The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers (2007)

First published in 2007, The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers has a carnivalesque/tall tale plot but with the slow, reflective mood of Jeffers’ later work, for example The Heart And The Bottle.

the way back home cover

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE WAY BACK HOME

WEAKNESS IN THE WAY BACK HOME

“Once there was a boy.”

This is a generic child and he doesn’t require a psychological/moral weakness. He’s a stand-in character for the reader.

He is perhaps a little too rash. (He should have checked the plane had petrol, at least!)

DESIRE IN THE WAY BACK HOME

He wants to fly the aeroplane that he finds in his cupboard one day when putting things away.

OPPONENT IN THE WAY BACK HOME

Nature’s against him — this plane he found has run out of petrol and now he’s stuck on the moon.

suddenly-the-plane-spluttered

PLAN IN THE WAY BACK HOME

When the alien happens to turn up they make a plan together.

up-in-space

The reader only sees them gesture to each other. We don’t know how they’re going to get off the moon.

plan
A great example of sequential narrative art, in which the same characters are repeated performing sequential actions, without frames.

BATTLE IN THE WAY BACK HOME

The boy’s main battle is with himself. Back on Earth, he gets waylaid by the TV. But eventually he realises what he’s supposed to be doing. The battle is symbolised by the very high mountain he has to climb in order to hoist himself back up to the moon.

SELF-REVELATION IN THE WAY BACK HOME

After fixing the alien’s flying saucer and filling his own plane with petrol he learns that he can be self-sufficient.

But the other part of the plot is about the kindness of strangers. The boy learns that strangers in a pickle can help each other out.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN THE WAY BACK HOME

He goes back home. The alien goes the opposite direction, also back home. A lot of picture books have a circular ending, especially carnivalesque ones, in which we get the idea this kind of thing is going to happen all over again, only with a minor modification. But Oliver Jeffers doesn’t tend to do that — his work has a melancholic finality to it. It’s bittersweet that this boy will never see the alien again, and Jeffers’ depiction of the boy saying goodbye is perfect — looking at the ground and drawing into the moondust with his toe.

the way back home ending

 

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers (2011)

When Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, he tries to knock it down with increasingly larger and more outrageous things. A perfect picture book by Oliver Jeffers.

STORY STRUCTURE OF STUCK

There’s a long oral tradition of stories which get cumulatively more and more ridiculous until the  most ridiculous idea ends the story. “The Three Lazy Sons” is from one of the earlier Grimm collections and demonstrates the tradition nicely. A king is trying to choose which of his three sons will be king after his death. For some illogical reason he decides that the laziest son shall be king. The sons plead their case:

  • The kingdom belongs to me, for I’m so lazy that when I’m lying on my back and want to sleep and a drop of rain falls on my eyes, I won’t even shut them so I can fall asleep.

  • I’m so lazy that when I’m sitting by the fire to warm myself, I’d sooner let my heels be burned than draw back my feet.

  • I’m so lazy that if I were about to be hanged and the noose were already around my neck and someone handed me a sharp knife to cut the rope, I’d rather let myself be hanged than lift my hand to cut the rope.

This may remind me of the Yo Mama category of boasting, in which (mostly) young men compete to come up with the most ridiculous insults about someone else’s mother. These, too, are oral. Picture books are meant to be read aloud, so it’s no surprise to find they borrow from the oral tradition.

WEAKNESS/NEED

it all began

Floyd is not a pro exactly with the kite. It has got stuck in a tree.

Floyd is not sensible.

Notice how the phrase “It all began…” puts us in mind of some great event from the past, something legendary and unforgettable.

CHARACTER NAME FLOYD

According to the Internet:

The name Floyd is a Welsh baby name. In Welsh the meaning of the name Floyd is

  • Grey.
  • One with grey hair.

In common use as both a surname and first name.

I often look up children’s book character names in case they are somehow meaningful. I don’t think this one is. Little Floyd has bright red hair. (I am sure kids with red hair are way more common in books than in real life!)

DESIRE

He wants to remove the kite from the tree so he can have more fun.

OPPONENT

The tree.

PLAN

The plan stage of this book comprises the bulk of the story and is a great source of humour, because everything Floyd throws into the tree gets stuck. His ideas for retrieval get more and more ridiculous. Floyd’s behaviour is funny because he just won’t learn. The young reader learns, though, and there is great dramatic irony when we see what he’s about to do, then he does it and… SURE ENOUGH! It doesn’t work.

STUCK LADDER

bucket got stuck

the family car

lighthouse whale

and they all got stuck

BATTLE

There’s a particular kind of deus ex machina that is fine to use in humorous picture books (we also see this in Walter The Farting Dog) — a police car or a fire brigade just happens to be passing. The fact that they just happen to be passing at the exact right time is funny in its own right. In general, though, it pays not to have adults in authority stepping in to save the day, and here Jeffers subverts that by showing Floyd with the fireman in his arms as if he’s about to heave the fireman into the tree. (And by now we all know how that will turn out…) Turn the page and sure enough, Floyd has got the firemen AND the truck stuck in the tree.

SELF-REVELATION

In picture books, sometimes the self-revelation is signposted with a lightbulb above the head. (Oliver Jeffers likes lightbulbs.)

Then he had an idea, and went to find a saw.

But masterfully, even the self-revelation phase of the story is subverted by this master storyteller. The trick works — the saw indeed gets the kite down — but not in the way we expect.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

That night Floyd fell asleep exhausted. Though before he did, he could have sworn there was something he was forgetting.

Through the window, we see everything, including the firemen, are still stuck in the tree.

