The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books. Continue reading “The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter”
Today I make the case that the city, in storytelling, often gets the ocean treatment. The city equals the ocean.
This was first pointed out to me in The Anatomy of Story. You probably already know that mountains and cities are metaphorically linked. The ocean is a less well-known metaphor.
A more powerful natural metaphor for the city than the classic but predictable mountain is the ocean. With this metaphor, the writer usually begins on the rooftops, which are gabled so that the audience has the impression of floating on the waves. Then the story “dips” below the surface to pick up various strands, or characters, who live at different levels of this three-dimensional world and are typically unaware of the others “swimming” in this sea.
— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
The following music clip is an excellent example of what we’re talking about. The very slow zoom makes us feel as if we are swimming through water.
Mary Poppins — who floats down from the sky. (I’m talking about the original film adaptation.) In the house next door, a ship captain stands on the roof (deck of his ‘ship’), along with his first mate. From Mary, the children learn that you can float if you love to laugh the day away. Bert and the chimney sweeps dance on the rooftops, which he calls the ‘sea of enchantment.’ With bursting energy, they prance on the waves (the gables) and defy gravity until the caption fires a shot from his cannon and the sweeps all disappear under the ocean’s surface until it is time to dance once more.
Broadchurch — the opening sequence of the pilot episode shows an eerie but cosy seaside little town, and the camera floats along the main street of this village in a smooth, floating, creepy fashion, as if a ghost. Or a fish.
Panic Room — the camera floats through the house, first along the floorboards then up and over, through objects and walls, waiting for the Jodi Foster character to discover her dangerous intruders. The story opens with the camera floating around New York City, establishing the location as Manhattan.
The trailer of Panic Room gives an idea of how the camera moves.
And here’s the ‘camera fish’ moving from a scene in the film:
But ocean as city is not all doom and gloom. The ocean is good like that — storytellers can use it to both scary and happy effect.
The city as ocean is also the key metaphor when you want to portray the city in its most positive light, as a playground where individuals can live with freedom, style, and love.
You can often pick a film using the city as ocean metaphor because film-makers often rely on the eye of the camera, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
CITY AS OCEAN IN PICTURE BOOKS
Numerous picture books have taken a child’s bedroom and turned it into a night-time playground. The most famous in Australia is undoubtedly There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild.
Others have done similar:
The Night-fish by Helen McCosker is another more recent one, because the child brings a piece of the ocean into the bedroom. (With disastrous consequences.)
These stories, in which the child enters the depths of the ocean, even metaphorically, are quite different to stories in which the character travels over the surface of the ocean, as in Where The Wild Things Are or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea. Consider the ‘sea surface’ a different setting from ‘sea depths’. The sea depths are analogous to outer space in storytelling.
Artist Nicoletta Ceccoli has a series of paintings with girls interacting with fish who float through rooms.
I’ve written a separate post on Ocean Symbolism in Children’s Stories. For other symbolic archetypes in children’s literature, see this post. And for more on the country/city dichotomy, I offer you this post.
Don’t mistake the ocean for the beach, either. Consider them separate, as metaphors. (Naturally, they may be linked.)
The Nightfish is an Australian picture book written and illustrated by Helen McCosker. Published in 2006, this children’s story makes a good counterpoint to There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984). In Margaret Wild’s 1984 story, a boy takes a shell home with him from the beach and — as a child of the eighties I can tell you — no one thought twice about taking souvenirs from nature. Our current generation of children are more environmentally aware. Now they have at least bumped up against the idea of ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. This change of societal attitude is reflected in their picture books: If you take something from nature you must return it, otherwise you’ll upset the environmental balance and all hell will break loose.
There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984) is a classic Australian picture book, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated in realistic fantasy style by Jane Tanner.
Margaret Wild is a well-known Australian author whose subject material ranches from melancholic to funny. I have previously blogged about Harry and Hopper and Chatterbox. Jane Tanner is also a well-known Australian illustrator, and also a writer and editor.
STORYWORLD OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM
When the sea/ocean is used in narrative, it’s worth making a clear distinction between the surface and the depths, because these are two very different arenas.
There’s A Sea In My Bedroom sticks firmly to the ocean surface. Wait until* David gets seaweed — or worse — tangled around his ankles, and steps on a blue bottle. Then he might get a bit suspicious about what the sea really is all about… but best to stick to paddling for now.
*David probably turned 40 this year, if he was six in the pictures.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM
David was frightened of the sea.
It’s right there in the opening sentence. Some advocate ‘showing not telling’ but in a picture book for very young readers, you often get both. First we’re told, then we’re shown. The image of the rough sea — and nothing else — is really quite scary actually.
Because this is a picture book, and you’ll have read plenty of picture books if you’re here at this blog, you will know from the very first line that this is a story about overcoming one’s fear of the sea.
An aversion to the sea is not in itself a desire, so Margaret Wild is sure to put something in that he’d rather be doing instead. David loves to collect shells, and he is quite happy doing this.
Tip for picture book authors: If your main character is afraid of something, give them a proxy desire, not directly related to the aversion. This will help the reader to feel like this is a complete and rounded story. But it does more than that: It lets us know that this is not a wholly pathetic character.
You could argue that the father is David’s opponent. Dad gives David the conch shell and tells him — cruelly! — that the sea can be heard inside the shell. David then takes the shell home, and his greatest fear is inside his bedroom now.
At home in his room, alone with the ‘magical’ shell, David goes on a carnivalesque adventure into a sea which invades his bedroom and fills it up. But this is not a scary situation, this is fun.
The proxy for the Battle scene is when his parents come in to find him writhing around on the carpet, in some sort of imaginary play. I suspect the young reader might expect a telling-off, because presumably David is meant to be in bed trying to get some sleep.
A soft growly, friendly sea.
When David explains to his parents that the imaginary sea was friendly, he can transfer that positive emotion to the real sea.
Now David is able to enjoy swimming at the beach as well as collecting shells. He has learned that the sea is friendly.
(I’d argue that the sea is not particularly friendly in Australia, but that message is not helpful in a picture book.)
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Where The Wild Things Are is the archetypal picture book about a boy who goes on an imaginary adventure at sea, though this one starts at the beach and ends there, too. And There’s A Sea In My Bedroom is designed to help children overcome a very specific fear, whereas Wild Things is more a mood piece about bad feelings in general. We don’t even know what it is exactly that leaves Max in such a bad mood.
The Polar Express also makes use of the trope in which a child returns from an imaginary (not imaginary) adventure to find evidence of the trip in the form of something material. I’m not a fan of this trope, because I feel intuitively that it encourages magical thinking. (There’s a line between enjoying magical fiction and actively discouraging reason.) In There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, the talisman is a small pile of sand, which works really well for a reader like me, because the sand probably came out of the shell, or his shoe or wherever. There’s absolutely a real storyworld reason for a pile of sand to be in his bedroom. A young reader can be helped to understand that, too, unlike in The Polar Express.