once carefree and happy and young’. That makes the little brown guy an extradiegetic narrator. He’s ‘outside the universe’ of the story, because he’s looking back on a time long since passed. (‘Extra’ means ‘outside’.)

What even is that creature? Dr Seuss’s creatures are deliberately ambiguous, part human, part animal. Why so many animals in picture books? Well, there are a bunch of reasons.

What’s wrong with Little Brown Guy?

Main characters have something wrong with them which the author shows right at the start. (Perfect characters have no growing to do, which means no character arc and no story.)

Brown Guy is dissatisfied with his lot. This is understandable in a way. I felt sorry for him when his backside suffers not one but two injuries. The bigger problem is his ‘grass is greener on the other side’ attitude. He thinks Solla Sollew is going to be sooo much better than his home.

WHAT DOES THE LITTLE BROWN GUY WANT?

He wants to get away from the annoyances of his home, specifically the Quilligan Quail, the Skritz and the Skrink. He has heard there’s a place where there are very few troubles. That place is known as Solla Sollew.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

One Wheeler Wubble

Brown guy meets a variety of characters along his journey:

  • The One-Wheeler Wubble: At first he seems to be a friend, but he turns out to be a bit of a frenemy when he persuades Brown Guy to do all the work of pulling himself and his camel along.
  • Dr Sam Snell: Tries to be genuinely helpful by telling Brown Guy about the bus, but the bus has had four punctures and isn’t coming.
  • Horace P. Sweet: The manager of the bus company isn’t in the story, but because his note advises walking, he’s a foe.
  • The Midwinter Jicker: Dr Seuss doesn’t tell the reader what’s so bad about the Midwinter Jicker, but we’re told he ‘came early this year’ (like cold and flu season), and that ‘it’s not going to be very comfortable around here’. This is a great example of an author withholding information to create brief intrigue. You don’t need to tell the reader absolutely everything.
  • The family of owls and mice: An unlikely, and therefore funny, combo. (Owls eat mice, don’t they?) This is where Brown Guy takes refuge for the night in bad weather, but Brown guy finds it difficult to get any sleep with them around. (The next morning the mice do get eaten and there happens to be a flood, foreshadowing the Brown Guys’ big struggle to come.)
  • General Genghis Khan Schmitz: At first he seems like a friend, coming to Brown Guy’s rescue, but it turns out the General wants to use Brown Guy as a foot soldier in a big struggle, furnishing him with only one bean as bullet. This makes him most definitely a foe.

Note that the big struggles escalate in intensity, and that Brown Guy meets a variety of outright enemies versus helpers (who are sometimes helpful but there’s always a catch). This is what classic mythic structure looks like.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

In a mythic structure plot, the plan is ‘Go from point A to point B for some specific purpose’.

But even before he leaves, he’s come up with a plan which doesn’t work:

Solla Sollew plan changes

It’s very common in stories for characters to change their original plans. This picture book is longer than most modern ones, which tend to clock in about 300-400 words. In those newer, shorter picture books there is often no time to change plans, but Solla Sollew is 2,130 words. (And was published in 1965, for the record.)

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle in this story is a literal big struggle, which is what makes it classic mythic structure.

He narrowly escapes down a hole.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When he gets to Solla Sollew he learns that this is not a magical, mythical place with very few problems — it’s a massive problem just getting in the door!

He changes plans at this point. He hears about a place with NO problems. He is tempted to go with the fed-up doorman to Boola Boo Ball. But this is the part where we see he has learnt his lesson: He knows from experience that Boola Boo Ball won’t be all it’s cracked up to be. So he decides to return home — better the devil you know.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

He’s now got a club to fight off those annoying creatures at home. This is symbolic: Rather than running from his problems he’ll stay and fight them, because no matter where he went, he would always have problems to deal with.