This picture book is a ‘never-ending story’, because we already know that the firemen are going to go through their own, similar rigmarole trying to get themselves dislodged.

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

There doesn’t seem to be a reason why the character is named Floyd, but can there be a reason why Floyd’s hair is red, however? Or a reason why the kite is red? The kite is important to Floyd and they are linked by the colour red. When the kite gets stuck in the tree, to Floyd the situation is as dire as if he himself were stuck, irretrievably, in the tree.

I feel that Oliver Jeffers’ picture books, even more than other picture books, have been made to be shared with an adult co-reader. The big clue? Jeffers’ handwriting is pretty hard to read. In fact, my eight-year-old has trouble reading it. The ability to read individuals’ handwriting comes quite a long time after learning how to read common typefaces and their teacher’s perfect, slanting script. This book is similar to The Day The Crayons Quit, in that regard. (I like this book a lot less than I like this one.)

MOVEMENT FROM LEFT TO RIGHT

In Western picturebooks, the default movement through a story is from left to right, as the page turns. But illustrators can deliberately invert this convention, causing some sort of obstacle to the progression of story, by depicting the main character facing left, unable to move forward. We see this here, too:

Floyd Fetched Mitch

We see it again when ‘Floyd fetched a ladder,’ and on the following page as well, which is mainly blue (symbolic of Floyd’s general mood). In short, Jeffers has used this trick three time, making use of the rule of threes.

Another interesting trick Jeffers uses is to do with colour. Often in a story like this, when an action is established and supposed to continue on and on, long after it has become interesting, you’ll find a double spread in which the actions are compressed into a series of thumbnail actions.

Here, too, we have the double spread which starts with ‘a duck to knock down the bucket of paint…’ Notice Jeffers has switched to a single dominant hue for each half of the page — a greeny-yellow for the left, orange-sepia for the right. Why did he do this?

monocolor stuck

Picturebook art has been influenced by the age of photography, and this may be a recreation of a page of old-fashioned photographs you might find in an album — photos which have been taken on the day of some important event.

Or, it may simply be because the reader is not meant to linger on this page, enjoying the artwork. Jeffers knows that the child is keen to know the outcome — does Floyd get his kite back? The limited palette means these pictures don’t draw attention to themselves.

COLOUR TO SIGNIFY A TALL TALE

But that’s not the only thing Jeffers did with colour — the tree is a different colour in every picture. We understand that it’s the same tree. Why change its colour?

This is a subtle clue that the story is a tall one, not to be taken seriously. Of course the whole thing is made up. It’s one of those stories that has been told over and over many times. Maybe, in Floyd’s (Oliver’s) youth, a kite did get stuck in a tree and maybe it required several shoes before it came down. Over the years, this story gets embellished and built upon until it reaches a ridiculous level. The tree itself changes colour to suit the mood of the storyteller.

 

The main requirement of a tall tale is exaggeration: There are unbelievable creatures, huge fish, large distances, huge volumes. But hyperbole alone does not mean ‘tallness’. In a tall tale, the listener must both accept and refute. The listener has to know enough of the environment in which the tale is told to realise this can’t be true. The line between fact and fiction is hazy, and the humour derives from pushing that boundary. Which parts of this story are true, and which aren’t?

 

 STORY SPECIFICATIONS OF STUCK

Everything is about 400-500 words these days. This picturebook is no exception, coming in at 493 words.

 

 

This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers

This Moose Belongs To Me

This Moose Belongs To Me is a 2012 picture book written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. This best selling picture book fits the seven steps of storytelling perfectly.

 

This Moose Belongs To Me AR Bookfinder

STORY STRUCTURE OF THIS MOOSE BELONGS TO ME

I’ve recently re-read Anatomy of Story by John Truby, in which we question the advice dished out to storytellers everywhere: Three act structure. Instead we have 22 steps (for your average film), more steps for novels, and 7 or more steps for short stories. Picture books are not mentioned, but we’re told that all stories — whatever their form — have at least those minimum seven steps. My daughter just happened to get this book for Christmas. So let’s see…

WEAKNESS/NEED

PSYCHOLOGICAL NEED

Wilfred is lonely.

MORAL NEED

Wilfred is controlling.

DESIRE IN THIS STORY

Wilfred desires some company in the form of an obedient pet. This character is a riff on the Crazy Cat Lady trope, in which a character also likes to collect animals. There’s also a bit of Kindnapper in there, too.

OPPONENT

Wilfred’s opponent is the moose, who wants to do its own thing.

Another opponent is the old lady who, like Wilfred, has named the moose and claimed it as her own. The best opponents want the same thing as your hero, so this is a particularly funny example. Also, the ‘inverse’ of a little boy is an old lady, so she looks different, but she is exactly the same.

PLAN

Wilfred’s plan is to basically follow the moose around. But he also has a fairly detailed plan, seen partly in the illustrations: He will put a name tag on the moose’s antler and write a list of rules for the moose to follow. That’s his first plan. But he has to modify his plan slightly because he has a poor sense of direction. In order to not get lost, he’ll roll out a ball of string.

BATTLE

Wilfred’s battle is between himself and nature ( of which the moose is a part). He is lost and stranded and at the mercy of the ‘monsters’. This is the very worst thing that could possibly happen to our hero.

SELF-REVELATION

PSYCHOLOGICAL EPIPHANY

He can avoid feeling lonely by simply being with the moose.

MORAL EPIPHANY

But he doesn’t have to control it. Wilfred realises that animals have minds of their own, and that they don’t exist for his personal amusement and convenience.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The moose will continue to listen to Wilfred but only when he feels like it.